Friday, January 10, 2020

India’s Camel Culture Being Wiped Out By Advocacy Groups and Government Regulations

Article and Photos by Tony Mangia

It’s a cultural tradition dating back over 150 years with roots going back as far back as the 10th century when Muslim warriors made their way through the deserts of India on hump-backed beasts by way of the Middle East. Now the Pushkar Camel Fair is fighting for its life and basically the livelihood of thousands of families and their way of existing.

Every year, for the last century and a half, thousands of Raika camel dealers and their herds converge on the rural Indian city of Pushkar during an annual fair where they show, trade and sell the plump-lipped mammals with the fat-laden (not water) padding on their backs.

During the week long fest known as Pushkar Camel Mela, the holy city of Pushkar — located about 150 km southwest of the smoggy, congested streets of Jaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan — turns into a colorful and chaotic mix of camel traders, Hindu pilgrims and curious tourists.  While the fair has lost some of its majesty and commercial importance in modern India, the festival still attracts thousands of Raika and their herds of dromedaries along with thousands more foreign sightseers and local merchants.

The scene is almost hallucinatory, as throngs of camels — many adorned with bells, colorful necklaces and decorative straps to make them more attractive to buyers — lounge around chewing their cud and bellowing at the sky.


It’s hard not to notice the circles of peaceful Raika in their bright turbans talking among the braying camels — many of which are hobbled by ropes binding a front leg bent at the knee joint so they don't stray. But, these days, instead of making deals, the conversations lean more towards how they they can make ends meet. Sunlight from a dazzling blue sky illuminate the brown, weathered faces of the beleaguered tribesmen, but their futures don’t seem as bright.

Animal rights groups, technological accessibility and government intervention are all playing a part in the disintegration of the camel trade in India and specifically in Pushkar by driving many of these prideful men out of their generational territories through legislation influenced by politically correct movements.

Advocates of camel welfare reform accuse the Raika of animal culture "abuses" such as making the camels walk long distances, being forced into "stressful" commercial exploitation like tourist rides, the insertion of nose pegs, camel racing and general neglect of their herds.

While their deep-down motives are well intentioned, one has to wonder if these do-gooders are overstepping their boundaries?

The one-time friendly confines of social media which introduced the fair to computer screens worldwide — as well as more prying eyes — is now sometimes besmirching the event with accusations of animal cruelty and environmental destruction or by luring future generations away from the deserts to the cities with the promise of a more modern life. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. Farmers and breeders all over India, China and worldwide have watched their agrarian and herding heritages slowly vanish because of the same cyberspace catalysts.

The Raika camel husbandry community has always been more like a large family than a merchant's association, and that includes the revered camels — who can live up to 20 years. And throughout their lifetimes, caretakers must provide medicine, food and training for each animal. It's a costly and round-the-clock occupation.

India, as a country, has the fifth largest population of camels in the world (estimated at around 300,000) and, although the camels' numbers are increasing globally, in India, that figure — as well as the the Raika's plight — are falling drastically. This downward slide in camel population and commerce trickles down from the breeders to the traders all the way to the artisans who utilize the wool, skin, bones and even camel dung to make blankets, leather goods, furniture inlays and paper.

The state of Rajasthan is where nearly 80-percent of India's camel population is. Gujarat and Haryana are the only other states where camel breeding is allowed.

Recent laws imposed by the government — driven and publicized by environmentalists and animal rights movements — are changing the Raika way of life by restricting tribesmen from traditional herding grounds and resources. Some of the restrictions includes less access to national parkland and stiffer grazing laws — limiting their migratory patterns and making their journeys to Pushkar and other locales more arduous for the camel herds. 

And there are other obstacles the modern-day Raika must overcome to make ends meet — including revising some ancient traditions and spiritual beliefs.

Historically, there was a ban on the selling of female camels to buyers outside of the Raika tribe and tradition forbade the slaughter of camels for meat entirely. Even selling the wool and the processing of camel's milk (drinking it fresh is okay) was believed to bring about a sort of bad karma and frowned upon. The only income for the Raika was really through breeding and selling.

However dire the Raika's sinking outlook from the quicksand of their circumstances came some flimsy lifelines — namely, new radical and pragmatic attitudes by the herdsmen.

Bull (male) camels — which were the only ones sold at the fair until 2000, when cows (females) were finally permitted to be put on the selling block — are now allowed to be butchered for meat by the Raika tribe, but not in Rajasthan where the slaughter of camels is illegal. 

The Catch-22 dilemma facing the Rajasthan-based Raika is that the Rajasthan Camel Act of 2015 provides penalties for taking any camels out of state for slaughter, castration or the insertion of nose pegs. That legal decree, like a camel's leg tether, basically restricts the Raika's ability to supplement their income by slaughtering their camels for meat.

All states have banned the butchering of any cows (female camels) outright to help sustain the camel species.

