For two days a week now, the Kharai camels are left to themselves on one of the seven mangrove islands that dot the creek at Mohadi in Kutch district of Gujarat. They swim 10 km, along with their handlers, taking anywhere between two and three hours to reach the islands, locally called Bet, along the Gulf of Kutch. Once on the islands, the camels start feeding on mangroves.
The camels swim long distances in the sea to reach the grazing areas —usually more than 3 km at a time even in deep waters. They eat large volumes of saline plant species. Ismail Jat from the Fakirani Jat community says, “The camels are unique and if you drink their milk, you will be cured of diabetes.” The animals have smooth long hair that can be used in products such as stoles, bags and rugs.
Their grazing routes vary seasonally, and as they are constantly on the move, the Kharai herders do not build any special shelters for them. During the monsoon, the camels are often left on the mangrove islands for three months. With rainwater collected in depressions on the land, they have a drinking water source. An adult camel requires about 20 to 40 litres of water a day. During summer and winter, their stay on the islands last three days at a time.
The number of these camels, spread out across six coastal districts of Gujarat, has dwindled to 5,000. They are bred by two distinct communities — the Fakirani Jats, who are the handlers, and the Rabaris, who own the animals. While the Rabaris are spread across Bhachau and Mundra talukas, the Fakirani Jats live in Bhachau, Mundra, Lakhpat and Abdasa talukas as well as in other coastal districts of Gujarat, such as Ahmedabad, Bharuch, Anand and Bhavnagar. The nomadic communities move in search of mangroves for their camels to feed on.
Today, the Kharai breeders face many challenges. The steadily decreasing mangroves — because of heavy industrialisation along the coast — have affected the traditional grazing routes. Combined with declining camel sales and the low price of milk, the socio-economic status of these communities is precarious. Consequently, while most breeders are clinging to their dwindling livelihood, the young are switching over to more stable work.