India is at the eastern end of the distribution range of the one-humped camel (Camelus Dromedarius). As they have adapted to dry environments, camels do not thrive further east than the Aravalli Hills. Thus, their distribution in India is restricted to Rajasthan (where about 80 per cent of the camel population is at home), Gujarat and Haryana. Although occasionally camels may be encountered in other states, their breeding is limited to Rajasthan and Gujarat.
India’s camel culture is globally unique, with its traditional taboo on using camels for meat. The Raika/Rebari community is closely associated with the camel the most, but Rajputs, Bishnois, Jats, Sindhi Muslims and Gujjars also breed or used to breed camels.
Historically, the Raikas observe(d) several taboos in their utilisation of the camel—for example, never slaughtering them or eating their meat, not selling the milk, nor the wool, nor any female camels. The only ‘product’ that traditional customs allowed them to sell is male camels, which they did once a year at the annual livestock fairs at Pushkar, Nagaur and Tilwara, to name just the most famous ones.
Over the last couple of decades, the demand for male camels as work animals has steadily declined and, by now, almost entirely disappeared, taking away the traditional economic rationale for camel breeding and leading to a dramatic dip in the camel population. Though globally the camel population is increasing, in India, it is experiencing a dramatic decline. While there were more than 1 million camels until the mid-1990s, the number has shrunk to 4,00,000 as per the last livestock census conducted in 2012.
Fig.1: Raika herders assist during camel birth
The origin and history of the camel in Rajasthan
There are many stories about the origin of the camel and how it came to Rajasthan. The most well-known among these is told by the Bhopas (wandering minstrels) of Pabuji Rathore. Pabuji was a thakur (landlord) from Kolumand, near Pokhran, who lived in the 14th century. He promised his niece that he would give her rati-buri-sant (red and brown female camels) as a wedding gift, even though he did not exactly know where to get these animals. When he asked his friends for support, Harmel Raika accepted the challenge. Raika crossed the seven seas to Lankia and stole a herd of camels from Ravana. It is due to this reason that people believe the camel originally came from Sri Lanka.
It is of significance that the emphasis in the story about Pabuji is on female camels, which were said to be unknown then in Rajasthan. It is likely that the capture of these female camels enabled the people in the Thar desert to themselves start breeding camels.
However, the Charans (story-tellers or record-keepers) working for the Muslim community have a slightly different version of this story. According to Tejdan Charan and Professor Zahoor Mehar from Jodhpur University, Pabuji tried to steal from Sayrah Bhagani, the nawab (ruler) of Mathela, the camels which were grazing in a tree-studded plain near the village of Lankra, is located 12 km from Umarkot. The camels here were taken care of by the Jats. Pabuji and Sayrah Bhagani started fighting with each other, but at the last minute, a Charan exchanged their turbans which meant that they had become brothers. Sayrah Bhagani then offered the red and brown female camels to Pabuji as a gift. Pabuji refused as he had nothing to give in exchange. Then Sayrah Bhagani suggested that he gift him the Charan. Pabuji agreed and ever since the Charans are respected by both Hindu and Muslim communities. This event is dated to 1321 Vikram Samvat, according to the Charan.
The latter version is more credible as camels have historically never been indigenous in Sri Lanka, whereas it is known that camels were introduced in Sindh in AD 717 by Muhamed Qasim who had 3,000 camels with him when he arrived to invade. It is also historically attested that Afghan invaders who regularly looted India starting with Mahmud of Ghazni in 997 CE passed through Jaisalmer and used thousands of camels to carry water to cross the desert.
From the 12th century onwards, and maybe earlier, there is evidence that the camel was used for trade as is shown in the stela at the temples of Kiradu in Barmer district which are dated during this time.
In the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Akbar and the maharajas of Rajasthan established camel corps for warfare. The maharajas had camel-breeding herds (tolas) which were looked after by the Raikas. In 1889, Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner set up the famous Ganga Risala, comprising 500 men and camels, which was integrated into the Imperial Service Corps and served in the Middle East, Egypt and other countries. In the 1940s, after Independence, the maharajas dissolved their camel-breeding herds, and the animals were taken over by the Raikas. In the mid-20th century, the two-wheeled camel cart equipped with used airplane tyres became popular and made the camel an indispensable draught animal. There was much demand for camels to pull these carts, and in the 1960s, the camel population peaked at about 1.1 million; however, this started to decline in the early 1990s.
