During the hottest period of summer, food and water are scarce, and herder families change places almost every other day.
In most people’s minds, the camel is a desert animal, nothing more. It will travel through the hot and dry desert, carrying crumbling goods on its back, and do not need to drink a drop of water for a few days. This legendary ability makes them called “desert boats.” But in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, a vast area with strong sunlight-Kutch County, the “Desert Ship” can still sail into the sea.
The swimming camel faces a dilemma
They are kharai camels, a unique species in the world, named after the local language “salty”, and they mainly feed on mangrove leaves. Mangroves are salt-tolerant plants that break the boundaries between land and sea like camels. Kalai camels can chew on the mangroves and other saline plants on the edge of the land, and they can often swim three or four kilometers into the Arabian Sea and enter the jungle of the island.
A few years ago, Kalai camels were not “officially certified”, they have been collectively referred to as Kachchhi (Kachchhi). It wasn’t until Sahjeevan, a local non-governmental organization specializing in protecting biodiversity and supporting the livelihoods of herders’ communities, when they launched a camel protection project around 2011, they learned about Kalai camels from herders. The organization and its allies lobbied to identify Carlisle as a new breed, and they were finally approved in 2015. At that time, the number of camels in Kachi County totaled about 8,000, less than half of what it was 10 years ago, and only a quarter of them were Kale camels. Camels have been treated as private assets in India for hundreds of years. Herders have traditionally sold male camels as draught animals and transportation vehicles. The military particularly relied on them to patrol the vast deserts along the border between India and Pakistan. But the modernization process has allowed them to be replaced by cars, and many herders have given up their animals and turned to manual labor. For the only remaining Kalai camels and herders, the biggest limitation is that mangroves are becoming more and more difficult to obtain. Salty leaves account for 70%-80% of the food structure of Kalai camels, and they only turn to grasses when they go inland to give birth in winter. Unfortunately for them, the industry also prefers the coast as much as they do. After a major earthquake occurred in the area in 2001, the government is eager to promote economic revival through industrial development. Cement plants, thermal power plants, and port companies , Oil refineries, mines, and large-scale commercial salt operations followed one after another along the coast. The national forestry department is well aware of the huge ecological value of mangroves, and it also prohibits camels from entering unopened areas and newly planted areas for fear of their destruction. Moreover, the heavily guarded border has forced herders and camels to stay away from the most productive mangrove forests in Kachi County near the border between India and Pakistan.
The intricate challenges have forced the supporters of Kale Camel to work hard to explore the direction and find a place for an “old animal” in the new world. This effort is more than novelty or nostalgia. Camels and these little-known coastal residents have always played an important role in human history, and they may become more prominent in the future.
From January 2018 to March 2020, the National Animal Genetic Resources Agency of India implemented a multi-action protection initiative, which is responsible for increasing the number of all livestock breeds below 10,000, including selective breeding of Kalai camels, Interventions to provide veterinary care to reduce mortality and cryopreserve body tissues have helped the population of Kalei camels to develop. Today, there are approximately 1,900 Kalai camels in Kachi County, belonging to more than 30 families.
The relationship between herders and camels
There are two groups of Kalai camels grazing in Kachi County: Fakirani Jats, including Nani and Shermamad, follow their roots in Islam The mystical Sufism tradition; there are also Rabari who believe in Hinduism. Despite their different religious beliefs, these two communities are closely connected. They readily accept each other into their sacred spaces and rituals, respect each other’s beliefs, and sometimes name their children after each other. Legend has it that the friendship between the Fakilanijat and the Labari can be traced back to a saint named Savlapir. Two Labari’s brothers compete for a camel left by their father, and seek instructions from Safrapir, whom Muslims and Hindus admire. The saint asked one brother to take the contended camel and the other left. If he does not look back, the camel will breed behind him. When the man finally turned around out of curiosity, he found a large group of camels following him. He hurried back to the saint, worrying about how to take care of so many animals. The saint replied, don’t worry, his followers, Fakilanijat, will help take care of it. Since then, while taking care of their own camels, the Fakilanijats will also assist the Labari in taking care of their camels.
Traditionally, the Fakilanijat herder families are completely nomads. They will pack all the property in the home, move as a family unit, and often travel across public land to find resources for their animals. However, Labari families usually only send one herder out, and the others stay at home. After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the borders restricted the activities of herders, and due to the fragmentation of mangroves, many herder families have settled in the past 30 or 40 years. The Nani and Shemanmad families have rooted in the village for generations. They are the only family that raises camels in the village. There are many good mangroves nearby and the Pakistan border, so you don’t need to travel far.
From the perspective of bystanders, losing a domestic animal may not be as important as the extinction of wild animals, but there is a deep connection between herders and their animals. In a version of the origin story, camels were created by the Indian goddess Parvati, who used clay to shape them into 5-legged creatures and asked her husband Shiva to give them life. Lord Shiva agreed, but first pushed the fifth leg into the camel’s body, forming a hump. The camel began to wander aimlessly, so Lord Shiva peeled off the sweat and dirt from his body again, creating two people.
Another origin story pieced together by geneticists, archaeologists and zoologists is equally extraordinary. The first member of the Camelidae family appeared on the other side of the world-Poebrodon is recognized as the earliest true camelid animal. It appeared in North America about 45 million years ago. It may be larger than a rabbit and smaller than a goat. It eventually diversified and produced dozens of genera. Some of the early camelids had the physique of a gazelle, some had long snouts of crocodile, or extremely long necks like giraffes, or were unusually tall. Sometime about 17 million years ago, camelids split. The ancestors of alpacas, llamas, and vicunas eventually flowed into South America. At that time, the ancestors of camels had migrated northward, crossing the Bering Land Bridge and entering Asia, Europe, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. After a few million years, an animal called Paracamelus finally produced humped and bactrian camels. Today, there are three species of camels: the vigorous, fluffy bactrian camel; the critically endangered wild bactrian camel; and the dromedary camel, which is also the species of the Kalai camel. Various sources of information on when the dromedary came to India are not uniform. Perhaps it was more than 2,000 years ago as a traveller on the Silk Road, or perhaps 600 years ago, in the 15th century Dromedary. The number of domesticated camels has surged and expanded.
