By Hitesh Rathi,
Throughout history, animals have accompanied troops into combat as modes of transport, companion, and protectors. They carried food, ammunition, and medical supplies to soldiers at the front. Of all the animals like horses, mules, camels are one of them.
Their ability to go without water and carry heavy loads made them an ideal mode of transport, especially in the desert and dry lands. Fondly known as the ‘Ship of the Desert, they are important livestock in arid regions. World Camel Day is also celebrated every year on June 22, recognizing how camels are important to the livelihoods in many parts of the world.
It is no secret that several communities have had a history of interdependence with camels. One of them is the camel-herding community of Rajasthan, the Raikas. It is popularly believed that these camel herders survived a year-long famine only by consuming camel milk. So then, the synergistic relationship between this tribe and the mighty camel comes as no surprise.
For years, the Raika community, the traditional camel keepers of Rajasthan, was strictly against selling either camel’s meat or milk. They believed that camel milk, with miraculous powers and high nutritional value, was never to be sold. It could only be given for free to whoever needs it. The same goes with the Maldharis of Gujarat, who consider camel rearing as a duty assigned to them by God and its milk a gift.
However, of late, the cameleers of Rajasthan have started selling camel milk. But why? The reality, unfortunately, is disheartening.
Plummeting Camel Population
This change has stemmed from the fact that Rajasthan’s camel population is plunging. The total camel population in the country decreased by 37.1% compared to the previous census in 2012, as per the 20th Livestock Census in 2019. From 4 lakh camels in 2012, the overall population in India declined to 2.5 lakh in 2019. No doubt, the plummeting camel population has become one of the major concerns for camel breeders as these animals provide them with sustenance, wealth, and companionship.
To save the numbers from falling further, Rajasthan, which is home to the maximum camel population in the country, declared it the state animal in 2014. The state also banned its sale or movement outside the region due to concerns that it was being slaughtered for meat. But sadly, the efforts to save the camel population from declining further dented the market.
For instance, there has been a fall in camel sales in India’s famous annual Pushkar fair. At present, there are hardly any takers at the camel trading fair, leaving these herders in a state of despair.
Moreover, camel breeding has become expensive, making it tough for the herders to provide quality care for their animals. Besides, as more and more roads are being constructed, there is a scarcity of grazing pastures for camels to graze.
All in all, the picture is quite gloomy for the camels and their loyal breeders. And now, there is a constant struggle to save these elegant ships of the desert and their herding tradition.
A Drop of Hope
Going against their culture, the Raikas are now left with no option but to use camels for milking. And such use may be the only way to preserve these animals who are on the edge of extinction.
The herder’s optimism emanates from the fact that camel milk is being lauded as a nutritious and healthier alternative to typical dairy milk. According to the Camel Dairy Market, the global camel dairy market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8.01% during 2019-2024. Therefore, there is a ray of hope that the demand for camel milk is likely to grow further in the coming years.
Recognized as a superfood, people are gradually coming around to the idea of drinking camel milk. Several studies on camel milk have discovered its positive impact on autism, liver disease, diabetes, jaundice, and even cancer. As compared to cow’s milk, camel milk is high in vitamin C, iron, and calcium, which helps in boosting the immune system. It is also low in lactose, allowing the milk to be digested by people with a dairy intolerance.
Driven by these nutrient-rich features, camel milk and dairy products are slowly gaining popularity across the world. And by creating more awareness about their benefits, this dairy segment will flourish in the country.
Adding further hope, several startups are also setting up camel milk dairies in states such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. Apart from milk, brands are also manufacturing and selling camel milk-based products like flavored milk powders, ghee, ice cream, and many more.
In a nutshell, they are helping camel herders to earn a decent amount of money. Further, developing infrastructure, especially for bulk milk coolers in remote regions, will augment the production of camel milk. With this growth and relevance for camels already in pace, herders are now looking forward to a bright future for their animals as well as a steady income for their families.
(The author is Founder of Aadvik Foods. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)