SINKING DESERT SHIP
India Today|May 10, 2021
The Camel Act was meant to save Rajasthan’s state animal. Instead, it has led to dwindling numbers and despairing herders. Can the Gehlot government save the camel?
Rohit Parihar

DESPERATE EFFORTS ARE ON in Rajasthan to arrest the sharp decline in the population of its state animal, the camel. Last month, a cabinet sub-committee made recommendations to end what Arushi Malik, special secretary, animal husbandry, called a “sort of inspector and permit raj” brought on by the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 2015, which had linked the trade, transport, and deaths of camels to their slaughter and criminal prosecution. In a knee-jerk reaction, the then BJP government had given “holy cow status” to the camel, blaming its slaughter for meat as the sole reason for the decline in population over the years. The Ashok Gehlot government is relaxing the provisions of the Camel Act and has roped in the National Research Centre on Camels (NRCC), Bikaner, in a bid to reverse the decline. The sub-committee has suggested half a dozen amendments, including punishment/ restrictions only for slaughter and allowing transport for sale.

The Camel Act has led to a dramatic fall in the camel trade at the various cattle fairs. The NRCC itself is witness to this. In 2014, all its 40 camels on auction attracted buyers and the average price was around Rs 30,000. By 2018, 30 of the 50 desert ungulates on offer had no buyers and in 2019, 22 of the 30 remained unsold. The average price has dropped to Rs 3,500; the lowest quote was Rs 2,000. At the Pushkar camel fair, the number of camels sold had fallen from 2000 in 2016 to 800 by 2018. Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of the Sadri-based Lokhit Pashupalak Sansthan, which has been working on camel conservation for many years, says even a decade ago, a good camel could fetch over Rs 70,000; yearlings sometimes went for Rs 15,000.

DROPPING NUMBERS

The National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) lists nine dromedary breeds of camel in India, of which five (Bikaneri, Jaisalmer, Jalori, Marwari and Mewari) originated in Rajasthan. The Mewati can be seen in both Rajasthan and Haryana, the Kutchi and Kharai are Gujarati and the Malvi belongs to Madhya Pradesh. India also has a small population of the double-humped Bactrian camel, found mostly in the Nubra valley in Ladakh.

The decline in Rajasthan’s camel population was first recorded in the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2003, Rajasthan lost a quarter of its camel population, down to 500,000 from a high of 756,000 a decade earlier. By 2012, the numbers were down to 326,000, which fell to 213,000 by 2019. States like Haryana and UP (and to a lesser degree Gujarat) have also shown a big fall in camel numbers after 2012. Now, with just 250,000 camels across India (86 per cent of which are in Rajasthan), a country that once had the third-highest population is not even in the top 10 among the 46 countries where camels are found.

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