Gujarat's "swimming camel" faces extinction, as Kutch's industrialization "eats up" mangroves, saline plants

By Tanushree Gangopadhyay*
Kharai camels, a unique species, which feeds on mangroves and other saline plants along the Kutch's coastal regions of Gujarat, is facing extinction. A main source of livelihood of Jat and Rabari communities in several of the villages of Mundra, Lakhpat, Abdasa and Bhachau taluka, one must go to the Gulf of Kutch to see the Kharai camel before it’s too late. One of its rare characteristics is, it can swim in the deep sea and travel in the desert.
Distinct from its relative, the Kachchi camel, the Kharai camel’s ears are woolly, slightly flattened at the tip and upright. They have small chests and medium-sized, gently padded feet that are well adapted for wet, sandy coastland. Their wool is smoother and finer than the Kachchi camels.
Bhikhabhai Vaghabhai Rabari, president of the Kachch Uth Uchher Maldhari Sangathan (KUUMS, or Kutch Camel Breeders Association), which is haplessly trying to save this species, tells me, “Only 2,000 Kharai camels now exist in all of Kutch district. A decade ago we had about 10,000 such camels.” The reasons, he adds, are beyond their control.
The problem, according to him, is that the mangrove belt, on which Kharai camel depends on for food and water, is being rapidly destroyed by industrialization and encroachment. Power plants, jetties, ports are all swallowing the camels' grazing area. And where the forest department plants mangroves, it does not allow camels to graze there.
Bhikhabhai, like other Rabaris, despairs at its dwindling numbers. The Maldharis are running around looking for food for the Kharai camels. “Our camels have no fodder left. The KUUMS approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT). It has restrained industries from ruining the coast but who is listening. A large number of Fakirani Jats moved southwards to Jamnagar, Bhavnagar, Vadodara and settled in Aliyabet in Bharuch.”
About 600 kilometres way, Aliyabet in the delta of the Narmada river had good-quality grass for camels. But that, too, faces water problem now. With a dam being built upstream, potable water is no longer available. “So the Fakirani Jats returned to Kutch,” says Bhikabhai, adding, “An adult male camel consumes 20 to 49 litres of water daily.”
Currently, Bhikhabhai lives in Jangi village and has 100 Kharai camels. “I can recall five generations having these camels. Rabaris additionally rear cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep close to their homes. However, my camels are looked after by Fakirani Jats who keep them in the mangroves of Bhachau and move them to the land after the monsoons.”
In winter, the Kharai camels are taken to graze in the Banni grasslands, more than 100 kilometres away in Kutch district. The camels adjust to the humid climate of the coast and the arid climate of the interior.
“We do not build any permanent structures for the Kharai camels on the islands. During the three monsoon months, the camels swim to the bets in the mangroves to graze and quench their thirst. We leave them there. In summer and in winter they swim to the bets nearer the creek, where they stay for two or three days before returning to the mainland,” explains Bhikhabhai.
Though it produces less milk than the Kachchi camel, the Kharai milk has higher fat content and is considered therapeutic. Eighty-three-year-old Vadhubhai Andabhai Rabari says that when he was 45 he got pneumonia and was saved by Kharai camel milk. “The doctors gave up on me. But I survived by drinking this milk. Look how strong I am four decades later,” he says.
Despite awards, rewards and recognition being heaped on the Kharai camel, the poor animal is on its way to extinction. In 2015, the camel was recognised as a breed, explains Ramesh Bhatti of Sahjeevan Trust, which has helped to organise the KUUMS and works diligently with them.
“The Breed Registration Committee of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) certified the Kharai breed on January 6, 2015, after KUUMS applied for it. The Kharai camel has been registered as the ninth distinct camel breed of India by the ICAR. The KUUMS, the Anand Agriculture University, and my trust put in a lot of hard work to gain this recognition for the Kharai camel,” says Bhatti. The KUUMS is officially recognised as the owner of this unique breed.
Soon after, Vadodara’s Federation of Group Industries awarded KUUMS for proficiency in marketing camel milk. “Maneka Gandhi herself bestowed on me the award for dairying of camel milk,” says Bhikhabhai proudly. “Earlier, no one purchased camel milk. Amul buys 1,500 litres daily and some private dairies. The government has given Amul Rs 3 crore for developing dairying of camel milk,” he says.
In 2017 the National Bureau of Animal Genetics and Research (NBAGR) awarded the KUUMS the Breed Saviour Award which Bhikhabhai accepted gratefully in May 2018. Then the National Biodiversity Authority in Chennai awarded the KUMMS for conservation of the Kharai camel on National Biodiversity Day, May 22, this year. That too was humbly accepted. But none of this has changed the suffering of the Kharai camel.
Despite these efforts, the Kharai camels have limited access to veterinary services, as they live in remote areas. On July 9, KUUMS held an inoculation programme in Bhuj. It was attended by 1,600 camels, says Bhikhabhai.
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*Senior journalist based in Ahmedabad

Comments

Anonymous said…
Industrialisation and Mangroves can’t grow together. Lions and industrialisations can’t stay together. Voters want development through industrialisation and urbanisation, people in general are not allowing the Agriculture to grow as profitable occupation, then what is the option left when you have votes every five yearly (2-3 yearly if you refer assembly and parliament elections) to retain the power. 😊