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Why is the camel population declining?
- Change in the way of life from nomadic-pastoralism to agriculture. Reasons for this shift:
- Shrinking of grazing grounds
- Individually owned farmlands with fences restricting free movement of the animals and their keepers.
- The Rajasthan/Indira Gandhi Canal’s construction in Rajasthan led to a 25% increase in the net sown area in the state between 1957 and 1987.
- Raika-farmer conflicts:
- Raikas or Rebaris are an ethnic group who live as pastoralists.
- They have been moving freely across huge swathes of desert lands in Rajasthan and Gujarat, for centuries.
- Their conflict with the farmers became more common and almost always violent by the 1970s.
- Shortage of fodder
- “Afforestation” with Prosopis juliflora– an invasive weed that is nearly impossible to remove and is disparagingly referred to as ‘vilayati babool’ by the local dwellers.
- P. juliflora was grown instead of Prosopis cineraria, which is also called khejri.
- Khejri is a tall tree and there is no competition for their leaves and pods above a certain height.
- It is a great fodder source and a favourite of camels.
- It is the source of the sangria in the kair-sangri– the signature dish of Rajasthan.
- This species holds significance with regards to National Forest Martyrs Day. Amrita Devi and 363 Bishnoi women were trying to protect this tree when they died on died on September 11, 1730.
Why is there no economic case for owning camel?
- Rearing camel is no longer economically beneficial.
How is the camel’s fate similar to that of the horse?
- As a draught animal, camel is mainly used as a means of transporting people and goods- hence the name, ‘Ship of the Desert’. They are rarely used for ploughing the fields.
- Meanwhile, the road network in Rajasthan has expanded 30-fold since 1951. This has eliminated the need for the camel to serve as a transportation means across the desert lands.
- Till the 1960s, IAS and IPS officers toured their districts on camel-backs. Now, this isn’t likely and neither is spotting a camel-cart carrying goods or people in this region.
- The age of camels in the deserts are set to face an end just as the age of horses did in the rest of the world with the advent of roads and vehicles.
- Camels are set to face the same fate as horses i.e. they will be reared for sports, safari, as a hobby, as a source of milk for the uber rich and for occasions like ceremonies.
- This is the obverse side of “progress” as we know it and it is inevitable.
Why not use them as milch animals?
- Camel milk has many demonstrable benefits. However, these animals don’t have the potential to be reared as milch animals because of several reasons:
- Long gestation period of 15 months
- Limited saleable yield i.e. <5kg/day
- High maintenance cost (minimum Rs.500/ day excluding the labour cost)
- High cost of milk
- The milk’s strong flavour is not favoured by many
- Their meat is not eaten either. The Raikas believe that they were born of Shiva’s skin to protect these animals. They even converse with their camels in a language called akal-dhakaal.
- They generally don’t sell the dead camel for their bones or for their skin either. The custom is to leave the dead animal at a lonely spot- miles away from their village.
- In summation- there isn’t an economic case for owning these animals.
What efforts have been taken to address the issue?
- The Rajasthan government enacted The Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 2015 to address the situation.
- However, the move had an opposite effect to the one intended.
- The economic reality has now forced the Raikas to sell their camels to buyers, including to those suspected of purchasing it for their meat. Camel meat has great demand in the Middle East.
- When the ban on camel slaughter and sale of camel for their meat came into force, the trade simply shifted to the grey-market zone.
- It also drove the camel prices down. The normal price of a camel is above Rs 40,000. However, camels are priced at less than Rs 5,000 in the grey market. This implies that the only stakeholders that the ban has benefited are the meat traders and corrupt officers.
What is the way ahead?
- It took a voice from outside- a National Geographic article- for us to take note and acknowledge the mortal decline in the camel population in India.
- Expecting any government to turn the clock back on the situation of camel population decline is irrational.
- There have been suggestions to the government to open “oonthshalas”. This is unviable. Even the richest countries didn’t resort to ‘horse sanctuaries’ with the advent of cars replacing horses.
- What needs greater attention is the plight of the Raikas– numbering half a million people, often illiterate and unskilled (except in camel rearing). They now resort to manual labour for their livelihood.
- They are a proud and fiercely independent people with their own unique culture and music.
- The state needs to start addressing their educational needs. They must be provided with skills for different trade to improve their socio-economic standing.
- Care must be taken to not disturb activities where camel-rearing is still economically viable.
The akal-dhakaal that India needs to have now is one the Raika’s future. At the same time, sustainable activities that involve economically viable rearing of camels must not be disturbed, if not supported.