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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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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