SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Magical and majestic

unique man-animal relationship: Clockwise from top left: Suja Ram Raika with his camel; Off for monsoon grazing in the mountains; Bhanwarlal Raika with his herd.

unique man-animal relationship: Clockwise from top left: Suja Ram Raika with his camel; Off for monsoon grazing in the mountains; Bhanwarlal Raika with his herd.   | Photo Credit: Photos: Ilse Koehler-Rollefson

ILSE KÖHLER-ROLLEFSON

An encounter with the last camels of the Aravallis leaves one awe-struck.

Standing in the middle of a camel herd is pure magic. Within minutes, stereotypes about camels being grumpy and bad-tempered vanish. Instead you are struck by the serenity and peaceful composure of these large animals and filled with wonder about their gentle nature.

You can walk right up to a camel of your choice, and it will probably stretch out its neck to say hello. If you are brave enough to hold still, it is likely to give your face an inquisitive nuzzle, sniff your hair, and may be give you a little facial massage like it would a fellow camel. A deep look into the big soulful eyes protected by amazingly long eye-lashes is an added perk.

Amazing experience

In Rajasthan, there is only one place where one can indulge in the amazing experience of walking amid a group of hundred or so camels: among the handful of herds that still migrate around southern Pali district. These are owned by the Raika, the hereditary camel breeders of Rajasthan. Many of the camels willingly allow themselves to be milked without being restrained, except by the voice of their favourite handler.

The Raika earlier tended the camels of the Maharajahs of Western Rajasthan who used camels for warfare. They are the sole camel breeders worldwide that never think of using camels for meat. Nor did they traditionally sell their milk; it was given away for free to poor members of the community. “Selling milk is like selling your children” is a customary adage. Even the wool was never marketed, but retained to craft articles for domestic use.

The only commercial products were the young male animals sold to farmers and others who need a work animal. The female camels, by contrast, are considered community capital and their sale outside the community was punished with the offender being thrown out of the community.

Although Rajasthan’s core camel breeding area is in the far west, the herds generally roam unsupervised in remote areas and are rarely seen.

By contrast, in Pali District, the herds are integrated into the crop cycle and herded through the year. At night, camels and keepers camp in the fields of farmers who are pleased with the organic manure and reward camel herders with rotis and tea.

During the day, the herds wander around in search of a variety of local trees. In the rainy season, the camel herds graze on the forested slopes of the Aravalli range as they have done for hundreds of years. Earlier they were officially accorded grazing by the Maharajah of Jodhpur.

Since the time of the Maharajahs, the Raika have had the right to graze in the Aravalli Hills against payment of a small fee, a practice continued by the Rajasthan Forest Department. In the 1970s, a significant part of this grazing area was gazetted as the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Certain areas (“enclosures”) were officially prohibited from grazing for seven years.

Legal tangle

But the enclosures were not opened after the prescribed period and the Raikas were allowed access only against payment of bribes. In addition, in 1999, forest protection committees were established, which decided to ban all non-local animals from the forest — a major blow to the nomadic Raika who could not claim to be local.

In a public interest writ petition filed at the Rajasthan High Court in 2002, the NGO Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) requested grazing rights to be reinstated, referring to the dependence on the forest as summer grazing ground, and the ensuing threat to the survival of the local breed. This case was decided in favour of the camel breeders in 2003.

However, in August 2004, the State Government again refused to issue grazing permits, citing a letter by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of 2.7.2000.

In response, the Raika in 2004 requested the CEC to clarify the situation to the Rajasthan Government. Since there was no response, the Raika filed a Civil Writ Petition in the Rajasthan High Court requesting the State Government to grant grazing permits as before.

The State Government referred the case to the Supreme Court, which asked the Chief Wildlife Warden to assess the number and type of domestic animals that could safely be allowed to graze in the sanctuary area without adverse effects.

In his reply, the Chief Wildlife Warden stated that “…in order to protect one of the last remains of Aravalli biodiversity, it is recommended that grazing should not be permitted in the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary area.”

The case has still not been resolved and may have been superseded by the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006, that provides for grazing and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic communities and was passed by parliament, but has not been notified. Until then, the fate of the Pali camel breeders and their herds hangs in the balance.

Crucial event

The Pushkar camel market is a crucial event for the Raika since this is where they realise their entire year’s income. On Deepavali, the herders separate their new crop of male calves and herd them to Pushkar. In the first two days, the babies wail and bleat for their mothers, but then take it in their stride. The caravan is on the move all day, from before sunrise until sunset, and during the entire week-long trip, the men hardly get the time to make some tea. Their food supply consists of a sack of puris that the women make before departure.

Every year, the Raika say that this will be the last time that they will do this trek unless the grazing impasse will finally be resolved. Certainly, with the exception of a couple of young faces, all the camel breeders are old and grizzled. For the young generation, this way of life, because of its hardships and the lack of respect, provides no attraction.

The camel is an icon of Rajasthan, and the government makes liberal use of the associated culture to lure tourists.

But despite numerous appeals and a save-the-camel yatra by LPPS, it pays no attention to this issue. Government agencies, such as the Livestock Development Board, profess that their programmes are only for cattle and buffalo.

Proclamations that the Kumbalgarh Sanctuary has to be protected from camels as the “last remnant of the biodiversity of the Aravalli” sound hollow, when at the same time a huge four-lane national highway will cut through pristine jungle, only a short distance away from the sanctuary.

India signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), committing itself to saving its biodiversity as well as associated traditional knowledge.

In September 2007, it also agreed to the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources, accepting responsibility for managing its farm animal genetic resources in a sustainable manner. The camel provides not only a test case for whether these international commitments are taken seriously. It is a magic and majestic animal just as worthy of saving as the tiger.

The author works with Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan and the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development ( >www.pastoralpeoples.org).

For more details, >www.lpps.org

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