The Kharai of Kachchh district in Gujarat, India, is possibly the only camel breed that can survive in both land and marine ecosystems. It feeds on mostly plants grown in saline land, swimming up to three kilometers out to small islands within the mangroves during monsoon season. But its habitat is at risk.
A decline in grazing resources has led to a decline in camel population. Only 2,173 camels in Kachchh district are the Kharai breed, and they are managed by only 72 camel breeders.
The camel pastoralists of Kachchh, which also raise an inland breed called the Kachchh, are calling for recognition of their national and international rights that have been ignored. According to new community protocol written with help from the Christensen Fund, “Our nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles lead to our frequent marginalization or outright exclusion from the policy process. However, we are committed to the conservation of our land, its associated biodiversity, and our livelihood.”
In a formal written document, “Biocultural Community Protocol of the Camel Pastoralists of Kachchh,” the Kachchh Camel Breeders Association addresses unenforced legal rights, which should have protected the Kachchh, including community forest rights, forest protection from industrialization, biological diversity protection, and breeders’ rights.
Despite these protections, however, common lands have been appropriated anyway. In the village of Tunda Vandh in Mundra, two thermal power plants have constructed large canals to obtain purified seawater, which have cut off camels from traditional grazing routes. In Aliyabet, the construction of the Narmada Dam essentially killed the mangroves once dense from the rich soil deposited along the river delta.
Meanwhile the forest department has created protected areas restricting where the people of Kachchh can graze their camels. And limits by coastal security, which monitors the border with Pakistan, can also make it difficult to find a food source for camels. Further encroachment by large-scale mining, deforestation for charcoal making, and conversion of land to cultivation have also caused a lack of grazing resources.
Pastoralists facing limited income have sought supplemental wage labor, taken on other grazing animals, or even left the pastoralist lifestyle.
The Kachchh Camel Breeders Association, which formed in 2011, today works closely with India’s Department of Animal Husbandry and the non-profit Sahjeevan, which helps develop a market for camel wool and milk, holds clinics on camel health, and works with the government to register and characterize the Kharai breed.
While camel breeding was formerly the main livelihood of Kachchh, the pastoralists have adapted their practices to make ends meet. Traditionally, they preferred to sell male camels since female camels were associated with the female goddess, Momai Mataji. However, today they are forced to sell some of their female camels, as well. Additionally, it was not considered proper to sell camel milk, though the Kachchh camel breeders would drink it themselves. Today it is still taboo for dairies to sell camel milk. However, the pastoralists sell primarily to tea stalls and hotels.
In the face of these changes, the pastoralists maintain the genetic diversity of their breeds, using practices passed through generations. The camel breeders look for specific physical characteristics in a good breeding male, continue practices that prevent inbreeding, and care for the health of the camels using traditional remedies.
Additionally, the Kachchh pastoralists say that protecting the Kharai camels will help maintain the height of the mangroves and encourage the sprouting of new leaves.
The pastoralists desire to be a part of the solution to the degraded ecosystem and are presenting the new document to policymakers, legal experts, researchers, and society at large, desiring recognition and protection of their cultural livelihood of camel breeding.