Camel Karma in Rajasthan – keeping traditional camel herding cultures alive

Marie-Louise Mederer and Ilse Köher-Rollefson
Wednesday, 3rd October 2018

The traditional camel pastoralism of Rajasthan is at risk of extinction due to climate change, growing populations and increasing farmland. But this method of grazing can be linked to creating biodiversity and combating desertification.

It’s December 2017 and I’m looking for a volunteering opportunity in northern India. The International Permaculture Convergence has just been held in India and thus I find myself browsing for places to learn about permaculture in India. As one of the edge events I stumble upon the Marwar Camel Culture Festival. The festival has past, yet I’m intrigued to find out more. I get in touch with the organisation and I’m in luck! I can come and volunteer with them near Sadri, a small town in Rajasthan, on the border of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary.

The organisation is called Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan (LPPS) which is Hindi and means ‘welfare organization for livestock keepers’. It was set up in 1996 upon request by the Raika, indigenous nomadic pastoralists who have lived in the region for over 700 years.

At the LPPS campus I am greeted by Hanwant Singh, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Ramesh, Shanta and Magan, the on-site core team. The campus consists of an office building, a teaching space, kitchen, a wool processing unit and a small camel dung paper-making manufacturer as well as several traditional jhoompas (small roundhouses) for accommodation.

The organisation believes that only the traditional camel pastoralists, like the Raika, truly understand the camel and its needs. Their goals are to preserve the camel within its natural habitat and as part of the Rajastahni landscape, not in zoos or rescue stations. They embrace people-centred livestock development and the sustainable management of biodiversity-rich agro- ecosystems. 

An ancient tradition: camel pastoralism in Rajasthan

In winter, the landscape here in western India is dry and dusty. Droughts are common and further to the west, the Thar desert expands across 200,000km2 across India’s border into Pakistan. The camels of Kumbhalgarh are one-humped or dromedary camels and perfectly adapted to these harsh conditions. They are extraordinarily tall, possibly the tallest camels in the world.

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The camels have been grazing in this area for hundreds of years and the Raika have a tremendous amount of traditional knowledge about managing camels in tune with the ecosystem. They are kept in herds of between 12 to more than 100 animals. The camels themselves usually determine in which direction they go for grazing. Yet with the establishment of the Kumbhalgarh Santuary numbers are declining and the traditional herding culture is under threat due to the loss of forest access and customary grazing rights. Currently only around 300-550 camels are estimated to still seasonally use the forest for foraging.

Symbiosis: dryland vegetation, camels and wildlife

There is often talk about the need for “combating desertification”. Yet the drylands around Sadri and even the Thar Desert are actually full of riches, in terms of traditional knowledge, livestock, healthy food and medicinal plants. LPPS states: “We prefer to love the desert, rather than combating it and promote use and development that is in sync with its resources and does not overexploit them.”

In this regard, mobile pastoralism is the most sustainable way of utilizing drylands for food production (milk and meat) as it poses no pressure on scarce groundwater resources. By moving from place to place the pastoralists avoid overgrazing a particular area. Yet an array of developments is restricting the pastoralists’ traditional movements: population growth, conflict, poorly sited water points, the conversion into cropland, fencing, urban growth and the creation of nature reserves. These factors constrain movements and force the pastoralists into smaller, more remote and less favourable areas, often leading to conflict with sedentary people or the abandonment of pastoralism.

Camel feeding behaviour is unique. They basically live off resources that other livestock does not consume. Because
 of their great height, camels can feed on trees up to 2.5m. Their flat, padded feet do not carve up the surface so they do not cause erosion. Locals observe that browsing actually stimulates tree growth and leads to the development of new green shoots. While no scientific studies are available from India about the impact of grazing by camels, there are detailed studies from the Sahara
in Africa.

Scientists concluded that: ‘Unlike slow-moving cattle and intensively grazing goats, camels are economical feeders that never overgraze the vegetation. They keep on moving while feeding. No matter how rich or how poor the quality of the vegetation, camels take only a few bites from any one plant before moving
to another.’

The Raika’s pastoral lifestyle has helped to develop the co-evolved ecosystem of Rajasthan’s forests which they have traditionally conserved and sustainably used. In areas such as the Kumbhalgarh forests, they accept some loss of livestock to leopards and wolves as a natural consequence of living in balance with the environment, which reduces their encroachments into villages.

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Biodiversity management the traditional way

The Raika Biocultural Protocol, published by LPPS, records the role of the Raika community in the management of biological diversity. For generations they have acted as custodians of the forest. Their customary laws ban practices that degrade the environment. Instead they:

  • Follow strict grazing rotation systems
  • Help prevent forest fires and keep a check on termite numbers through the grazing of dry grass and other ground cover
  • Report illegal logging and poaching
  • Deal with the control of invasive species poisonous for animals
  • Stimulate tree growth through coppicing

The Raika have maintained genetic diversity and bred their livestock for hardiness rather than high yields in milk or meat. With climatic conditions changing rapidly, this diversity is becoming more important than ever. At the same time mobile pastoralism also maintains plant diversity. The animals graze on vegetation but do not destroy it.

They transport seeds from place to place in their hides. They trample seeds into the soil, allowing them to germinate. Their dung fertilizes the soil and adds to the humus layer. The farmers strongly believe in the fertilizing effects of camel dung and therefore welcome them on their fields to stay for the night. Crop yields can reportedly rise by 50% from the application of camel dung. Farmers also note that camel dung has a slow release effect and is beneficial for up to three years. 

It’s medicine: kissing camels and their milk

During the first few days at the campus, Ramesh and Magan teach me how to pasteurise camel milk and how to manufacture cheese and soap from it, while Shanta tries to instruct me in following her example of making perfectly round chapatti. We then take trips to visit the camel herds where I find myself between these impressive and gentle animals. They are curious about visitors and come close to nuzzle our faces. The Kumbhalgarh camels are known for their friendliness and are therefore also called the kissing camels.

The Raika let the babies drink first before milking them. A leaf from the Aak tree is quickly folded into a cup and secured with a thorn so that I can taste some of the fresh milk. It’s still warm and tastes slightly salty this time of year.

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The camels live off a very diverse range of vegetation and consume plants that other livestock never touch. Many of these shrubs and trees are known for their medicinal effects. The Raika are very well aware of these effects on the health of the camels and on the quality and taste of the milk. It’s low in fat, high in vitamin C and several studies document its varied medicinal properties and it is now used in treating diabetes and autism.

As my time in Rajasthan draws to a close I have learned a lot about the traditional wisdom and resourcefulness of the peoples living in this drought-prone area and how they have evolved a system of living with their animals on the land in order to preserve the vegetation and wildlife of which they are an integral part of.

To find out more about LPPS’ inspiring work I recommend reading Ilse’s book Camel Karma – twenty years among India’s camel nomads. You can also download a variety of booklets and articles on their website: www.lpps.org.

‘The camels of Kumbhalgarh – a biodiversity treasure’ contains profiles on some of the main trees and shrubs that camels feed on and their medicinal properties. LPPS offers volunteering and stay opportunities. To learn more about pastoralists watch Ilse’s TedX talk at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=f45NakX2I0s

Useful links

Holistic management and holistic planned grazing on the farm

Nostalgia for a lost world: a connection with the land

The loss of traditional sheltermaking

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