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India

Where Indian Camels Are As Sacred As Cows (But Vanishing Fast)

In the northwestern state of Rajasthan, camels have long been worshipped as the main source of transport . But their numbers are rapidly dwindling.

At India's Pushkar camel fair
At India's Pushkar camel fair
Jasvinder Sehgal

Two camels adorned with orange saddles, nose pegs and tiny bells tied to their legs are pounding their hooves to the beat of drums. A 35-year-old-local performer Kanjo leads them in a clamorous dance. "I am just like a prop for these camels," she tells me. "For me they are like a God. I love, respect and worship them. And I can't live without them." She also relies on them to make a living.

Like many people in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, she reveres camels the way that Hindus worship cows. Many who have brought their camels here are Raikas, a special caste of camel breeders, who believe they were created by Shiva to be camel guardians. They worship the camel god Prabuji.

Some 80% of all of India's camels are in the state of Rajasthan. The camel is crucial to the area's art and culture, with hundreds of folktales, stories and poems dedicated to the animal.

At the agricultural market, more camel owners arrive with various breeds of domesticated camels in tow. Jagdeesh Raibari, 56, has been rearing camels since childhood. Today, he shares the concerns of many people here. "My family used to have 150 camels, but today we have far fewer. Camel rearing is not lucrative anymore," Raibari said. "Our young people are searching for new jobs, because they can't earn a living anymore with camels."

The young Raika will continue to move to the cities

Deforestation, urbanization and climate change have encroached on grazing land, while new diseases have had a big impact on camel populations. Once integral to transport across the arid climate, they were the ships of India's deserts, and kings kept royal herds. But in recent decades, like horses elsewhere, camels have been replaced with scooters, cars and trucks.

Until the 1990s, there were around one million camels in Rajasthan. According to current estimates, their numbers have fallen to fewer than 200,000. In the hope of saving camels, the state government of Rajasthan has made it illegal to slaughter and export camels – elevating them to a similar status to India's holy cow. Penalties of up to five years can be imposed for their slaughter.

But camel owners say the law hasn't had the desired effect. Camel numbers are continuing to drop. "We are demanding that the State government at least allow the export of male camels, if not, their numbers will keep dropping. Camel owners will stop rearing them because they are not economically viable," stated Hanwant Singh Rathore, the director of the League for Pastoral Peoples.

Photo: Jasvinder Sehgal

Rathore argues if camel exports remain banned, rearing camels won't be economically sustainable, and young Raika will continue to move to the cities and find other work. He has suggested new strategies, like selling camel milk and other camel products.

Back at the market, the air is filled with the sweet smell of tea brewing on an old stove. Camel rearer Seeta Devi is giving out camel milk tea, and preaching to people about its health benefits. "Camel milk has immense therapeutic value. It is beneficial for asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes and regulating blood sugar levels," she tells passersby.

Dr. Narender Singh, who is in charge of the state government's camel conservation efforts, says that promoting camel products could provide new incentive to continue rearing camels. "Camel milk chocolate is very popular. Handmade paper, woolen mats and rugs, and even mosquito repellent made out of camel dung are finding their way into urban markets," he noted.

Selling new derivative products might be a financial incentive to stay in the camel-rearing business, but the bigger hump to overcome is climate change.

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