Camel Karma by Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

I bought Ilse Köhler-Rollefson’s Camel Karma after reading her article in ‘Spelt Magazine’ no 2. I’d come across her before on Twitter @IlseKohler and at the Mountain Ecosystems and Resource Management summer school but it was that evocative writing which encouraged me to buy the book. I wasn’t disappointed, far from it.

Ilse had already been involved with the Raika caste in India and their camel breeders for over twenty years when the book was published in 2014. She is still there. In the book, she writes about camel breeding and transhumance. She writes about the effects of rewilding initiatives. She writes about poverty, caste, and the evolving role of women.

Ilse, a vet by training, first came across camels in 1979 in Jordan.

“When the camels reached the waterhole, something amazing happened: instead of all crowding around the waterhole and pushing each other out of the way, they stepped forward in orderly rows of five. The others waited obediently until the batch before them had finished and the Bedouin herder let them know by voice and gesture that it was the turn for the next five.”

Camels became a leitmotif of her life and the object of her academic research. She first went to see the Raika in 1991. A year later, along with other vets and friends, she set up the League for Pastoral Peoples to help them.

Raika foundation myth

The Raika live in Rajasthan in NW India, near the Pakistan border. In their foundation myth, Parvati shaped a five-legged animal out of clay. She asked the Hindu god Shiva to blow life into it. He refused, saying the animal would have problems. Finally, he gave in, bent the fifth leg over the clay model’s back and breathed life into it. But the camel needed someone to look after it, so Shiva rolled a little bit of skin and dust from his arm and out of this he made the first Raika.

Before Ilse went to see the Raika, camels were – naturally – already a subject of academic research. Scientists had reported, for example, that they adapt their body temperature to minimise perspiration, like reptiles. But virtually no one was looking into the relationship between camels and humans, as Ilse wanted to do. The discipline of ethno-conservation hardly existed.

So, Ilse had a great deal to learn about what the Raika thought of camels and the only way forward was to talk to them. However, she couldn’t speak the language. She had the luck to find a taxi-driver, Hanwant Singh Rathore, and an academic, Dr Dewaram Dewasi, who could both translate for her.

Milking camels in Rajasthan
Milking camels in Rajasthan

One of her first questions was to ask a breeder if camel meat was eaten. Luckily Dr Dewaram told her it was not a good question and didn’t translate it. Even to ask it would have offended the Hindu Raika.

Despite their poverty, Raika breeders only sold young male camels and dung. Selling females, leather, bones, milk or wool was forbidden. The last two were only used for home consumption.

“The relationship between the Raika and their camels,” she was told, “is not simply utilitarian, but is shaped by religious duty.”

Ilse soon discovered that what the Raika wanted from her was medicines and help to recover their traditional grazing rights. As time moved on, she learnt the language and became more integrated. One measure of this was an invitation to a wedding – more an engagement of children who would not actually start living together until they were in their twenties. Child marriages were – and are – illegal so the ceremony was held at night, hidden from the eyes of the police. She was uneasy, the only woman and the only white person present in the courtyard where the boys were being paraded. She felt like an intruder and before the highlight of the event she insisted on leaving. She felt conflicted by events like this.

“I eventually decided that it was society itself that had to decide to change and that any attempt to influence it would be futile, besides jeopardising the rest of our work. The Raika had requested my help for camels and not for social reconstruction.”

A failure, a success? In any case it was a turning point. Next morning, she decided to buy a camel.

Farmer-led management

Photo: camel herders in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary

She became an advocate for farmer-led management of agricultural issues. In contrast, NGOs were encouraging top-down management including, for example, crossbreeding local cows with exotic cattle. It was a policy geared to replacing traditional knowledge with techniques gleaned from the West. Communities were destined to become dependent on outsiders.

That was not Ilse’s perspective, but it didn’t mean she thought the old ways were best. The Raika, as she discovered, were not completely averse to change. In the last thirty years, they have started to sell milk and are even – a big and still contentious step – selling camels to non-Hindu butchers.

The most problematic issue for the camel breeders, however, was not sales income but inputs. In 1971, the Kumbhalgarh Reserve wildlife sanctuary had been created to protect leopards, sloth bears, wolves, hyenas and so on. Access for traditional camel grazing was completely banned in the rainy season, just when it was most needed.

How could she help, Ilse asked herself? In fact, she had already been inciting the Raika to set up the necessary structures. By 2003, there were various organisations working in the field of camel husbandry. Hanwant, the taxi-driver, had become a key figure. The Raika, previously hardly acknowledged even in India, were beginning to be noticed on the international stage. A formal declaration noting the benefits of mobile pastoralists in protected areas was adopted at the World Parks Conference in 2003.

With this support, the Raika were hopeful that they could win back forest access rights in the Kumbhalgarh Reserve but, when the judgement reached the Indian Supreme Court, little changed.

“Since the camel is undoubtedly part of Rajasthan biodiversity,” writes Ilse, “one might expect conservationists to care. But alas, they are concerned only with wildlife and not domestic animals. Although this large animal does not pass through the eye of a needle, it manages to fall through all the gaps.”

The camel population in Rajasthan dropped from 746,000 in 1992 to 422,000 by 2007. At the time of publication of Camel Karma in 2014, the breeders were facing the prospect of the upgrading of the Kumbhalgarh Reserve to a National Park.

More positively, the camel had just become a state symbol. The medicinal properties of the milk for autistic children were being recognised. And experiments with camel hair showed that it could be separated into fibres for wool and weaving.

Camel Karma is the story of the difficult struggle to halt the decline in camel breeding as a cultural tradition. I could feel Ilse’s frustration but also share the joy of her successes. Like the wonderful yatra, an 800km road trip on camelback and foot.

Livestock and climate change

The author’s involvement with camels and transhumance is continuing, both at local and global level. In 2021, she wrote that we should “let animals walk to their feed instead of transporting it to them. This is a core principle, as it replaces fossil fuels with solar energy.” Livestock for a Small Planet.

Livestock husbandry is not necessarily bad for the planet, she insists. Sure, feedlots imply a significant carbon footprint. But nomadic livestock feeding on marginal lands convert sunlight into the nutrition relied on by some of the poorest people in the world. Mobile livestock produces more than half of India’s milk and almost three-quarters of its meat.


Camel Karma is another of those books (like Nikolaj Bichel’s @Nikolaj_Bi trophy hunting thesis) that I started reading with a modicum of interest because they were not central to my current research.

In this case, I didn’t have any particular interest in camels or India. But as I progressed, I was pleased to find parallels with the Pyrenees. In my mountains and in Rajasthan, attitudes to animals – both farm animals and wild ones – are shaped by cultural as well as economic considerations. Transhumance is vital. National government pursues its own objectives. But individuals – people – are a source of hope.

This is a formidable book and I hope there will be an update. I would love to hear more of the human story. It would also be great to know more about Raika attitudes to the ‘wild’.

Web site for Camel Karma.

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