Out on a stroll in a Rajasthan village some 30 years ago, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson ran into a caravan of camels grazing on grass. At that instant, the visiting German veterinary scientist knew her life wasn’t going to be the same again. Three decades later, the Raika camel nomads she met on a cold January morning are central to Köhler-Rollefson’s life and work. And, the traditional pastoralists in these camel grazers could hold the key to the future of livestock on the planet.
Köhler-Rollefson arrived in India 32 years ago on a research fellowship on camels. Her destination was Rajasthan where she would go on to study camel herding in the desert state, especially about the Raika nomads found mainly in the Godwar area of Rajasthan in Pali and Sirohi districts. The nomads also live in Bhilwara, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Churu and Bikaner. “I was struck by the intimate relationship between the Raika nomads and their camels which was so different from the one I had encountered as a farm animal vet in Germany,” says Köhler-Rollefson, a speaker at the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). “I was immediately fascinated, and it was a life-changing experience.”
Born in Germany to academic parents, Köhler-Rollefson grew up in a small village working on a farm and surrounded by horses, cats, dogs and all kinds of other animals. “As a child I could relate better to animals than to people. And for an animal lover, the study of veterinary medicine seemed the right choice,” she says about the beginning of her career that would one day bring her to the deserts of Rajasthan. “After graduation I realised that much of the veterinary profession has been captured by corporate interests, although there are plenty of great veterinarians out there too. My interest was more in preventing animals from becoming sick by creating happy and healthy environments for them than profiting from their diseases.”
“So, I had an identity crisis and looked for a new purpose in life. I temporarily found it in archaeology and worked as an archaeozoologist on excavations in Jordan. That is where I encountered camels and Bedouin culture and was totally blown away because it was such a harmonious relationship between people and animals, one of mutual love and respect. This led me to do my Ph.D on camel domestication and eventually on pastoralists in general.”
The word ‘pastoralists’ would have a greater significance in the work of the veterinary scientist. “Pastoralists are people who have a social relationship with animals. But the important feature is that pastoralists let their animals walk to their feed, rather than bring it to them. They move with their herds through the landscape,” explains Köhler-Rollefson. In today’s industrialised world where livestock has become a highly controversial issue and artificial meat and dairy are being promoted as being more ethical and better for the climate, pastoralism has emerged as an unlikely champion for a greener and healthier world.
“It is true that industrial animal agriculture is a threat to humanity and the planet and cruel to animals. But on the other hand, we need animals in the landscape for planetary functioning, for soil health, for insect life, for biodiversity in general,” says the scientist. “Pastoralists, of which the Raika are just one example, manage to combine these environmental services with food production. And they do this while caring for their animals and treating them as members of the family,” underlines Köhler-Rollefson. “An important point is that the pastoralist systems are entirely solar-powered while industrial livestock production depends heavily on fossil fuels and an assemblage of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc. Nature designed plants to be fixed and animals to move. We have reversed that system and now immobilise/stall-feed animals and move plants across continents to feed them. This is not sustainable, but we have been brainwashed by animal scientists to think this is ‘efficient’. “
Once in Rajasthan, the Raika families, who were impressed by the serious nature of the German scientist, asked her for help with treating their camels for an unknown disease that was killing them. She began providing them with veterinary medicines that they could not access themselves. This led her to more research trying to understand the Raika nomads’ situation better by getting data. “This involvement required a kind of institutional structure, so first I set up the League for Pastoral Peoples (www.pastoralpeoples.org), which is a Germany-based advocacy organisation for pastoralists globally, and when we needed a local partner organisation, Hanwant Singh Rathore (who works with the animal husbandry department of the Rajasthan government) set up Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (www.lpps.org ).” More recently, Rathore and Köhler-Rollefson started Camel Charisma (www.camelcharisma.com), a social enterprise to market cruelty-free camel milk and other natural and eco-friendly products from camels to create income for the Raika families.
Arriving in India three decades ago for a brief research, Köhler-Rollefson never really left Rajasthan, making it her adopted state and Raika herds her new family. There are an estimated 3,000 Raika families living in Rajasthan who depend on camel herding though there are no accurate figures available. “India is choc-a-bloc with traditional pastoralist cultures,” she laughs. Indian pastoralist communities include the Bakkarwal, Gujjar and Gaddi in the Himalayas, the Rebari and Jutt in Gujarat, the Dhangar, and Kuruba on the Deccan Plateau, the Golla in the east, the Toda in Tamil Nadu. Pastoralists are found all over the world—reindeer herders in the Arctic, yak keepers in the Himalayas, alpaca raisers in the Andes, cattle, goat and sheep pastoralists in Africa and South Asia. “The pastoralists actually manage a much bigger area than sedentary farmers—about twice as much. But they have been (made) invisible by colonial and animal science-based thinking which only focuses on stall-feeding animals,” says Köhler-Rollefson, who is concerned about the negative impact of last month’s United Nations draft plan to protect 30% of the world’s land for nature conservation by 2030. “Most of these areas are actually managed by pastoralists, so they definitely need to continue this role and not be evicted,” she says.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, Köhler-Rollefson spent an entire session talking to its international audience on the importance of pastoralism to the planet. Her decades-long experience on the subject has produced two major books— Camel Karma, a 10-year-long work that documents the unique Raika culture and the pressure it has been subjected to as she saw first-hand in her journey with them, and Hoofprints on the Land, which took another 15 years to write, and presents ‘animal cultures’ as an alternative to the Western ‘animal science’-based approach to livestock production that treats animals like machines. Traditional ‘animal cultures’, she argues, are important for ethical food production, conserving biodiversity, maintaining soil fertility, cooling the climate and even for healthy diets.
Scientists say animal-sourced food from pastoralist systems has a high concentration of phytochemicals which are absent from modern diets, but are now increasingly being recognised as fundamental to human health. The Raika camel nomads want to market camel milk that is believed to be greatly beneficial to people suffering from a wide range of diseases from autism to diabetes and auto-immune diseases. Says Köhler-Rollefson, “Camel milk is currently not being utilised, although the Raika nomads are desperate to find a market. All we need is some investment in decentralised infrastructure—a network of micro-dairies—to collect the milk, save camels, support livelihoods, and make a major impact on public health.”