The camel has been unkindly described as a horse designed by a committee. But for Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, the camel is an essential part of Rajasthan’s biodiversity and key to preserving the identity of the Raika community. This internationally respected scientist now spends half her life in Rajasthan, the northwest Indian state only slightly smaller than her native Germany, whose once vast camel herds are in danger of becoming an historical footnote.
The area’s maharajas once rode their high-stepping dromedaries in battles for primacy over Rajasthan’s sprawling deserts. Today, like the state itself, Rajasthan’s camels face a troubled future. Köhler-Rollefson has been selected as an Associate Laureate for her original work combining western medicine and modern management with traditional remedies and age-old pastoral techniques to save local herds and bring brighter economic prospects to one of India’s most marginalised communities.
For centuries, the Raika nomads have hitched their collective fortunes to the loping tread of Camelus dromedarius, the one-humped camel that thrives in the desert. Now used mainly as fuel-efficient carriers in the vast, barely mechanised hinterlands of India, camels are also the glue that holds the semi-nomadic Raika together, allowing them to maintain a precarious identity and tenuous independence in a quickly modernising society. But loss of habitat, diseases and sales of camels in times of need have decimated the herds, undermining the livelihood of the entire 500,000-member community.
In 1996, after a four-year study, Köhler-Rollefson started prescribing practical remedies, helping to establish a non-governmental organization, Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, to coordinate a regional effort to save the camels and lobby India’s federal government.
Her most publicised achievement has been to forge a unique and synergistic combination of modern medicines and local ethno-veterinary practices using herbal and other time-tested Raika treatments for camels. To ensure the programme has long-term benefits, she also helped found a training centre where knowledge about the traditional practices is kept alive and where "unlicensed" Raika veterinarians and their officially registered counterparts from India and abroad can learn from one another.
Köhler-Rollefson is quick to admit that the medical aspect of her work will solve only the most immediate problems. The next hurdle is to restore grazing rights. Her ultimate aim is to return sustainable economic viability and cultural cohesion to the Raika.
Cash cropping of former grazing tracts, along with the creation of nature reserves out of what was once open pasture, has restricted the range of the wandering Raika. Unless something is done, simple mathematics will destroy the community, so Köhler-Rollefson has become a strong proponent for making the Raika conservators of the land as well as of livestock. "If the Raika can re-acquire their traditional grazing rights and become full collaborators in managing protected areas," she explains, "it would set a precedent for the similar involvement of pastoralists around the world."
She also believes that the pastoralists such as the Raika are the world’s "real experts in livestock management" and that the international scientific community has much to learn from them. "Their knowledge," she says, "is vital, especially for the sustainable use of marginal environments."
Selling camel milk
One Raika nomad recounts that 40 years ago his village had 10,000 camels, but now fewer than 1,000. "Ten years from now," he says, "there will be none." While counts vary, the latest government figures recorded a 50 per cent drop in animals under three years old during a five-year period, more than confirming the worst fears of the Raika themselves.
The cultural decline of the proud Raika has been equally devastating. They are being encompassed by a vicious circle of changing economic priorities undermining the foundation of an older society. Köhler-Rollefson plans to break this downward spiral. One way is by helping the Raika to diversify economically, for example, by selling camel milk.
Winning official certification of camel milk as an approved foodstuff was a relatively easy first step. Köhler-Rollefson has also convinced the Raika themselves to market this very cost-effective by-product, which could more than double household incomes, but logistical problems still need to be overcome.
In a country with a religion that measures time in cyclical kalpas of 4,320 million years, Köhler-Rollefson’s rapid progress is regarded by many as astounding. The training centre and other elements of the infrastructure have been expanded, and, she says, "we’ve reached the point where even government officials seek our advice." Yet she still sees a need "to build a common ‘multi–stakeholder platform‘ for conservation and development".
This, she feels, will eventually happen, especially as "people are at least realising that pastoralists act as guardians of valuable breeds and protectors of the genetic diversity of livestock". Being named a Rolex Associate Laureate will, she expects, hasten that day.
Published in 2002