In 2001, Bagdi Ram Raika, leader of the All-India Raika Association, came to know that camels were sold for meat during the Pushkar fair and requested the help of the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), a non-governmental organisation, to stop this. But nobody believed or paid any attention to this. To raise awareness about this situation, LPPS and a group of Raikas undertook an 800 km-long camel yatra from Sadri to Jaisalmer and Bikaner in January 2005.
In 2007, a delegation of Raikas participated in a United Nations level conference on animal genetic resources held in Interlaken in Switzerland to make the point that pastoralists are the guardians of livestock biodiversity. They also travelled to Germany and Spain. In the following years, Raika leader Mrs Daylibai participated in the COP of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany, and at a CBD meeting held in Montreal.
In April 2008, the LPPS organised an international seminar entitled ‘The Camel in Rajasthan: From Heirloom to Unique Selling Point’ in Jaipur which was attended by camel breeders from all over Rajasthan as well as international camel dairy experts from Dubai and Europe.
In 2010, the LPPS and Jaisalmer Camel Breeders Association organised a national consultation in Khabha.
In October 2012, the 19th Livestock Census revealed that the Indian camel population had declined by 22.48 per cent since 2007; the existing number of camels in Rajasthan is now only 32,5713.
In reaction to this, the camel was declared the state animal of Rajasthan on June 30, 2014, by the cabinet. In order to implement this status and because of a strong push by animal welfare groups, the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Bill was passed by the Legislative Assembly on March 27, 2015, although the Raikas had cautioned against this move in several letters and representations. This law prohibited the export of camels from Rajasthan across state borders as well as the use of camels for meat.
Soon there were frequent reports in the media about camels being sent for slaughter, rescued by animal welfare groups and being transported back to Rajasthan.
On November 5, 2017, camel breeders of Rajasthan released a ‘Biocultural Community Protocol’ during the Marwar Camel Culture Festival in the presence of His Highness Maharaja of Jodhpur and several state ministers.
Fig. 2: Camels going to browse in the Aravalli Hills below Kumbhalgarh Fort
Both Hindu and Muslim camel pastoralists in India emphasise that they consider camels as their own children and have never used them for meat or sold them for slaughter. Traditionally, they never sold camel milk either, believing that it was to be given away for free. A proverb commonly prevalent is ‘Dudh bechna, beta bechna’, meaning, 'To sell milk is like selling one’s own son'.
In the Raika community, there was a ban on selling female camels to anybody outside the community. There was also a belief that one should not process the milk of the camel and instead consume it fresh.
Another old proverb is, ‘Mero ko jin gao panaye’, meaning, ‘Marry me into a village with many she-camels’.
However, now these beliefs have largely given way to a more pragmatic attitude, and most camel breeders aspire to sell camel milk as otherwise it is impossible to survive economically by sticking to their hereditary profession. They now actively advocate for the Governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat to support and invest in camel dairying.
Fig. 3: Camel milk, known as white gold of the desert, was traditionally not sold but is now the only economic rationale for camel breeding
Camel breeding and management
Breeding herds are composed mostly of female camels and their offspring, with only one male camel required for breeding. The young male camels are sold at fairs such as at Pushkar, Tilwara, Nagaur and other places. All camels have names, with camels of a female lineage having the same name as that of the mother, in addition to nicknames.
The management system differs according to the region and rainfall. In the low rainfall zones in Barmer and Jaisalmer districts, where agriculture was practised only during the monsoon, camels range unsupervised during part of the year. In areas where crop cultivation is important, for instance, in Pali district, camels are herded throughout the year.
