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Sumer Singh Bhati's camel herd. Courtesy: Sumer Singh Bhati

Reviving Thar desert’s camel culture

The energy transition in Rajasthan is leaving traditional camel herders without options, but some are taking creative ways ahead.
The energy transition in Rajasthan is leaving traditional camel herders without options, but some are taking creative ways ahead.

Sumer Singh Bhati’s Whatsapp status is a photograph of a notice published in one of Rajasthan’s local newspapers. It informs that 12 kilometres of transmission lines are coming up near his village Sanwata, in India’s Thar desert. On the status, Bhati writes, “Public, we need to wake up and decide on this soon.”   

The transmission lines are a cause of worry. They will be erected in the common land, or Oran, whose local trees and bushes are fodder for cattle, including the drought-resistant camels. “Now that they are either getting encroached or diverted for large development projects, what will people feed their camels? People have stopped rearing them.Bhati says.

But Bhati is swimming against the tide. In the last 7 years, when the camel population in India crashed from 400,000 to 250,000 animals—a 37% decline — he began tending to about 400 camels for his latest business: selling camels’ milk. 

Falling Camel Popularity 

“Only if camels are economically beneficial will people rear them,” says Bhati, who collects at least 2,000 litres of milk from his camels every day.

In the past years, camels have become an unpopular livelihood option for many. Where camel carts were the only means to travel between villages in the desert, buses and jeeps have now replaced them. Instead of camels, tractors now plough fields. Then, a 2015 policy hit camel herder’s livelihoods immensely; it prohibited the slaughter and export for slaughter of camels to other states.

Sumer Singh Bhati with his camel herd. Courtesy: Sumer Singh Bhati

Diminishing common grazing lands makes matters worse. “Camels, being big animals, cannot be stall-fed [fed and kept in a stall] at one place, they need daily walks to remain healthy,” says Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist and Assistant Professor at a University in Delhi. “But this is becoming challenging since, in Jaisalmer district [where Sanwata is], almost every village’s common land is being converted into wind and solar energy farms.”

For the camel-herding Raika community living in Rajasthan, their culture is on the verge of unravelling. “They feel the responsibility for the herds that they have inherited and have become a burden, rather than an asset,” explains German scientist Ilse Kohler-Rollefson who has been working on pastoralism for the past 30 years.

Making camels profitable again 

“Jaiselmer has the largest population of camels in India, and despite that, the younger generation is not interested in rearing or conserving them,” explains Bhati. “This needs to change.” 

Since 2017, Bhati and a few herders have been waking up at 4 am to milk camels. Once the local sale is done, they transport milk in iceboxes to larger cities like Jaipur, 500 kilometres away, and even to Mumbai, which lies at twice that distance. Studies have shown that apart from diabetic patients, camel milk also helps children on the autistic spectrum.

Bhati even underwent training to learn how to make chocolates and ice cream out of camel milk. The business is getting Bhati a profit, albeit a very marginal one. 

“The market for camel milk is very limited,” says Kohler-Rollefson. “There are not as many buyers of milk to meet the supply.”

She also started Camel Charisma, a camel milk dairy in Kumbhalgarh, about 400 kilometres from Bhati’s residence. “Rearing such a large animal for only milk will not have a bright future,” suggests Dookia, indicating towards the need to diversify camel products, like wool, for a viable business. Camel Charisma has added camel poop paper and camel milk cheese in their product basket.

Camels need to be reared by sustaining them on the natural and bio-diverse vegetation of Rajasthan. “They have to be seen as a part of the landscape and ecosystem. Of course, there are limits to the number of camels that can be kept that way and those should not be overstepped, but I don’t see the danger of that happening for decades,” mentions Kohler-Rollefson.

Addressing the loss of Orans, then, completes the conservation picture. Bhati and other volunteers have met and written to the District Collector on multiple occasions, and are also fighting the oran’s diversion for solar projects in court. He has also been working with the ERDS Foundation, who recently organised a foot march for conservation and protection of this pastureland, also home to the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard. If more were to follow this path, perhaps the desert will see more camels again.

An Oran, with transmission lines already installed, as seen in the right of the photograph. Courtesy: Sumer Singh Bhati
Vaishnavi Rathore
Vaishnavi Rathore, 25, is from India. She is currently living in New Delhi, but has a family that moved a lot while she was growing up. That gave her the chance to live all across the country—in deserts of Rajasthan, the Himalayas, fertile plains of Punjab, and more. For a little over a year, she has been working as an Environment Associate with The Bastion, a young development journalism organisation that focuses on coverage of environment, education, sports, and more recently on tech and health.