- The number of India’s Bactrian camels in its remote Nubra Valley is steadily increasing, mainly due to tourism.
- Yet, camels and their owners are facing problems because of a short tourism season and lack of support from government institutions.
- Complete registration of the Bactrian camel, protection of community grazing areas, promotion of camel-based tourism and small cottage industry for camel products are some of the ways to ensure conservation of this genetic resource, writes the author in this commentary.
They have peaky humps, soulful eyes under long lashes, and stoically wait for things to come: rows of couched and saddled Bactrian camels lined up at the edge of a sand dune patch outside Hunder village in India’s Nubra Valley to provide rides for tourists. Against the backdrop of the forbiddingly steep and barren flanks of the Ladakh range, they form an impressive sight, conjuring up reminiscences of the Silk Road trade that once connected northern India with China.
The camels are a mixture of females, males, and youngsters, mostly in good condition. In the mid-morning it is a peaceful scene, the camels seem quite content, and only a few of them are ‘at work’, carrying tourists to a flagged post on the sand dunes in a standard 15-minute ride that costs Rs. 300.
Going on a camel ride ranks on the top of the bucket list of Indian tourists that escape the pre-monsoon heat of Indian cities for the cooler climes of Ladakh, India’s Union Territory nestled high up in the Himalayas. This run for a camel ride experience has led to a remarkable turn-around for the fate of a species that was not long ago regarded as ‘virtually extinct’ within India. Since the 1960s, the number of Bactrian camels has grown from a mere handful to around 300 now; it can be expected to increase further, as the number of people who want to take a ride is outpacing the availability of camels. As a result, the prices for Bactrian camels are high, hovering around Rs. 1 to 1.5 lakh (Rs. 100,000 to 150,000), according to the bunch of camel handlers and owners with whom we sit in a little thornbush shed where they make tea and cook gruel for the camels (“10 kg of flour for 4 camels”).
For owners of camels, the returns on investment are high: during the peak period, a camel can earn about Rs. 2000-3000 per day. Unfortunately, the tourist season only lasts four months, and during the remaining eight months the maintenance of the camels poses as a major challenge. They are let go to fend for themselves, feeding on sea buckthorn and other vegetation. This riles landowners and the forest department; camels are not only shooed away but sometimes attacked and injured. The camels breed and give birth during the winter, and stray dogs may kill the newborn calves.
We take a slow, comfortable ride across the sand dunes. Despite it being such a touristy experience, it is almost meditative. Being safely tucked in between the two solid humps makes for a much easier ride than being perched on the top of the hump of a one-humped camel.
In order to find out more about the history of the Bactrian camel in Ladakh, the camel handlers recommended that we talk to Haji Abdul Razzaq as the most knowledgeable source of information and local pioneer of camel keeping. We track him down in Hunder that has morphed from a small oasis into a sprawling web of guesthouses, tent camps and eco-resorts. Haiji Abdul Razzaq is a gracious 89-year-old gentleman, a devout Muslim wearing Buddhist garb who has received several awards for his role in camel conservation from the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources and the National Research Center on Camels. He has also written a little book about the Nubra Valley. Over tea and biscuits, he elaborates on how camels were earlier used for trade on the Silk Road between India and China crossing the Karakorum range and the Changtang Plateau of Tibet. Even after Independence, transportation by camel caravans continued in a small way, but after the Sino-Indian War in 1962 this came to a total standstill. At that time Hajji Abdul Razzaq purchased five camels that had been left in Leh and subsequently put them to good use by deploying them to carry goods for the army that had set up an airport in the area. Their numbers grew slowly and, by 1978, there were 32 Bactrian camels in Ladakh. The fact that they now have grown to over 300 is exclusively due to local entrepreneurial spirit and driven by the urge of Indian tourists to experience a camel ride.
Bactrian camels can provide other products too. Their silky long-fibred wool is prized at Rs. 2000 per kg and sent to Kashmir for processing. They are also used as a source of milk and meat in Mongolia, China and other countries, but not in Ladakh. Their situation shows both differences and parallels to that of their one-humped dromedary cousins in Rajasthan. Some of the latter are also used for tourist rides and safaris in Jaisalmer, but the species has experienced a more than 80 percent decline in population from over a million in the 1980s to only around 200,000 now, due to the loss of its transport function. A special law that was meant to protect it, but limits camel utilisation has only exacerbated the situation, and even its declaration as ‘state animal of Rajasthan’ has not helped at all. Dairy production is currently regarded as the main avenue for its conservation, as use for meat is banned, as is its export. In addition, the camels in Rajasthan also suffer from the rapid disappearance of the grazing areas that they depend on for their diets.
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But back to the Bactrian camels. Their global population is less than a million, but slowly increasing after bottoming out in the early 2000s. The camel’s unique adaptations to cold deserts, the ability to withstand temperatures ranging from minus 40 ºC to 40 ºC that exist at high altitudes up to 18,600 feet and making do with scarce feed and water, make it of immense interest to researchers.
The conservation of such farm animal genetic resources that can deal with challenging environments is a global concern and an important national priority. Over the last five decades, the number of livestock breeds has diminished significantly, as a handful of high performance breeds is replacing the diversity of locally adapted animals. This loss of genes makes humanity more vulnerable to climate change and any yet unforeseen future developments. In an effort to stop the trend, a Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources was agreed upon at the UN level in 2007. Unfortunately, it placed more emphasis on the documentation, evaluation, and characterisation of breeds as well as on capacity building of officials rather than supporting the roles of communities and entrepreneurs in conservation. India prides itself on being a mega-biodiverse country but the rural communities who have created and sustain its agricultural biodiversity rarely receive acknowledgment and backing.
Official government support is restricted to the conservation on government farms which really leads nowhere. The government has set up a Bactrian Camel Farm in Chuchot near Leh that currently holds 16 camels that are not put to any use and languish in a shed. Occasionally, some of these camels are donated or given away at a preferential price to interested parties.
Instead of devoting resources to maintain such farms, there is an urgent need to support the existing entrepreneurial spirit and broaden the uses that can be made from camels. There is good potential for cottage industries based on the various raw materials that can be obtained from camels. “The Bactrian camels of Ladakh have the real capability of changing the economics of the Nubra Valley making the stakeholders prosperous and rich. Complete registration of the Bactrian camel, protection of community grazing areas, promotion of camel-based tourism and small cottage industry for camel products will ensure conservation of this treasurable genetic resource,” say the experts from the National Research Centre on Camel, and this holds true also for the dromedary camel.
Both, one-humped and two-humped camels are an integral part of India’s biodiversity. They need just as much protection as India’s tigers do.
Faye, B. 2020. How many large camelids in the world? A synthetic analysis of the world camel demographic changes. Pastoralism 10, 25 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13570-020-00176-z
Vyas & Bissa, 2019. Current status and strategies for conservation of double hump camel (Camelus dromedarius) in Ladakh, India. J. Livestock Sci. 10: 132-37.
The author studied veterinary medicine in Germany and has been engaged in camel research, mostly in India, for more than 30 years.
Banner image: Bactrian camels lined up at the edge of the sand dune near Hunder. Photo by Ilse Köhler-Rollefson.