The Rajasthan Camel Act's strict maxims now drives some herders to illegally sneak them into Gujarat and Haryana for slaughter. And, in addition to avoiding authorities, the Raika also face the possibility of dealing with interference from animal rights activists who reportedly try and rescue the camels.

It's seems ironic, and almost blasphemous to the Raika, that the herdsmen have been reduced to killing their sacred camels — an act once considered barbaric in their beliefs — to salvage their culture of camel breeding.

Camel milk — popular in local towns — could become a profitable alternative to traditional camel resources. In many Middle-Eastern and African nations the sale of camel’s low-fat milk and its byproducts have become health food staples and have become widely desired in the west. There have been unfounded claims that the milk heals everything from autism to malaria, but the Raika claim it won't cure their economic ills, citing production and distribution costs along with other logistical barriers.

So, with regulations by the Food, Safety and Standards Authority in Rajasthan making the killing of camels for meat illegal — and the difficulty for herders to process and distribute the milk at a profit — the act of transporting a camel out of state for butchering is sometimes a more gainful risk.

In 2015, the one-humped camel became more than just a symbol of a livelihood, it became the official state emblem of Rajasthan. Sadly, to traditionalists around those same times, that prestigious anointment and image of pride was already becoming a relic and a reminder of an outdated existence to future generations. 

So, besides the few brash, young men persistently trying to barter deals with fairground visitors for rides on giant two-wheeled camel carts, it’s rare to see a herder — whether it's due to the harsh work and elements — who even looks under 50. Even their thoughtful glances look tired and worn. 

The dark, serious faces of the Raika are not being replaced by the new generation of rural adolescents who are internet-educated enough to presume that the camel business is not a worthwhile or lifelong occupation anymore. And in a country with the world's fastest growing economy, their options are growing.

So instead of making money only selling their breeds at the fair, the Raika have resorted to hustling desert camel rides to earn some income on the side. They also lease out the camels as props at weddings, parades and the numerous ceremonies that India is known for. 

And even if they do sell one of their herd, the price of a camel has dropped off significantly over the past few years. The farmers and businesses who once depended on camels for transportation or plowing the fields have replaced the animals with trucks and tractors. Where there were once nearly a million camels throughout India only 20 years ago, the number has dwindled down to the high estimate of 300,000 today. The price of a camel five years ago was normally 10,000 rupees (about $150 US) or a little more if trained. Now the selling price  hovers around 2,000 rupees — a 500-percent drop. In a country where the average monthly wage is $140 US, you are talking a big investment here.

The carnival atmosphere of the fair cannot hide the despair and desperation of the Raika, but under the scenic panoramic views from either the gondolas heading up to Savitri Mata Temple or the seats of the giant ferris-wheel near the town, it’s hard not to observe the herds of horses also among the mix.

The Marwari, a breed of horse known for its unique inward-turning ears and endurance fill stables all around the fairgrounds. Known in Indian lore as a war horse, the Marwari is locally famous for its service with the Marwar lancers during WWI. Due to careless breeding practices over the years, the Marwari horse almost vanished until making a comeback in the 1990s. Today the breed is valued all over the world.  

The horse market — which runs the same time as the camel fair — seems to be more prosperous than the camel trade. And although the camels’ equine friends seem better tended to, their numbers at the fair are also down. A point not lost on government officials from the state husbandry department who showed up to meet with the camel breeders while I was there.

Both sides agreed to push for an amendment to the 2015 Rajasthan Camel Act which banned the export of camels from Rajasthan to other states for slaughter and trading. Besides suggesting amendments to the 2015 act, which the Raika have blamed for hastening the eradication their livelihood, there was discussion about resuming animal insurance which had been stopped earlier this year. There was also analysis reports regarding the development and marketing of additional camel milk projects.

I met an American woman on the fairgrounds who was trying to organize a rally of tourists to attend the meeting as a show of support for the breeders. The intent was to show officials that the Pushkar Camel Fair was a popular destination for overseas tourists and brought income to the town and Raika as well.

The woman told me that she had been coming to fair on and off for 10 years and couldn’t believe the de-evolution of the event she believes were mostly caused by government actions and lack of support. A busy road through the middle of the fairgrounds and a couple of heliports have reduced the once soft sand dunes — a camel's compatible topography — to cement-like terrain.

“I remember when all of this was surrounded by dunes for the camels to laze about on,” she said while casting her arms around the wide expanse of flat, hard dirt that hurts a camel's sensitive padded feet. “And there were five times as many of them.”

The nomadic Raika herders and breeders will still make they way through the Thar Desert to Pushkar next year, but it remains to be seen whether or not their culture can withstand the imperfect storm of a changing job market, political correctness and the regulatory obstacles they face much longer. 

It's become an ethical debate between sides either protecting a species of worker animal from what many consider animal rights violations or preserving a centuries old human tradition. 

Simply put, is it an animal culture or just an animal industry?

Sadly, I saw little hope in most of the Raika's straightaway gazes. Their antiquated way of life is slowly disappearing and a once-vibrant culture may vanish right before our eyes too. 


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