The Bactrian, or double-humped camel, is one of the last remnants of the Silk Road trade in India.

These camels, from China and Central Asian countries such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan, would carry heavy loads along the rugged terrain of the trade route via Ladakh. With the closure of the Silk Road, many were left abandoned in Ladakh’s Nubra Valley. The development of modern transport facilities in the remote areas meant the animals weren’t needed anymore. Overlooked and uncared for, their numbers dwindled, pushing them to the brink of extinction in the country.

Since the early 2000s though, the number of the Bactrian camels in Nubra has increased – thanks to the residents of the Hunder village in the valley. In 2003, they decided to start camel safaris. As the initiative grew in popularity, the villagers formed the Central Asia Camel Safari, a registered cooperative society, in 2009. Other villages in the region, such as Sumoor, Diskit and Tigger, also jumped on the bandwagon, forming their own camel unions.

Today these safaris, whether along the breathtakingly beautiful Shyok River in the Nubra valley or in areas close to the base camp of the Siachen Glacier, are a big draw with tourists.

A woman and two children walk along the banks of the Shyok river.

Current Science, a scientific journal, describes the Bactrian camel (Camelus Bactrianus) as “a large, even-toed ungulate, native to the steppes of Central Asia”. They are found mainly in the cold deserts of China, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.

In his book, The Tale of Nubra Valley, local historian Haji Abdul Razzaq Jamsheed writes that the Bactrian camel appeared in Ladakh in 1870. Current Science too says that the double-humped camel “was introduced as a draught animal in Ladakh by travellers of Yarkland in the 19th century”. Once the route was closed in 1950, some camels were abandoned, some were left with local traders, and the injured ones were sold off.

According to Current Science, there were around 150 camels in Nubra in 2012. Three years later, there were 211, “including 21 calves below the age of one year. The camel population is largest in Hunder village, followed by Sumoor, Diskit and Tigger”. The residents of Hunder estimate there are currently around 250 camels in their village now.

Tashi Narbo, a camel owner in Hunder village.

Tourist magnet

The tourist season in Nubra begins in late spring and lasts up to early October. Tashi Narbo, a resident of Hunder, says the camels are “a good source of livelihood”. “An average camel owner earns up to Rs 4 lakh per season,” said Narbo, who owns five camels. Till a decade ago, these camels were available for free. Now, each costs up to Rs 80,000.

“When some of us started out with [the camel safaris], people ridiculed us, saying tourists wouldn’t travel this far for a camel ride,” said Mohammad Shafi, one of the earliest to organise camel safaris in Hunder. “But we kept offering it and trained others also. Today, the result is before our eyes. People now have to wait patiently to get their chance.” There are around 45 families in Hunder conducting these rides. And, Shafi believes, they could be earning more, only if the tourist season in Nubra wasn’t as short as it is.

The camel safari in Nubra valley.

The challenges

The safari organisers have of late had to deal with accusations from animal rights activists that the camels are being subjected to abuse. Narbo refutes the claim: “We rein some camels, which sometimes causes slight bleeding in their noses. So, people think we harass [them and are] cruel. Some people even accuse us of lashing them, which is not true. We care about our camels because they provide us our livelihood. How can we think of ill-treating them when our life depends upon them?”

What concerns both the camel safari runners and animal rights activists though, is the absence of a proper healthcare facility for the animals. “I have proposed that government funding under sheep and animal husbandry programmes should be made available for the welfare of Bactrian camels as well, given their huge economic utility,” said Nordan Ortze, a civil rights activist based in Leh.

Another problem, Ortze says, is the local farmers’ complaint that the camels are damaging their lands. This issue was raised in Current Science as well: “The private land owners and the Forest Department are in conflict with the camel owners because the animals trespass their fences and cause damage to their resources. There have been instances of camels being hurt in the process of driving them away from the private lands.”

Tourists enjoying the camel safari.

Hope for the future

The camel owners say they have the support of the local administration, which has helped them form camel unions. “Through the union, we divide [the] camel safaris among different camel owners,” said Mohammad Sharief, another camel owner. “This [ensures] a livelihood [for] all.” A 15-minute camel ride costs Rs 300 per rider.

Sanjay Negi, a tourist from Uttarakhand, felt the price was worth it. “I have gone on a camel ride in Rajasthan,” he said. “But, the camel safari in Ladakh is entirely a different experience. Nowhere else you can go on a camel safari [with the snow-covered] mountains and the beautiful river flowing close-by.”

More than half a century after the Silk Road was closed, the Bactrian camels seem to have found a new trade route in what is their second coming. And the business is good.

All photos by Athar Parvaiz.