Milk from the desert: How grazing camels boost environmental and human health in water-stressed regions

  • 05.06.2024
  • article
  • Dairy
  • Diet and Health
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • Small Farms
  • Sustainable Livestock
  • Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

Grazing livestock are a key focus of the SFT’s work and the subject of our next report, due out later this year. In the UK, cattle and sheep dominate, with traditional regionally adapted breeds having been crucial to our health and food security for millennia. Yet, many communities in the world’s drier regions depend upon a different animal: the camel. Here, Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, scientist and author of Hoofprints on the Land, explores the vital role of camels in providing health-giving foods and explains how, just like sustainably managed sheep or cattle, they are crucial to environmental and cultural resilience.

Camels have been domesticated for some 4000 years, but they are not a conventional farm animal. In fact, until very recently they were not kept on farms at all. Fitted out with long legs and a digestive system that thrives on fibrous, spiky, thorny and salty plants, they are designed for those parts of the world too dry for crop farming, places like the Gobi and Sahara deserts. Having evolved to walk and roam over vast expanses, searching out sparse vegetation to aggregate the solar energy captured by drought resistant plants, their breeding was always in the hands of people who gave them the freedom to roam, adopting a nomadic lifestyle themselves. For these people that included ethnic groups such as the Raika in India, the Arabian Bedouin, the Somali in the Horn of Africa, the Tuareg in the Sahara and many others, camels represented the staff of life providing everything they needed to survive in harsh environments: food, clothing, transportation, companionship and more. In return, these cultures developed intimate emotional bonds with their camels, treating them with respect and affection, venerating them as a ‘gift of God’, immortalizing them in their poetry, using them as inspiration in their art and honouring them as their source of identity.

Camel pastoralist groups 


This attitude of ascribing personhood to camels is the antithesis of the industrial animal farming that has spread around the world in the 20th century and in which animals are little more than machines converting feed into food. But this ethical way of treating camels as co-creatures and as members of the household, is going out of fashion. At the beginning of the 21st century, nomadic pastoralist cultures throughout the world are under siege, regarded as backward, and losing their ancestral pasture grounds to ‘development’, from mining and irrigated agriculture to green energy projects.

One of the camel cultures that is under pressure from all sides, is that of the Raika herders in Rajasthan, a desert state in the west of India in which camels are a cultural icon. When I first encountered this community during a research project in the early 1990s, I was immediately captivated by their close relationship with camels and intrigued by the strong moral obligation they felt to ensure the well-being of camels – a responsibility assigned to them by the God Shiva, they told me at the time. Enthralled, I spent the next decades supporting them in their struggle for grazing rights and validating their extensive traditional knowledge in managing camels, in tune with their ecosystem in a way that was beneficial for animals, people and the planet. (This is described in my book Camel Karma: Twenty Years among India’s Camel Nomads.)

Yet, due to the disappearance of customary grazing areas and societal disregard, this endearing culture eroded away and camel numbers plummeted. The scenario worsened in 2014, when the government of Rajasthan realised it was losing an asset that had annually drawn a huge number of tourists to the famous Pushkar Fair. Pushed by animal rights activists, the government declared the camel an emblem of the state and prohibited its slaughter and export. Predictably, this approach made the situation even more critical. It turned camels into museum pieces that the Raika could no longer afford to care for, wiping out their livelihoods and shrinking camel numbers further. It also increased camel suffering immensely, as it gave rise to the phenomenon of ‘rescue camels’ that are saved from illegal slaughter by animal lovers and then placed into ‘sanctuaries’ that act as incubators for diseases, and where they eventually perish.

The herder, Gamnaram, can be seen here displaying the typical close relationship between the Raika and their animals. Image courtesy of Augusta de Lisi.


Seeking a way out of the conundrum, my Indian partner, Hanwant Singh Rathore, and I set up a social enterprise called Camel Charisma that aims at linking herders to markets and thereby supporting the conservation of camels – and not just camels, but the whole culture and knowledge system in which they are embedded. We focus on camel milk, a product that is much hyped globally for its therapeutic value and can have an amazing impact on people with certain health problems. Our marketing approach is to emphasize that our camel milk is ‘cruelty-free’ and we have defined what that means:

  • The camels are not stall-fed but managed in the traditional nomadic system which provides them with the option of selecting their own diets from a seasonally differing buffet of trees and shrubs.
  • They are kept in their natural social system, i.e. a herd composed of female camels and offspring, with an adult male present during the breeding season.
  • The calves are not separated from their mothers, and they get an adequate amount of milk (usually two teats are milked, and two teats are reserved for the calf).
  • Milking is done by hand. This is gentler on the irregular teats of camels than milking machines with their standardised cups.
  • Use of medicines is restricted as much as possible to ethno-veterinary practices, but allopathic medicines are allowed if required, for instance to prevent trypanosomiasis and control mange, the main health problems.

The camels are milked only once a day and very early in the morning, usually before dawn when the calves have not yet woken up. The milk is then transported as fast as possible to our micro-dairy by motorcycle. There, it is pasteurized and filled into 200 ml bottles before being frozen. It is shipped out all over India directly to the end consumer. Some milk is processed into various types of cheeses that are becoming popular with premium heritage hotels. And thanks to donations, some milk is distributed for free to school children and poor people with health problems, such as TB.

