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Ignored for long, Rajasthan camel herders set to mark International Year of Camelids

By Rosamma Thomas* 

The United Nations has designated 2024 as the International Year of Camelids. This year, 2023, is the Year of Millets, and special programmes are currently on to encourage the production and consumption of millets, which grow in arid land with minimal inputs. In its declaration of the year of camelids, the UN stated that camelids are a means of subsistence for millions of families in the most hostile ecosystems in over 90 countries – the animals provide milk, besides fibre and organic fertilizer. They also serve as a means of transport. 
The camel herders are gearing up for the year that should ideally commemorate them too as herders. Yet, they do not feature yet in any plans – and the truth is that although the UN has announced an International Year of Camelids, no concrete plan for 2024 is yet available.
In India, camels are found in Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat. Their numbers have been in steady decline, as revealed in the livestock census data; 2.5 lakh camels were recorded in the census of 2019, a figure that showed a 37.1% decline in camel numbers since 2012.
 The Raika who traditionally herded camels in Rajasthan believed that they were entrusted the care of these animals by Lord Shiva, and for long, would refuse to sell camel milk, using it for their own needs and giving it away free to whoever needed it. 
Camel milk began to be made available for purchase in India only after the year 2000, when the Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling of the Rajasthan High Court which had held that camel milk is unfit for human consumption.
These days, milk is the major source of income for the camel herders, who find their animals not as sought-after for the manure, which farmers earlier used to fertilize their fields. The animals are also no longer as useful for transport in the Rajasthan desert, given the expansion of the road network and the greater availability of vehicles. 
Camel milk is gaining publicity for its unique properties – it has lower fat than the milk of other animals, and contains Vitamin C, rarely found in other milk. What is unique is that the animals eat thistles – oont khantalo, for instance – a thorny shrub that farmers would be hard-pressed to remove from fields. The camels chew on these seasonal plants with ease and herders say that the milk of the animals is sweet when they feed on these thistles.
Researcher Ilse Kohler Rollefson, who has studied the camel herds of Rajasthan, is concerned that international plans for the camelids are mostly about scientific interventions like cloning or artificial insemination, and ways to improve milk yield. Little heed is paid to the broader social and ecological context within which herds of camels are reared.
International plans for the camelids pay little heed to the broader social and ecological context within which herds of camels are reared
In her book "Camel Karma", Rollefson details the ethnomedical practices that the Raika use to treat their animals. Turmeric and other anti-fungal and anti-bacterial natural substances are used in such treatment. The animals bond with their herders, and the children of the herders can be seen playing with the camels as if they were longtime playmates. Camels, which can be aggressive, can be seen paying heed to Raika herders, turning at the command of a whistle.
The traditional lifestyle of the herders, though, is under stress in Rajasthan as fields expand in the desert regions with greater availability of irrigation; there are also more frequent crop cycles, not leaving enough room for the animals to be penned at night. Common lands are being taken over and fenced off, making the movement of herds harder. 
The ignorance of policy makers, who hold that making animals walk long distances is a form of cruelty, has also affected camel herders who in recent years have had run-ins with the law. The heightened vigilantism against those suspected of ferrying animals for slaughter in states where beef is banned has also adversely affected herders.
When the UN announced that it would dedicate 2024 to camelids, it expressed the hope that camels would serve to heighten food security in the hostile geographical regions where the animals are found. The governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan too would do well to put in place a plan of action for the International Year of Camelids.
---
*Freelance journalist

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