Having worked in the Gulf for more than 15 years, one could see how camels are pampered by the Arabs. My earlier memories of camels are associated with ‘bajri ka ladda’ (camel kart carrying river sand). One never realised or gave a thought that the Raika community in Sadri village of Rajasthan’s Pali district, has been herding camels for centuries. Although the camel was declared the state animal of Rajasthan in 2014, the Raikas were fighting a losing battle because of restrictive grazing laws, social hostility and falling incomes. The Raikas believe that the camel was created by Lord Shiva at the behest of Parvati. So like divine intervention, a saviour came to their rescue in the form of Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a German veterinarian who arrived in Rajasthan in 1990 for her PhD.
Köhler-Rollefson, who had travelled all over the world for her research, realised that the Raikas were unique: they were the only camel people worldwide who had a strict taboo on the slaughtering of camels for meat.
“I was so deeply impressed by the Raika and the unique Indian camel culture that it changed the course of my life. The one-year research stint turned into a lifelong obsession with traditional animal cultures as opposed to the animal industries that have gained ground in the West,” says Köhler-Rollefson.
In order to better understand the local system, she bought a female camel at the Pushkar Fair in 1991. As she was based outside India then, she gave “Mira” into the care of a nomadic Raika herder. Mira reproduced and, following local customs, they sold her male offspring each year at the Pushkar fair, while kept her daughters. In this way, her herd gradually grew to about 15 camels. It was not a profitable venture, but she enjoyed and felt proud of being a camel owner.
She attended the Pushkar Fair almost every year and noticed the gradual changes. It was in 2001 that a Raika leader drew her attention to some of the camels going for slaughter rather than being purchased by farmers as work animals. She was deeply upset about this and enlisted her help in stopping the practice. But the situation only worsened, and the number of camels sold for meat increased while the demand by farmers waned. Soon, she realised that there were no buyers for camels except for meat.
In her book Camel Karma, she chronicles how she set up an NGO called the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) at Sadri that serves as an advocacy group for the Raikas and their camels.
Today, the LPPS helps the Raikas by providing camel veterinary care using both traditional remedies and modern medicine.
Under the aegis of LPPS, Köhler-Rollefson has also organized camel yatras to spread awareness among local communities across Rajasthan. LPPS also organises the Marwar Camel Culture Festival at Sadri that features bazaars to promote camel milk and wool products.
In 2010, Köhler-Rollefson set up Camel Charisma, a micro-dairy near Jaisalmer that produces about 150 litres of camel milk a week.
However, Köhler-Rollefson feels more efforts on the part of the government need to done to save the animal.
The only solution for the government to avert a major camel welfare catastrophe is to quickly set up untshalas where the Raika can drop off their camel herds, so that they are relieved of their responsibility and can get on with earning livelihoods in new jobs.
Rajasthan’s camel herders love their animals and if they sell them against their cultural beliefs, it is only to save their own livelihoods, she says.