Although sailing camels look extraordinary, the saltwater lifestyle of Kalai camels may be deeply rooted in the memory of their ancestors, descendants of early dromedaries that lived on the Arabian coast. Although the paleontological record is not complete, bone findings indicate that these beasts like coastlines, where they can find a lot of food and salt, which may be vital to their digestive health. Pamela Berg, a veterinarian and conservation geneticist at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, believes that they may have foraged by the sea, but for safety reasons, they learned to retreat to the desert. In the end, pressure from human hunters or other carnivores may force them to abandon the coast and become complete desert residents.
No one knows whether these early dromedaries swam across the sea. French camel expert Bernard Faye said that any camel can swim. It is a mistake to think that the Kalai camel is the only camel that can swim in the world. In the UAE, camels train and race in swimming pools; in the Canary Islands in northwest Africa, camels swim regularly between islands. “They swim very well. If camels are not used to doing this, it may be difficult for them for the first time. Just like you and me, if you don’t get into the water, you will never swim.”
About 3000-4000 years ago, humans began to catch and domesticate dromedaries in the Arabian Peninsula. This process took hundreds of years. Two archaeologists once pointed out that a key role of dromedaries in the southeastern Arabian Peninsula is to transport fish from the coast to the inland. At that time, human beings were already good at manipulating nature and domesticated dogs, goats and bactrian camels. People raise and use camels as draught animals and obtain their milk, meat and wool. During the 1000-2000 years after domestication, two species of dromedaries existed: wild dromedaries and smaller domesticated dromedaries. Eventually, wild dromedaries disappeared, and the last batch may have been included in the livestock herd. Dromedaries have since become human private property.
The future era of camels
The weather in Kutch County once had a five-year cycle: three years of drought, one year of normal, and one year of heavy rainfall. Although not perfect, there is a general trend, but now this cycle has become unstable. Kumar, director of the Institute of Desert Ecology in Gujarat State, said: “In the early days, local villagers used to observe animal behaviors, bird behaviors, and sea water trends (such as the color of the sea) to predict rainfall, and they could judge whether it was a year of abundant rainfall or drought. .” And the agricultural activities can be adjusted accordingly to diversify the sources of income and the herdsmen can also migrate appropriately. Now, the changing situation has broken the prediction. In uncertain times, Kalai camels have an advantage. They are relatively drought-resistant because their feed is less dependent on rain than other livestock, they are easier to find water and food than buffalo or kachi camels, and they can be served by fewer herders. management.
Although there are regulations prohibiting further destruction of mangroves, even satellite images show that the total coverage of mangroves has actually increased in recent years. However, foraging areas are still more scattered, sparse and difficult to access than ever. The challenges that herders are facing have made India one of the abnormal and rare countries in the world where the number of camels is declining. Globally, the number of camels is about 35 million, an average annual increase of about 3.5%, because other countries have also realized the importance of camels in a rapidly changing environment.
Camels have many advantages. They are not only able to adapt to the scorching desert heat, but also to the cold. They can easily survive in places that are not suitable for other livestock. In 2006, an ancient camel’s tibia fragment was found in the Canadian Arctic, which extended the historically recorded camel’s range of movement to the north by 1,200 kilometers. The researchers of this discovery pointed out that the camel’s broad and flat feet may follow on snow. It works equally well on sand. And their humps do not store water, but deposit fat, which helps to maintain heat in severe cold environments. Camels are as comfortable at 5°C and 40°C. In the hot desert environment, they regulate their body temperature to limit sweating to preserve water, produce ultra-concentrated urine, and reabsorb water through the mucus in the nostrils. They can also tolerate large amounts of water loss up to 25% of their body weight, which is fatal to non-desert mammals. A study showed that camels have another desert superpower: they are born to tolerate dust. In areas where dryness is increasing, camels can replace cattle, sheep and other livestock. For example, in the past two to three decades, camels have become the new wealth of Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. They can produce milk, meat and wool, and can also be used for Travel and competition. Bernard Fay, an international camel scientist in France, wrote in a 2015 paper: “No other livestock can provide so many different services to humans.”
Faye said that camels have the potential to “fight desertification.” Other livestock, such as cattle and sheep, graze. Sheep are limited by height, and long-necked camels can chew on the ground, the thorns of shrubs and the high branches. The leaves on the trees reduce the possibility of overgrazing. Camels can digest very hard plant matter, such as mangrove leaves and twigs, and eat less than cows and exert less pressure on the ecosystem. For example, a Holstein cow may need 50 kg of food per day, while a camel only needs 20-25 kg. In addition, the camel has no hooves, and its soft feet are gentle on the ground, unlike hard hooves that can damage the grass. In addition, the camel’s ability to not drink water for several days means that it can walk longer distances, minimizing damage in any area. In contrast, cattle and sheep will have a greater impact on concentrated areas close to water sources.
With the progress of climate change and land degradation, perhaps the glorious era of camels has not yet arrived. This is why Fay remains optimistic when thinking about the future of camels: “Is the camel an animal of the past or an animal of the future? This is a question. I say it is an animal of the future.” Maybe the camel will become more and more important in the future, but In India, the fact is that it is still widely regarded as the “animal of the past”.