Book: Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads
Author: Ilse Kohler-Rollesfson
Price: Rs 595
Ilse Kohler-Rollesfon, a German veterinarian, came to Rajasthan in 1991 to study camels and their keepers, got hooked by the supercilious looking animals and their shrewd, caring, nomad keepers, the red-turbanned Raika, and stayed on, devoting her professional life to promoting the welfare of both. Her efforts have won her the prestigious Rolex Associate Award for Enterprise 2002, (for her enterprise in ‘Saving the Camel and Raika Heritage’) and more importantly, the love, trust and confidence of the Raika. This well-sorted, cleanly written book chronicles her remarkable story, from her tentative beginnings to ardent activism.
The camel, Rajasthan’s state animal, is in decline due to various reasons — disease (tryanosomiasis in particular which causes female camels to abort), reduction in the amount of available grazing grounds and changes in lifestyle. In dealing with these issues, Rollesfon has to first win the confidence of the Raika, no easy matter, for she is white, and a woman, and they are traditionalists to say the least. Once she has done this, with the help of Hanwant Singh — who started off as the driver of her taxi and proved to be an invaluable resource person — she turns to the Raika’s pressing problems. She sets up the Lokhit Pashu-Palan Sansthan, its goals being to provide “assistance to livestock dependent people by measures that included… the control of animal diseases, improvement of income from animals, social and educational support as well as pasture development.” Even before this is launched, she kicks off the tikka project, an inoculation programme against tryanosomisasis, travelling all over Rajasthan from Sadri to Pushkar to Jaisalmer in the course of her work.
There is economic potential waiting to be tapped. Camel milk, for instance, is said to be extremely nutritious (improves the condition of autistic children, for example) as the animals “free-range” on a wide variety of plants with medicinal properties. Marketing it, however, turns out to be a problem as the Raika insist that such a valuable commodity not be exploited commercially but be given free to all.
Another major issue is the reduction of grazing grounds and here there is conflict with wildlife conservation. Grazing by domestic animals has been one of the major problems faced by wildlife parks, and when this was banned, the Raika and their camels were in trouble. This is a contentious issue — while conservationists insist that no grazing be permitted, and that sanctuaries and national parks, occupying a tiny fraction of forest land, be left sacrosanct, the Forest Act permits traditional use of the forest and its produce.
Another reason for the decline of the camel population is its clandestine slaughter for meat, an issue which was denied by the authorities until it blew up on the Bangladesh border in a shootout between the Bangladesh Rifles and the Border Security Force over camel smugglers.
But the book is as much about the Raika as it is about camels. Rollesfon treads tactfully through the minefield of contradiction that is the Raika, giving an unbiased picture of their lives. For me, there were two major takeaways from the book: the first was the obvious affection of the Raika for their animals vis-a-vis the heartlessly commercial manner in which farm animals are dealt with in the West. The second was the fact that the Raika seem quite content with what little they have, and would not, for example, dig up their land even if they knew that a treasure lay beneath. It might seem appallingly naïve and romantic, but if there is truth in this, then there is a lesson in it for all of us.
This well-organised, lucidly-written book is an eye-opener, and no, camels are not the sneering grouches they have been made out to be!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher