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.
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.
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.
In 2015, the Kharai camel was registered as the ninth distinct camel breed of India by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Growing on the margins where the land meets the sea, mangroves support a wide variety of flora and fauna.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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)