The sinking ship of the desert

Despite legal strictures on the slaughter of camels for meat, police turn a blind eye as several animals are killed during the festival of Bakrid

Updated - May 23, 2016 04:00 pm IST

Published - September 21, 2015 12:55 am IST

"Tourists say that one of the most enchanting experiences you can have in India is to ride through the desert on camel back." Photo of a camel in the Thar Desert. Source: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Dave Gill;

"Tourists say that one of the most enchanting experiences you can have in India is to ride through the desert on camel back." Photo of a camel in the Thar Desert. Source: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Dave Gill;

The Indian camel, the single humped or Dromedary, is the pride of Rajasthan and thousands of poor families are dependant on it for their travel across the desert. They are low maintenance animals, subsisting on dry grass and shrubs .

However, this iconic animal is disappearing before our eyes. In Rajasthan the camel has become expensive and rare with less than 50,000 animals and has been declared an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

In some of the more remote villages, camels are still used by the post offices to deliver mail. Camels carts are used to deliver goods, in banking and to draw water out of deep water wells. Entire families and their household equipment migrate on their backs. It is a common sight to see camel caravans with large bags filled with grass used for feeding horses, oxen, water buffalo. Tourists say that one of the most enchanting experiences you can have in India is to ride through the desert on camel back and camp out under the stars.

With falling numbers, the price of a camel has soared and a sturdy male now fetches up to Rs 50,000. In the last ten years, the camel population has reduced by a fourth due to illegal slaughter outside the State during Id-ul-Adha or Bakrid.

The camel is smuggled in large numbers to the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and through Bihar to Bangladesh as camel meat is considered a delicacy. Once a luxury for the rich, over the last few years, the festival demand has become more widespread with an illegal market for camel meat now in Hyderabad to which the Municipality turns a blind eye.

Illegal trade So how does the camel find its way to the southern markets? The trade is largely controlled by gangs from Bhagpat in Uttar Pradesh. Camels are bought by these traders at weekly bazaars in Rajasthan and even the famed great Pushkar mela, which used to be a celebration of the camel. The animals are then taken by road through Haryana, either on foot or crammed into trucks with their legs tied. In Baghpat, they are slaughtered and the meat sent to Meerut and Hyderabad. I have had occasion to intercept several such animals in Delhi and Jhajjar enroute to Meerut and Baghpat.

Other camels are sent to Bangladesh via Bihar. The traffic before Id is so heavy that every night NGOs such as People For Animals intercept trucks crammed with camels.

Though Karnataka has forbidden the entry of camels, the smugglers bring them in on the pretext of offering children joyrides. The Kerala High Court has ruled that camels are not meat animals and hence cannot be killed and eaten. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has also banned the killing of camels and the consumption of camel meat. But the police turn a blind eye to the groups of camels being taken across India.

The slaughter of camels at Bakrid also contravenes religious injunctions because only the sacrifice of goats is sanctioned. Today it is camels, tomorrow it might become fashionable to kill tigers for this day.

Apart from all the legal reasons the camel cannot be killed for Bakr-Id because:

1) Camels belong in the deserts of Rajasthan. They are marched 2000 kms in a cruel way and can never be called healthy and killing them is thus against Islamic teachings.

2) The Koran allows killing of animals as a justification only for food.

3) One is supposed to befriend an animal before offering it for sacrifice — this is never done for a camel.

4) The killing of a terrified animal is something the Prophet would never allow.

5) Bakrid refers to the killing of a ram by Ibrahim when God replaced the son with a goat. Why kill camels which cannot even be legally eaten?

Tardy courts The Chief Kazi to the government of Tamil Nadu, Dr Salahuddin Mohammed Ayub, has discussed the issue of banning the slaughter of camels for meat with his congregation and said he was prepared to talk to the government committee organised for this purpose in Chennai. Despite a ruling by the Madras High Court last month setting up a committee to regulate camel slaughter and directing that the committee should hold its first meeting within a week and place preliminary recommendations, the Secretary for Animal Husbandry has refused to convene the committee till after Bakrid — too late for the camels now in Tamil Nadu facing illegal slaughter.

The Rajasthan government in July, 2014 passed an Act declaring the camel a State animal. This was followed in March 2015 with the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Bill, 2015, which banned the slaughter, trading and unauthorised transportation of camels. No camels can be sold at weekly bazaars and certainly no “farmers” from outside Rajasthan are allowed to buy the animals.

However, everytime illegally transported camels and poachers are caught, the courts intervene to release them — back to the poachers. The seized animals spend a couple of nights in shelters or jails and then, for reasons best known to the judges, are given back to the poachers.

The impact of the loss of camels in India will be most severe on our vulnerable western border in Jaisalmer. This region routinely used by smugglers of drugs and arms is patrolled by the Border Security Force (BSF) which uses camels ideally suited to the terrain. The forces are now finding it difficult to replace ageing animals.

The slaughter of this iconic animal, full of temperament and pride must stop before it is too late. The camel has become another victim to our inability to enforce laws in India.

(Maneka Gandhi is the Union Minister for Women and Child Development)

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