We cannot save Rajasthan's camels without their keepers...the Raika and other traditional camel breeding communities
Camel numbers will decline further whatever is done. There is neither the grazing nor the income to sustain the numbers of camels kept in the past. Even local recovery can only take place if conditions are favourable.
If Rajasthan abandons its well-adapted, local camel breeding system it cannot save its camels or its native breeds. Unless the traditional guardians of the camel are able to participate, it will have lost a wealth of knowledge and a part of its biocultural heritage that holds immense value for tourism and for the rural economy of the future.
Dairy can offer a way forward and is a huge opportunity. But the Rajasthan Cooperative Dairy Federation currently does not officially accept camel milk, and India's Food Safety and Standards Authority only defined standards for camel milk in 2016, after years of delay. And the standards it has defined still need amendment; the FSSAI says camel milk should have a minimum fat content of 3%, but the fat content of camel milk can vary between 1% and 4% depending on season and diet.
At the same time, there is growing interest and strong demand. The benefits of drinking camel milk for diabetic patients are increasingly supported by medical research. Clinical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that camel milk can also be of significant benefit for autistic children, although parents of such children generally have difficulty in obtaining it. Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan is making camel milk available on a small scale, but such efforts need to be upscaled and supported with investment.
The remaining camel keepers are increasingly giving up their herds. A dairy revival needs both the camels and the knowledge and social network that sustains them. Young people from camel breeding communities are not entering the profession as it generates neither income nor respect. We are losing not only a part of Rajasthan's heritage, but a whole knowledge and social system that could be an asset for the future, contributing to rural livelihoods and food security, sustainably and organically.
All stakeholders – camel breeders, policy makers, scientists, private sector and the public – need to make this a shared problem, and develop and implement community-based solutions.
Otherwise camels will soon be found only on logos and tourist posters. The future will be a growing feral camel problem, abandoned animals, maltreatment and possibly a few private factory farming ventures. The world's most iconic camel culture will be just a part of Rajasthan's history.
To save the camels of Rajasthan needs a new vision and a recovery plan, urgently!
Why we need camels and their keepers
Climate change Climate change and water will be big issues in Rajasthan in years to come. Science may help to solve some of the problems, but life in the desert is always precarious. Of all species the camel is the best adapted. The people of the desert cannot afford to lose it.
Desert adaptations Drought resistant native breeds are a precious resource. Banning cattle slaughter has not stopped the decline in native breeds. Rajasthan needs to find a better solution for camels.
Arid zones need pastoralist systems Pastoralism is the most sustainable way of keeping livestock, especially in drought years. Camels use resources that are further away rather than competing with other livestock.
Camels need their keepers Feral camels cause problems and suffer. Camels need their keepers to ensure that they remain social and stay healthy. Abandoned camels become aggressive when hungry or thirsty. They destroy farmers’ fields, stray into villages, suffer from eating rubbish and plastic, and are often mistreated or killed by villagers.