Breeding takes place during the winter season which lasts from Diwali to Holi. At this time of the year, the male camels go into rut, and the young camels are born. This requires supervision. The male camels in rut stop eating but drink about 20–30 litres per day. They require more care and attention in this season as they get excited and become difficult to manage. Consequently, they are not set free for grazing in this excited mood. In this state, a male camel might fight with another male camel and kill it.
In the summer, camels drink about 40–50 litres of water per day, but under certain circumstances, they may not be able to drink for several days. However, prolonged absence of water might cause the camels to fall ill. In the morning, they may be given wheat daliaor broken wheat to keep their body balanced in the hot climate. Common diseases found in camel during this season are stomach ailments and the ‘Paa’. Both these diseases can be treated with ethnoveterinary treatment.
During the rainy season, camels need to be herded and supervised to prevent them from destroying crops. In Jaisalmer, it is a community exercise to round up all the camels that can be found, irrespective of the ownership, and then to gather them in a common field. This joint effort involves livestock keepers from all communities, helping each other out.
Fig. 4: Grazing scene from Jaisalmer district where camels often roam unsupervised
The swimming camels of Kutch
Along the Gulf of Kutch, there is a unique camel-herding system with the so-called ‘Kharai’ camels swimming out to mangrove islands that are located about 10 km from the coast. During the monsoon, the camels may stay on the islands for up to three months, drinking rainwater that collects in depressions. About 5,000 camels are kept in this system; they are managed by the Fakirani Jats but owned by Rebari communities.
However, this system is threatened due to the rapid disappearance of the mangroves brought on by heavy industrialization along the coast.
Camels and biodiversity
In Rajasthan, camels browse mostly on the drought-resistant trees and shrubs of the desert, or in the rainy season, the trees of the Aravalli Hills. They also graze on the salt flats that can be found near Jaisalmer and in cultivated areas, they like the thistles (unt-kantalo) that grow on fallow fields.
According to a traditional saying, camels browse on 36 different plants, although the number is not exact and the trees and shrubs vary from location to location. They have been identified for the Kumbhalgarh area, but in Jaisalmer they are different. Almost all plants that camels eat are known for their medicinal values and are used in folk medicines.
Camels learn from their mothers which trees and shrubs to feed on; so it is difficult to move them between different ecosystems. A camel raised in the desert will have difficulties feeding in the Aravalli Hills.
The types of plants that camels feed on determine the taste and quality of the milk that they produce. Some plants, such as bordi and unt-kantalo make the milk sweet; others such as neem make it more bitter and salty. An experienced herder can tell from the taste of the milk which plants the camels have fed on.
By browsing, the camels disperse the seeds of many of the trees and shrubs and help them germinate. While foresters think that camel browsing is detrimental, the herders believe that it stimulates the growth and branching out of trees.
In Rajasthan, camel herds are associated with large patches of ‘jungle’ and uncultivated lands or orans (community-protected sacred groves) for the camels to feed on. There is a connection between camels and biodiversity, and larger breeding herds can only be kept if there is a forest or oran nearby. Examples of such locations are in Isra in Sirohi district (where there are maybe a thousand camels), around the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in the Godwar area of Pali district, Dhola Raoji near Bassi in Jaipur district, several places in Bhilwara district, the Jor in Barmer and the Rasla oran in Jaisalmer district. This list although is not exhaustive.
According to herders, camels, biodiversity and the beneficial quality of camel milk are connected and interrelated. They strongly believe that the milk from camels (and other animals) that feed on 36 plants is much healthier than that from stall-fed animals.
Fig. 5: Two young Raika herders from Pali district
Herders spend their lives observing camels and their interaction with plants, landscapes, soil and the weather. Their knowledge is the result of daily exposure and long experience, and it cannot be learnt from books, nor even documented in books, although a young person can learn from older camel herders. Experienced herders would be adept in the following:
Knowledge about the different types of camels and about the qualities of each camel in their herd and its social and genetic relationship with the other camels. Male breeding bulls are selected carefully, taking many factors into account, such as height, colour, temperament and character, as well as the milk yield of his mother and female relatives.
Knowledge about the effects of plants on the health of the camels and on the quality and taste of the milk.
