Kutch: Mangrove loss threatens Kharai swimming camel; hurts livelihood of pastoralists

Kutch: Mangrove loss threatens Kharai swimming camel; hurts livelihood of pastoralists

Kutch: Mangrove loss threatens Kharai swimming camel; hurts livelihood of pastoralists 30stades

Bhikabhai Rabari is the fifth generation camel breeder in his semi-nomadic family. Living in the Jangi village of Kutch district’s Bhachau tehsil, Bhikabhai has been a witness to the decline in the number of Kharai camels, which swim in seawater to reach nearby islands for grazing on mangroves and other saline plants. 

“My great grandfather had 700 Kharai camels, which were then found mostly in the Kutch region. However, with shrinking mangroves, breeders began moving out of Kutch (also Kachchh),” says Bhikabhai.

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Apart from villages in Kutch’s Mundra, Lakhpat, Abdasa and Bhachau talukas, Kharai camels are also found in Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat. 

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Bhikabhai owns 150 camels out of which 50 belong to the Kachchi breed and 100 are Kharai camels. The breed derives its name from the Gujarati word Kharai, which means salty.

Kharai camel is the only domesticated animal that can survive in dryland as well as the coastal ecosystem. It spends about seven to eight months in the mangroves.

In 2015, the Kharai camel was registered as the ninth distinct camel breed of India by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR).

Kharai camel spends 7 to 8 months in the mangroves. Pic: KUUMS
Kharai camel spends 7 to 8 months in the mangroves. Pic: KUUMS

“The biggest problem for us breeders is the shrinking area for grazing of Kharai camels due to rapid industrialisation in the coastal region and conversion of grazing areas into protected areas,” Bhikabhai says.

The population of Kharai camels has declined steeply in the last 30 years though efforts are underway to promote the breed through government efforts, he adds.

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In September this year, the Kutch Camel Breeders Association (KCBA) wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging for the conservation of mangroves in Kutch as they provide food for Kharai camels.

Camel breeders of Kutch – Rabaris & Fakirani Jats

Bhuj-based NGO Sahjeevan has been working towards the conservation of the swimming camel, which is a source of livelihood for camel breeders who belong to two pastoral communities – Rabari or Raika (Hindus) and the Muslim Fakirani Jats. While the Rabari community is restricted to the two talukas of Bhachau and Mundra, the Jats are present in Lakhpat, Abdasa and other districts and are nomadic, moving from one place to another. 

A Jat family's temporary house. Pic: Sahjeevan
A Jat family’s temporary stay. Pic: Sahjeevan

Mahendra Bhanani, Project Coordinator, Biodiversity Conservation Unit at Sahjeevan, says the since the population of Kharai camel is less than 10,000, it is an endangered species. 

As per a 2012 study done by Sahjeevan, the number of Kharai camels was 4,110, making it an endangered species. It is domesticated by 108 Rabari and Fakirani Jat families in Gujarat.

Bhikabhai says, “Camel breeding is our livelihood. The male camels were earlier sold in large numbers for use in police and defence forces, transportation, desert safaris etc. But that demand is declining due to the availability of alternatives. We now sell mostly to other camel breeders who sell the milk,” he says.

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Rabaris mostly give their camels to Fakirani Jats for grazing. “We pay them Rs50 to Rs100 per month per camel. This practice is rooted in our culture,” Bhikabhai says.

Distribution of Kharai camel breeders -- Rabari and Jat communities and the number of camels. 30stades
Distribution of Kharai camel breeders — Rabari and Jat communities — and the number of camels.

Folklore has it that in the 16th century, revered Muslim Saint Savla Pir gifted a camel to a member of the Rabari community and said if the camels grew in numbers, he could seek the help of Fakirani Jats for looking after them. The practice continues till date.

Male Kharai calves are sold once they are one-and-a-half years old and fetch between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000. Earlier, female camels were not sold but now, they are also traded to make ends meet.

Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) that markets the Amul brand procures camel milk from Kutch through local dairies including Sahjeevan and the Kutch Unt Uccherak Maldhari Sangathan (KUUMS). “We get Rs 50 per litre of milk but since Kharai camels are mostly on islands, transportation is a big cost for us. Most breeders cannot afford to carry milk to faraway collection centres,” Bhikabhai says.

His sons carry about 25-litre camel milk every day to the nearest collection unit about 50km away. “They take them on the bike,” he says.

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Mahendra says due to heat and long distances from the islands the risk of camel milk spoilage is very high.

As a result, it is mostly used by the breeder family. Rabaris and Jats now also keep buffaloes, cows and sheep to supplement the family income by selling milk and wool locally. Camels are also sheared annually, by hand, ahead of the summer season.

Disappearing mangroves, declining Kharai camels

Mahendra says the growth in the number of Kharai camels has been tardy due to a reduction in mangroves, which is their main source of food. “The reasons behind shrinking mangroves, where Kharai camels graze for seven to eight months in a year, are unique to each area,” he says.

Camels are sheared once a year before summer and their wool is a source of income for breeders. Pic: KUUMS 30 STADES
Camels are sheared once a year before summer and their wool is a source of income for breeders. Pic: KUUMS

Growing on the margins where the land meets the sea, mangroves support a wide variety of flora and fauna.

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The Gulf of Kutch coast has seen rapid industrialisation in the last two decades, with the coming up of steel and thermal power plants, mining operations, a special economic zone and other companies jostling for space created by clearing up mangroves. 

Large-scale construction of jetties in Lakhpat, Mundra and Abdasa has also blocked the water route of the camels for reaching the mangroves.

“In Bhachau, the salt industry has come up in the coastal areas for which mangroves have been cut down. In Jamnagar, the mangrove grazing area made way for the Marine National Park in 1994,” says Mahendra. 

In Bharuch, which is home to about 800-900 Kharai camels, villagers are no more allowing the camels to graze, he adds.

Many areas have also been declared protected land as a sanctuary or reserve forest by the Forest Department, often causing conflict between forest officers and camel herders.  

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The coastal areas of Lakhpat and Abdasa share a border with Pakistan due to which multiple restrictions have been imposed on grazing. Moreover, the cement industry has come up in the region, reducing the natural grazing area.

Gujarat government's Animal Husbandry department has rolled out free vaccination and other schemes for Kharai breeders. Pic: KUUMS 30 STADES
Gujarat government’s Animal Husbandry department has rolled out free vaccination and other schemes for Kharai breeders. Pic: KUUMS

According to a study by the global research hub STEPS Centre, large tracts of mangroves are being destroyed, degraded or diverted despite a set of large-scale, industry and government-backed afforestation programmes. “Moreover, there are conflicting interests among different stakeholders, including corporates, the state Forest Department, camel herders and fisherfolk,” the study noted.

Mahendra says that grazing by Kharai camels is beneficial to the mangrove ecosystem.

“One, grazing prunes the mangroves, helping in their regeneration. And camel dung makes the area more fertile. Besides, the stamping by camels embeds seeds deep inside mudflats, helping them grow,” he says.

The worst impacted by the decline in grazing areas are the Rabari and Fakirani Jat communities, which have been pastoralists for many generations. More importantly, they are a storehouse of information on the breeding of Kharai camels to ensure they remain purebred.

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“Selecting the right male camel for breeding is of utmost importance. We choose them based on skin, the thickness of hump, colour, size of legs, the health history of its parents and many other criteria. This ensures a healthy herd,” Bhikabhai says.

The efforts of Raikas and Jats to preserve the Kharai camel have been supplemented by work of government organisations.

Sahjeevan, in technical collaboration with NBAGR, is undertaking conservation activities for Kharai camels in Kutch by developing pedigree data collection system on reproduction to select good quality male camels for breeding. Through government healthcare services, camel diseases are kept in check. “Free vaccination is also provided by the animal husbandry department annually,” Mahendra says. 

While the population of Kharai camel has not grown in the Kutch region, the numbers have stabilised and are not declining now. How long will it take to move from stability to growth is yet to be seen. The conservation of their mangrove ecosystem could be the first step in that direction.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)

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