The Indian camel, the ship of the desert, may be extinct in the next few decades if its population continues to decline at the current rate. India’s camel population halved to 2.5 lakh in 2019 from 5.2 lakh in 2007, as per the 2019 Livestock Census.
Rapid modernisation has rendered them less and less useful, and camel-breeders are unable to afford their upkeep. So this iconic animal, synonymous with the Rajasthan deserts, could be on its way to extinction unless proactive measures are taken to save it.
Dr Samar Kumar Ghorui, principal scientist at the National Research Center on Camel (NRCC) in Bikaner, says unless camels become a means of income for its breeders, they will face the threat of extinction.
“Every species’ existence depends on its utility. Camels have been a victim of modernisation and lost their utility. Until camels once again become a means of income for the breeders, they will not be reared,” he says.
The camel is Rajasthan’s state animal and was once an integral part of the state economy. It is also reared in Gujarat, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. However, Rajasthan has the highest population of camels – 2.13 lakh in 2019, followed by Gujarat at 28,000 and Haryana at 5,000.
Of the total camel population, 1.7 lakh are females while 80,000 are males, as per the 2019 Livestock Census.
The hardy animal was used for transportation, farming and its milk was consumed by the camel keepers. But with modernisation, the economic importance of the camel has declined. Roads, modern transport, tractors for farming and the use of chemical fertilisers instead of camel dung, as well as loss of pasture lands for grazing due to urbanisation have pushed the camel into irrelevance, says Ghorui.
Studies have shown that camel milk can lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity in Type I diabetes, it can aid those with autism besides boosting immunity. Additionally, camel milk has 50 percent less fat than whole milk and is more suitable for babies and those who suffer from lactose intolerance, he points out.
Rebari or Raika, a nomadic community of Rajasthan, have long sustained on camel milk. They are traditionally camel herders, and have a close bond with the animals that they have been tending to since ancient times.
Mahant Raghunath Maharaj, religious head of the Rebari community claims the community was ordained by Lord Shiva to take care of camels, never harm it or kill it or sell its milk.
"However, over time, things have come to such a pass that the Rebaris are willing to sell their camel for slaughter,” he rues.
At the annual fair at Pushkar, about 150 km from Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur, thousands of camels are brought by their breeders every year for sale. The week-long Pushkar event is the world’s largest camel fair and is thronged by foreign and domestic tourists.
However at the fair last November, there were not many takers for camels. “Earlier, we would get Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 for a male and around Rs 70,000 for a female camel. But at the last fair, the prices offered ranged from Rs 3,000 to Rs 7,000 only,” says Badri Raika, who has been a regular at the Pushkar fair since the last two decades.
Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of the Lokhit Pashupalak Sansthan, an NGO based in Pali district working towards camel conservation, says there is a big market for camel meat abroad and there used to be brisk sales of camel at Pushkar.
However, that demand slumped beginning 2015 after the state government brought in a legislation banning export of camels outside the state. This has driven away most buyers.
Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, who hails from Germany has been working along with Rathore on camel conservation in Rajasthan over the past three decades.
She says if grazing ground is available, the cost of rearing a camel is not high. Camels usually graze in herds in pasture lands. If breeders employ someone who takes the animals for grazing, then they pay around Rs 10,000-12,000 per month. Apart from that, there is an annual medical cost of about Rs 10,000.
But breeders who have two or three camels, used for transportation, have to buy fodder, costing Rs 15 to 20 per kg. A camel eats around 20 kg of fodder every day amounting to about Rs 6,000 a month per camel in addition to the medical costs.
In 2017, Kohler-Rollefson and Rathore set-up a small camel milk dairy, Camel Charisma in Pali, where they sell camel milk, soaps made from camel milk, paper made from camel dung and carpets, blankets and mats from camel hair.
Rathore says they purchase 60 to 80 litres of milk per day. It is processed at their processing plant and sold as camel milk and cheese while lassi is in the pipeline.
The average milk yield of a lactating camel is 3.5 litres after taking away the share of the calf, he says.
Camel Charisma pays Rs 60 per litre of milk to breeders. But many farmers sell camel milk to the cooperative dairies where it is mixed with buffalo milk and sold. The dairies pay only Rs 18 to 20 per litre to the farmers, says Rathore.
India’s dairy behemoth Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) has also recently started selling camel milk.
Amul is sourcing 3,000 to 4,000 litres of camel milk from farmer cooperatives in Kutch, Gujarat. He says the government should step in and camel cooperatives should be formed, ensuring steady supply and a good price to farmers.
Camel milk is expensive as compared to other milk due to the small volumes involved, says Kohler-Rollefson.
It costs Rs 250 per litre in Rajasthan and Rs 300 per litre outside the state. Camel Charisma sells a 200 ml for Rs 50, she points out.
She believes if the decline in camel numbers continues, in some years, the camel too will be found in zoos and safaris like the tiger.
(Mona Singh is a Rajasthan-based freelance writer and wanderer)