Chennai, IndiaHis father and grandfather were camel herders, so Bhanwarlal became one too. “Our camels are an extension of our families,” says Bhanwarlal, 35, a member of the ethnic group called Raika, who believes he received a divine call from the Hindu god Shiva to care for the camels in the northwestern state of China. Rajasthan.

“Our children bond with them from an early age. They live with us and die with us, ”he said. National Geographic during a telephone interview.

When the dry season arrives, Bhanwarlal, who bears a name, and his fellow pastors herds of sheep, goats and camels, decorated with tinkling bells and multicolored pom poms, for a thousand kilometers across the dotted Thar. Desert acacia trees in their summer pastures. Dressed in their crimson turbans and white tunics, Bhanwarlal and his ancestors have led this semi-nomadic life for centuries.

Now the annual ritual is threatened by a cascade of threats, the most serious being the decline in the number of camels. The total camel population in India, all descendants of wild dromedaries, or Arabian camels, declined by 37% between 2012 and 2019, according to the latest count, the 20th Livestock Census, released in 2019. Current estimates suggest that there are less than 200,000 camels remain among the nine breeds, and 80 percent of these animals live in Rajasthan, where they are raised to provide transport, wool and milk, as well as fields of plowing.

Yet a recent surge of development in western India has created new roads and vehicles that have replaced the lanky workhorses, often dubbed ‘desert ships’.­—As the primary method of moving people and goods. Irrigation projects, such as the Indira Gandhi Canal, India’s largest, have resulted in an increase in agricultural land and, with the installation of new wind and solar farms, there is less free space to graze. camels. Camels also seem to have become less popular with the public: Camel festivals, which once featured folk music and dances, food and craft stalls, and lively camel sales, have all but disappeared.

Further jeopardizing tradition is the collapse of tourism amid the pandemic and a 2015 law banning the export and sale of male camels, which included a blanket ban on the sale of camel meat. (The Raika consider eating camel meat a violation of their religious beliefs.)

The law was prompted by the smuggling of camels from the Raikas to other countries, where there is a demand for their meat, says Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a German veterinarian who co-founded the non-profit Lokhit Pashu- Palak Sansthan in 1996 to protect the Raika and their livelihoods. . But this law has been controversial, says Roeffson. “It is impractical to restrict the sale of pets, which is inextricably linked to profitability,” says Rollefson, also a National Geographic explorer. “Male camels have to be sold for the Raikas to make a living. “

Faced with these obstacles, Bhanwarlal, whose family lives in the village of Malari, decided to send his children to school and encourage them to live for themselves outside of herding camels.

“The only thing that still supports us is the sale of camel milk. Unless the government gives us incentives, sets up camel milk dairies and allows us to sell male camels, we are doomed, ”he said.

The Rajasthan Livestock Department did not respond to National Geographicrequests for comments.

The next superfood?

Camel milk has become a buzzword in India, touted by many nutritionists as the next superfood, says Dharini Krishnan, a dietitian in Chennai. It contains low amounts of sugar, is rich in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and potassium, and is an alternative for those who are lactose intolerant, explains Krishnan. (Go inside the world’s largest collection of animal milk.)

Researchers are studying the potential therapeutic benefits of camel milk for human health, although such studies have been too limited to draw any conclusions. A study in a small group of type 1 diabetics in Bikaner, Rajasthan, for example, showed that camel milk could reduce a person’s need for insulin.

Making camel milk a source of income for camel herders, however, comes with its fair share of challenges. To transport raw camel milk to cities, it must be pasteurized and refrigerated, an expensive process, says Sumanth Vyas, senior scientist at ICAR-National Camel Research Center, based in Bikaner, Rajasthan.

“Camels were never meant to be raised for their milk, and camel milk as a business is difficult because the logistics of demand and supply are far apart. », Explains Vyas.

Such obstacles motivated Rollefson to found the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy, near Jaisalmer, in 2010. The dairy run by Raika collects about 130 gallons of milk per week from various breeders, who manually milk the standing females, allowing their calves to drink from the teats on the other side. The milk is frozen, packaged with ice and sold in various markets in the cities. (Read more about Rollefson’s work promoting camel milk.)

In 2016, Shrey Kumar co-founded Aadvik Foods, a Delhi-based startup, with milk from Raika camel herders in Rajasthan. Aadvik started selling frozen camel milk through online orders, the first company in India to launch branded camel milk as well as powdered camel milk. “We wanted to make it accessible to people from all economic groups, and that’s why we started making powdered camel milk,” says Kumar. “Camel milk is a niche market, but growing. “

Boost camel herders

Camel milk dairies have proven profitable in other neighboring states, including Gujarat, where camel herders in the Kutch region have teamed up with Amul, a Gujarat-based dairy cooperative, which launched the milk. camel milk in 2019. Besides camel milk, which has a shelf life of six months, Amul also sells camel milk powder, camel milk ice cream and chocolates.

To meet the growing demand, 60 to 70 camel herders milk nearly 2,000 camels, a business valued between 40 and 50 million rupees (approximately $ 538,000 to $ 673,000 US), says RS Sodhi, managing director of Amul.

Ramesh Bhatti of Sahjeevan Trust, a nonprofit that works to protect camels in Gujarat, says anecdotal observations suggest that the camel population in Gujarat has increased due to the growing interest in camel milk, although that there was no official census. “There is definitely a demand for camel milk, and right now more than we can provide,” Bhatti said. (Learn more about how people consume milk around the world.)

Yet developing a camel milk industry is not the only solution Raika needs to get by, warns Vyas.

With the 2015 law stifling their main source of income, they also need better access to pasture for their camels, as well as better support from the government, for example by encouraging the use of camels in transport, promoting sustainable tourism using camels, and the creation of government-run dairies.

“We have bank loans for all kinds of vehicles,” but when it comes to helping pastoralists transport their goods on camels, “there is hardly any financial assistance,” he says.

As for Bhanwarlal, he says that camel breeding is permanently linked to the Raika culture.

“This is what our ancestors did, and I hope we can continue this way,” he says. “It is a sacred calling and we cannot let die.”

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