Camels in the Land of Kings

Article excerpt

In February, against a backdrop of several hundred camels spread out to graze, five turbaned men huddle beside an impromptu campfire. Passing around a clay pipe, they discuss the outcome of the previous fair in Pushkar, the west Indian town where each November they sell their annual crop of young male camels. Even the batch of fluffy baby camels playfully darting around does not distract the men from their gloomy thoughts. One, a younger man named Gautamji, finally summarizes their predicament for me:

Look at us. Only fifty years ago we had 10,000 camels-so many that we never even cared when we lost one in the jungle. Twenty years ago, there were 5,000. Now, only about 1,000 camels belong to our village. Ten years from now, or even sooner, we will have no more camels.

The men are Raikas, members of a Hindu caste that specializes in breeding livestock. While they also keep sheep, goats, and cattle, the Raikas are renowned as experts in camel breeding. Inhabitants of the state of Rajasthan, "the land of kings," many of them take pride in their centuries-old heritage as caretakers of the camel breeding herds that the local maharajahs once maintained to insure a supply of the animals for warfare.

Rajasthan's bleak landscape is dotted with forts and palaces that testify to past glory and heroism. Before independence, the region, which includes the harsh Thar Desert in the west, comprised several kingdoms. The rulers, who belonged to the Rajput warrior caste, were known for their courage, preferring death to defeat. Perpetually involved in internecine battles between their desert kingdoms or in repelling invading Muslim forces, the maharajahs used camel corps and relied on batteries of pack camels to provide logistical support in their arid territories.

The Raikas were one of many castes that provided specialized services to the Rajputs in exchange for their protection. When India gained independence in 1947, the feudal system was dissolved, and most of the royal camels became the property of the Raikas. The military uses for camels have dwindled over the years, but India's security forces still use them to patrol the boundary with Pakistan. Fortunately for the Raikas, however, a new purpose for camels developed: they came to play a crucial economic role as draft power.

In the past forty years, the camel cart has quietly revolutionized transportation in many parts of western India, notably in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Modeled on the oxcart, the camel cart is considerably larger and equipped with used airplane tires that enable it to go anywhere, regardless of the condition, or even the presence, of roads. Ownership of a camel and cart for hauling loads provides a decent livelihood for thousands of people. In India's arid west, camels represent an indispensable source of energy that saves the cost of imported fuel.

The market for camels is still going strong, but the Raikas, who are the main suppliers of camels to farmers and small-scale transport entrepreneurs, are pessimistic about the future. The reason is simple. As traditionally practiced, camel breeding relies on access large expanses of open, often communally owned land--once amply available for grazing under the formal control of village councils. Within the span of this century, however. Rajasthan has witnessed phenomenal population growth, with the Thar Desert now deemed the most densely populated desert in the world. The consequent expansion and intensification of crop cultivation is one of the factors responsible for eliminating pastureland. Furthermore, some of the Raikas' traditional summer pastures in the Aravalli Hills, east of the desert, have been listed as nature reserves, and access to them has been drastically curbed. Although partly denuded of its dense vegetation, this ancient range still harbors considerable wildlife, including wolves, jackals, and a few tigers.

With grazing land scarce, the majority of the Raika camels are now teetering on the brink of starvation, and their chronic hunger has resulted in a drop in their fertility. …