In the land of contrasts that Kutch is, winter is the lean feeding season for its unique breed of Kharai camels. These camels, unlike the kind most of us are familiar with, are typically dependent on the mangroves for food, and during monsoons, they swim to the mangrove islands in hordes and stay there for days altogether. The sight of swimming camels, as one can imagine, is spectacular, but faced with challenges such as rapid industrialisation in the coastal areas, and mangrove destruction, their population is dwindling, making it a threatened breed.

The story of how the Kharai camels came into being in Kutch draws fascinating tales of folklore and belief. It is said that about 400 years ago, there was a dispute between two brothers in a Rabari family over the lone camel that they possessed. To resolve the issue, they went to Sawla Peer, a holy man, who made a wax camel near the real one and asked each to choose one. The elder brother chose the real camel; to the younger one, Sawla Peer advised to immerse the wax statue in the sea. Thousands of camels then emerged from the sea and started following him. These were the Kharai camels, and the Rabari and Jat community – the two tribes which own and handle these camels – revere it. Some also say that these camels were handed over to these tribes by the erstwhile royalty.

The history may be hazy, but the fact remains that the Kharai camels are held with respect by both the tribes and until a few years ago they did not even sell its milk or wool. For income, they depended on selling the male camels to traders who used them for transportation. With the advent of small commercial vehicles that can go deep into small towns and villages, camels are not used as much – one of the many reasons why these tribes are struggling socio-economically today.

The biggest reason, however is, restricted access to mangrove islands, or Bets as they are called locally, and mangrove destruction. For eight months in a year, the Kharai camels are completely dependent on the mangrove islands, spending weeks together on these masses. They eat the saline plants and the mangrove species and drink rainwater accumulated in depressions on these islands. During winter, their handlers from the Jat community – Rabaris are typically the owners – graze them on the dry land.

Kharai camels are the only breed of camels that have adapted to coast and dry land. They can swim and also depend on mangrove plants for food. (Photo credit: Sahjeevan).

Rampant industrialisation drives out mangroves

The 2001 Bhuj earthquake saw massive devastation in Kutch, and as re-building efforts gained tempo, there began steady industrialisation along the coastline. There was a spurt of salt and cement factories. Mahendra Bhanani of Sahjeevan, a non-governmental organisation that has been working on the welfare of pastoralists and the Kharai camel for years now said that industries typically block the natural creek in an area and create bunds that do not allow the natural tidal water to come in. This dries up the mangroves, and once that happens, it is easier for heavy machinery to uproot them so that the creation of saltpans is easier. Jetties do the same, blocking the water route of the camels permanently.

“There are four areas in Kutch where the Kharai camels are primarily located – Abdasa, Bhachau, Lakhpat, and Mundra,” said Bhanani. “There has been heavy industrialisation along the coastline of these areas which has restricted the access of the Kharai camels to the Bets, on which they are dependent for their food. In Lakhpat, for example, jetties are destroying the mangroves and restricting the access to the mangrove islands for these camels.”

GA Thivakaran, chief principal scientist and head of the Coastal and Marine Ecology Division of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, said that in Kutch, mangroves are predominantly distributed in three coastal stretches – Jakhau-Kori, Mundra, and Kandla-Surajbari.

“Ironically, in all these places industries are aggressively developed,” said Thivakaran. “The general impact of coastal industries on mangroves is habitat fragmentation, closing feeding creek systems, shipping which cause gradual degradation, changes in water hydraulics due to dredging and other landform modifications.”

Besides these, other factors such as obstruction of near-shore currents, increased sediment load in the water column, and physical destruction means that “coastal industries are generally detrimental to mangroves”.

The effect of such industrialisation on the Kharai camel has been grave. In Tunda vandh, a coastal village in Mundra, there was a time when almost every family owned Kharai camels. Dominated by the Rabari tribe, the residents remember instances when, during high tide, the sea water would flow into the boundary of their homes. However, with two power plants coming up on either side, its access to the waters was cut off by a canal and conveyor belts built by the companies running the power plants. As a result, the handlers had to walk the camels a much longer distance around in order to reach the sea. Some breeders gave up, while others moved away from the village. So from around 2,500 camels about a decade back, less than 200 remain in the village today.

According to a survey carried out by Sahjeevan, Kutch had 2,200 Kharai camels five years ago. In 2018, the number dwindled to 1,800. Gujarat, as a whole, has about 4,500 Kharai camels left.

The population of Kharai camels has declined over the years. Rapid industrialisation and destruction of mangroves and grazing lands are key threats to these camels. (Photo credit: Azera Praveen Rahman).

Large-scale mangrove destruction

Adambhai, a Kharai camel breeder, remembers the winter morning earlier this year when, while grazing his camels, he spotted a fleet of high-powered extraction machines destroying more than 4 sq km of mangrove forest near the Deendayal Port or Kandla. Adambhai is a member of the Kutch Unth Ucherak Maldhari Sangathan, or the Kutch Camel Breeders Association, and he immediately raised an alarm. This violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Act (2011) was investigated by a government committee, set up by the Kutch District Collector, and again by the forest department. The industrial interference stopped temporarily following public protests, but soon resumed.

Thereafter the camel breeders association, which has 370 members, approached the National Green Tribunal, which, in turn, issued notices to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Gujarat State Coastal Zone Management Authority, and the state forest department, and issued a stay order on all such activities in the area. In August, it ordered the Gujarat Pollution Control Board to reopen tidal creeks in the area which have been sealed by the salt companies.

“For now, we have got relief, but this is victory in just one area,” Adambhai said, “We don’t want grains or a house; just give us our grazing land.”

Despite complaints of mangrove destruction by the pastoralists, however, the state forest department has registered a growth in the total mangrove cover in Gujarat. In 2011, the mangrove cover of the state was 1,058 sq km; in 2013 it was 1,103 sq km, and in 2015, it was registered to be 1,107 sq km. The latest estimate puts the number at 1,140 sq km. There have been massive efforts to develop mangrove plantations as well, and between 2016-’17, 9,000 hectares of mangrove plantations were raised. Grazing of camels on these plantations is prohibited by the forest department.

Environmental clearances to industries when they set up a unit, also stipulates them to raise 200 hectares to 1,000 hectares mangrove plantations. Thivakaran said that while ports have carried out such projects, he does not remember “any salt or cement industry in Kutch” doing so.

Thivakaran also said that he does not believe there is any correlation between the decline in the Kharai camel population and mangroves. “As per Forest Survey of India reports and satellite imagery analysis done by us, mangrove cover in Kutch has shown a consistent increase since 1969,” he said. “If at all, Kharai camels grazing on mangroves is detrimental to mangrove regeneration.” This, he said, is because trampling by the camel’s feet kills peripheral plant buds, and as a result of the nibbling of the plants, the plant species become bushy instead of growing vertically. “Even then, mangroves and camels have co-existed for so long because the rate of natural regeneration of mangroves far exceeds grazing by livestock and camels, and manual removal of foliage by coastal villagers,” he said.

Umar Jat and his elder brother Usman dismiss this claim. Grazing his herd of 45 Kharai camels in the grasslands near Naliya – about 50 km from his village, Muari – Umar said that when the camel walks on the seeds of the mangrove plants, the hooves help bury them deeper, thereby preventing them from being washed away by the tide. “Our animals don’t eat the entire plant,” he said. “We walk 15 km every day on an average; the camel eats a little and moves on, so destroying the Bet is out of question.” He added that the dung and urine of the camels act manure. As he spoke, he gathered a few sticks to light a fire and make some tea with the camel milk. He then cleaned the tea bowl with the sand.

“These communities are absolutely in sync with nature and instead of restricting their access to the mangroves, the Forest Rights Act should entrust them with the mangrove islands’ responsibility,” Bhanani said.

Usman and Umar Jat take a break from herding camels and share a cup of tea. The Jat and Rabari tribes are the only two communities who own and handle Kharai camels. (Photo credit: Azera Praveen Rahman).

Sustaining a Kharai-based livelihood

But the immediate question looming over these pastoral communities and their camels is of sustenance, and for this, organisations like Sahjeevan have been lobbying hard at different levels. The National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources declared the Kharai camel a separate breed only recently, in 2015. This, say experts, gives a boost to research on this unique animal that exists comfortably in dryland and coastal ecosystem. Declaring it “threatened” also means more efforts are now given at its protection.

In 2016, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India also put camel milk on its list of animal products that can be marketed for human consumption. This was good news for the Kharai camel breeders, but Usman said that the market for camel milk is still poor. “People prefer cow’s milk or buffalo milk because it has more fat content,” he said. “A camel gives only about two litres of milk a day, and people pay only Rs 15-20 per litre.”

This scenario, said Bhanani, will change soon when Amul, a prominent milk brand, among others, goes to the market in early 2019 with camel milk. It is slated to be sold for Rs 51 per litre.

“Camel milk is said to have therapeutic properties,” said Bhanani. “It is good for diabetic patients. Once milk companies start sourcing camel milk from the breeders – including the Kharai camel breeders – it will improve their socio-economic condition.”

Marketing Kharai camel wool products is another income-generating activity the NGO is working on with the communities.

For the “ship of the desert”, or in this case, “and of the sea”, all hope is not lost yet.

Usman Jat with one of his Kharai camels during a grazing trip 50 km from his home. (Photo credit: Azera Praveen Rahman).