In June 2014, when Rajasthan declared the camel as the state animal, it appeared that an ancient bond had been cemented further. Camel breeders, who were facing trying times, were elated: they expected support measures from the state government, such as dedicated camel-grazing areas and assistance in marketing camel products, especially milk. None of their hopes got realised in the end.

Instead, things worsened next year when the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Bill, 2015, was passed by the legislative assembly on March 27. This law provides severe penalty for selling camels for slaughter, for taking them outside the state, and even for castrating them. It does not, however, address any of the underlying problems, particularly the factors responsible for the dwindling camel numbers.

Bucking global trend

Over the last 20-25 years, the camel has not fared well in India, including in Rajasthan, which has around 80% of the country’s total camel population. The numbers declined from more than a million in 1992 to around 400,000 in 2012. During the same period, the global camel population increased from 18 million to 27 million. Numerous camel dairies are being set up in the Persian Gulf states, the US, Australia, while in Africa climate change is giving camels an advantage over cattle. In Pakistan too, the population has risen to an estimated one million, due to use of camels for meat and milk.

There are historical and cultural reasons why India bucks the global trend: traditionally, camels were used for transportation rather than as a source of food, and this demand has obviously dipped. Another key factor is the disappearance of grazing lands, say the Raikas, Rajasthan’s traditional camel caretakers. This has starved camel herds besides affecting the reproduction and health of dromedaries.

Over time, with changes in the nomadic system of animal husbandry, some of the Raikas had begun selling camels for meat. But the 2015 law put a stop even to this, making the herders divest themselves of their herds faster than ever before. There are fears today that the hundred thousand sheep nomads who migrate out of Rajasthan and depend totally on camels for transportation will also be affected. “The ban will kill sheep pastoralism as well,” said community leader Rewat Ram.

What’s the solution?

Yet, not all is lost – not yet. Camel breeders have a very valuable resource at hand that could turn around the population of the animal: camel milk.

Camel milk has enormous potential as a health food, and its traditional use as a remedy for several diseases has been confirmed by scientific studies. Besides benefiting diabetics by reducing the need for intake of insulin, it alleviates symptoms of autism among children, helping them sleep better and establish eye contact. Experts attribute this to the varied diet of camels, composed in Rajasthan of 36 trees and shrubs, all of which are known for their medicinal effects.

There is already an emerging market for camel milk and, more importantly, an organised collection system in the eastern and southern districts of Rajasthan. The problem is bureaucracy. The Rajasthan Dairy Cooperative does not officially accept camel milk, and the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India has not established any standards. Camel milk nevertheless finds its way into the system, albeit in the name of cow or buffalo milk. But because milk is priced based on fat content, the low-fat camel milk only generates about Rs 20 per litre – not enough to be economically worthwhile.

The solution would be to establish a separate collection and marketing system for camel milk. The NGO Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan in Rajasthan’s Pali district is showing the way by shipping frozen camel milk all over India, mostly serving autism and diabetes patients. It has also pioneered products that have a long shelf-life, such as camel cheese. By paying Rs 50 per litre to its suppliers, it creates an incentive for them to hang on to their camel herds. Says Bhanwarlal Raika from village Mallari: “I would have had to sell my camel herd if this opportunity for selling milk had not come up. Now I have invested my income from milk sales into the purchase of a female camel.”

But this is only a small effort that will need to be considerably scaled up to make a difference to the lives of the Raikas. Baburam Raika from Chandawal village in Pali district put it succinctly: “There is no income, no respect, no grazing, no milk market, no insurance, no loans for herding camels. Our children admonish us. If the government does not move on camel dairying, we have to stop camel herding.”