Knowledge about how to keep camels healthy by moving them around, taking them to specific grazing areas, changing the night resting places regularly, inspecting them for wounds every morning and treating these immediately.
An indigenous camel disease classification system and knowledge about making medicines to treat the camels from plants collected. There is a traditional a system of treating sick camels with a hot iron which often produce good results.
However, all this knowledge is disappearing fast, and camel herders have come to rely more on commercial medicines—such as the injections against mange—which often lose their power after a short time.
Fig. 6: Raika girls in Siroh district
The camel population has been declining since around 1993. Some of the reasons for this are the following:
The disappearance of grazing areas due to the closure of forests (such as Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary), intensification of agriculture (tube wells), irrigation schemes (Indira Gandhi Canal), road construction, urban sprawl and fencing have affected camel population. This resulted in camels having less to eat, whereby they are left hungry, making them vulnerable to diseases and slowing down their reproduction system.
The spread of diseases, especially mange and trypanosomiasis. Many camels have been lost to mange and to unknown diseases. Veterinary services are available only in hospitals or during camps, but camels get sick throughout the year, and it is not possible to bring them to a hospital all the time.
The absence of buyers for male camels and closure of traditional markets, such as the Tilwara fair. This situation has developed gradually, but it became much worse after the camel was declared the state animal and the Camel Bill was passed in 2015. Since then it has been almost impossible to sell young animals, and there has been no income for herders. Nobody can afford to take good care of herds, and the next generation has moved away from this living and now look for work elsewhere.
The absence of system for processing and marketing camel milk. Camels have a good potential as dairy animals, but currently there is only the Kumbhalgarh camel dairy that officially accepts camel milk and pays a decent price. The Rajasthan Cooperative Dairy Federation so far does not accept camel milk officially, and as it pays based on far content, the price is very low.
Fig. 7: The Raika milk standing up and letting the calf drink from one side
Future of the camel in India
In their Biocultural Community Protocol, the camel breeders of Rajasthan have stated how the camel and their culture can be saved:
We request that official camel grazing areas are established and protected, so we are sure that there will be a source of food for our camels in the future. We can help identify the most important spots and commit to managing them in a sustainable manner.
We request help with the setting up of camel milk collection and processing points near our grazing areas and development of a cool chain to transport the milk to the consumers. We request training of our youths in processing camel milk hygienically and to highest standards.
We request a change of practice in the Animal Husbandry department to treat our camels in the field, as it is impossible for us to bring them to the hospital for treatment.
We request investment in the design, manufacturing and marketing of products made from camel wool and camel poo, so that these raw materials can become a source of income for us.
We request that Rajasthan’s many heritage hotels use and showcase camel products, including beverages made from camel milk and soaps from camel milk.
In the future, if policies are made that concern our camels, we request to be asked for our prior informed consent rather than listening to other stakeholders that have no experience in managing camels and know nothing about them.
 http://dahd.nic.in/sites/default/files/Salient%20Features-19th%20Livestock%20Census(English)%20%203.pdf (viewed on 15 March, 2018).
Bénard,C., B. Faye, C.H. Moulin and I. Köhler-Rollefson. 2008. ‘A Typology of the Camel Keepers in the Jaisalmer District Rajasthan, India.’ Journal of Camel Practice and Research.[SC2]
Biocultural Community Protocol of the Camel Breeders of Rajasthan: http://www.lpps.org/biocultural-community-protocol-of-the-camel-breeders-of-rajasthan/
Biocultural protocol of the camel Breeders of Kutch: https://issuu.com/kuums/docs/camel_pastoralists_bcp
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Köhler-Rollefson, I. and H.S. Rathore. 2009. ‘The Camel in Rajasthan. Agricultural Biodiversity under Threat.’ In Culture, Polity, and Economy, edited by V. Joshi and Surjit Singh, 238–55. Jaipur: Rawat Publications.
Köhler-Rollefson, I. 2014. Camel Karma. Twenty Years among India’s Camel Nomads. New Delhi: Westland Press.
Kharai Camel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2gisOFRDDE
Camel herders in Rajasthan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFHd8hsKCvM