Our milk is not only cruelty-free, but its production also has a benign impact on the environment and is integrated with local crop cultivation. During the course of a year, the camels forage on different types of land that include harvested fields, forest, sacred groves and what is classified as revenue land. According to local knowledge they feed on 36 different plants which are mostly various Acacia species, shrubs and vines that proliferate in the rainy season. One of the plants that they love is Echinops echinatus, the Indian Globe Thistle, which is a weed that grows on fallow fields and which they convert into delicious, sweet milk. While weeding the fields, the camels also fertilise them with their manure. The Raika state that camel foraging has a positive pruning effect on the acacias and other trees, inducing them to branch out stronger. Furthermore, it supports, and is even essential to, the germination of the hard-shelled seeds.

The botanicals that compose camel diets are all used in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicine system described as having various medicinal effects, for instance lowering blood pressure, being anti-asthmatic or good for the digestive tract. This is also reflected in the quality of the milk, and we have collected some amazing case studies of people with major health problems, such as tuberculosis, improving after drinking camel milk regularly.

In essence, the Raika camels turn ‘garbage’ such as weeds and readily available biomass that would otherwise go to waste, into highly nutritious, even therapeutic food – and they do all this without any use of fossil fuels or dangerous chemicals. It is an almost magical system based on the ‘alchemy’ between people and animals that have forged a relationship of trust and mutual support.

Image courtesy of LPPS Archives


International Year of Camelids: Supporting camel pastoralist cultures

In 2024, the world celebrates the International Year of Camelids (IYC), designated as such by the UN General Assembly, to highlight the significance of camelids to the wider world. The term ‘camelid’ includes not only the one-humped dromedary and the two-humped Bactrian, but also their humpless South American relatives, the wild guanaco and vicugna, as well as the domestic llama and alpaca. While camelids may appear marginal and exotic to people in the Global North, they are central to many cultures in the South who have herded them for millennia and bestowed upon them the utmost respect and affection – a closeness that was borne out by an absolute interdependence – camelids and humans either survived together, or not at all. This is reflected in the official slogan used by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the agency that has been tasked with leading activities for the IYC ‘Heroes of Deserts and Highlights: Nourishing People and Culture’.

In its justification for holding an International Year of Camelids, the FAO states that “Camelids are the main means of subsistence for millions of families who live in the most hostile ecosystems on the planet in over 90 countries. These animals are essential for food security and nutrition as they are the main source of meat protein and milk for smallholder farmers and indigenous communities in different regions throughout the world. They also provide fibres, organic fertiliser and transport and are indispensable for nomadic livelihoods.”

The FAO also emphasizes that camelids can contribute to various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as the fight against hunger (SDG 2) and tackling extreme poverty (SDG 1), stating that  “…the optimization of the many qualities of camelids (meat, milk, fibre, means of transport) would also contribute to guaranteeing food security and nutrition, providing sustainable livelihoods and promoting the inclusion of communities that benefit from these animals. The participation of women working with camelid fibres and involved in pastoral work is relatively high, which significantly encourages the empowerment of women (SDG 5)”.

It is indeed true that camelids are associated with marginalised communities, and that the right kind of support and interventions, such as the equitable value chain that we are setting up in Rajasthan, could do much for alleviating poverty and food security. Unfortunately, the lead actors in the global camel sector are currently the oil-enriched Arab countries, where camels have turned into prestige-laden playthings that compete in races and beauty contests. Huge camel dairy farms have sprung up in the Arabian deserts where thousands of camels are milked with machines and fed with alfalfa imported from overseas instead of drought resistant desert plants. Camels identified as having genetic merit are multiplied by means of cloning and embryo-transfer, totally undermining the genetic diversity of the animal that was created by camel pastoralists over centuries.

But this kind of production doesn’t increase food security or support the alleviation of poverty. The world does not need industrial camel production, in fact we must strive to prevent camels following in the tracks of pigs, cattle and poultry. Livestock develops its positive impact on the environment when it is managed in grazing/browsing systems where it is kept moving. Under these conditions, it acts similarly to wild herbivores, spreading seeds, supporting their germination, trampling organic materials into the soil and upholding the carbon cycle, nourishing soil microbes and providing breeding grounds for insects that feed birds. And this kind of livestock management is not only good for the planet, but also for people, as the nutritional value of meat and milk differs tremendously between animals fed concentrate and those with biodiverse diets.

If we want to achieve the stated aims of the International Year of Camelids to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals and contribute to poverty alleviation and food security, the starting point for all interventions must be to support camel pastoralist cultures by protecting their grazing areas, by investing into decentralized infrastructure for processing, and by linking them to markets. We must respect and value their traditional knowledge in keeping camels as part of the ecosystem – and learn from them how to manage livestock so that it unfolds its beneficial impact on the environment.

You can read more about ethically produced camel milk here. To be the first to hear about our upcoming report on grazing livestock make sure you sign up to our newsletter.

Featured image courtesy of LPPS Archives.

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