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Found in dry and semi-arid parts of Africa and Asia, camels are mostly reared by nomads. For centuries, the identity of the camel remains intertwined with the desert and its people. The milk and meat of the camel are either consumed directly or used to make other products by the families that rear them. The global camel population is estimated to be at 35 million.
The situation the animal finds itself in India is grim. In the last decades, its numbers have nosedived. According to the 19th livestock census, released in 2012, the camel population was hovering around 0.4 million. In the 20th livestock census, released in 2019, the population further plummeted to 0.25 million. Rajasthan is home to 86% of India’s camels and the rate at which this keystone species of the desert ecology is declining is worrying camel herders and conservationists.
The pastoralists in the region believe that the browsing nature of camels while grazing is significant for maintaining the vegetation diversity of the region. Camels have been described as “economical” feeders who never overgraze. Unlike other ruminants of the region, camels do not eat the roots of shrubs and trees.
The camels disperse in the grazing lands and tend to not limit themselves to a particular patch. This ensures that the vegetation remains evenly maintained in that land. A lactating camel also requires lesser forage to produce milk. It has been observed that in order to produce one litre of milk, cattle consume five times the forage. Their feet are also padded and their movement does not result in soil erosion.
Sumer Singh Bhati, a pastoralist and a proud owner of 300 camels of Jaisalmer district, worriedly tells me, “Camel herders are reducing their herd size or completely abandoning rearing camels due to problems related to high input costs meted by them. Thanks to climate change, we have increased temperatures and lesser rainfall in our region. Camels are the only animals who are equipped to survive in such harsh variations. In this fight to adapt to climate change, the camel could prove to be our biggest ally.”
In the last six months, camel herders have demanded strong support from the state but on-ground support is yet to be seen.
The application of resilience has been described to be similar to the one we take in the face of natural disasters. Broadly, it is understood as the ability to cope with the various and sometimes unexpected shocks and stresses of climate change, and as being at ‘the core of adaptation’. Pastoralists have been touted to be better prepared against climate change as it has inherent flexibility and resilience.
Western Rajasthan has witnessed increased temperatures and variabilities in rainfall. The traditional practice of rearing large numbers of camels could be revived to ensure the livestock sector remains sustainable and profitable.
Farther away from home in Northern Kenya, Africa owing to climate change, across decades, there has been an increase in average temperatures. The frequency of longer and less predictable droughts have also increased. In their attempt to adapt to these climatic variabilities, a large number of Kenyans have started keeping camels. Due to its drought-resilience, in 2019, there were around three million camels in Kenya, three times as many as ten years ago.
Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, author of Camel Karma and Co-founder of Lokhit Pashu Palan Sansthan agrees, “If you ask any camel herder in Rajasthan then they would say the camel thrives in droughts. First cattle, then sheep and goats, and finally camels. The resilience of camels in arid regions has been widely documented in African countries. However, in India, there is a dearth of such applied research that rigorously examines their resilience. I believe in the face of less or high variability in rainfall, the camel would prove to be a resilient species in the Indian deserts as well.”
Our neglect of ecological services of camels and inability to consider them allies in building resilience against climate change would be foolish and reckless.