Meet Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson: German-born veterinarian, Doctor of Philosophy, and self-described “lover of camels and advocate of livestock culture(s).” Not long after debuting as a traditional rural veterinarian over thirty years ago, Dr. Köhler-Rollefson became captivated by the camel during a trip to Jordan. She harnessed that intrigue to fuel a Ph.D. on the domestication of the one-humped camel, her research leading her to Rajasthan, India, where she studied the unique and mutually harmonious relationship held between the Raika people and their camels. Dr. Köhler-Rollefson founded the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development in 1992 and established the Camel Conservation Centre in 2014.
Food Tank had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Köhler-Rollefson, who recently authored, Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads.
Food Tank (FT): You share on your website and in Camel Karma that your love of camels began over thirty years ago during an archaeological excavation in Jordan. I am curious to know your involvement in the excavation and what happened during that trip that laid the beginnings of a second doctoral degree and a career devoted to the camel.
Ilse Köhler-Rollefson (IKR): Well, I worked on the excavation as an archaeozoologist, identifying the animal bones from the site which provided information about how the ecology and economy of the people living there changed through the ages—over a period of many thousands of years.
Next to the site that was located in the beautiful Jordan valley, a Bedouin family had set up a small encampment composed of a couple of black goat hair tents. They owned a magnificent camel herd which deeply impressed me because it was so well behaved and because its herder could direct these animals with just a few vocal commands. He was also singing to the camels and it was a beautiful sight and an example of a very harmonious human-animal relationship—so different from what I seen in veterinary practice in Germany where farm animals were constrained in stables or standing in manure packed yards.
Although I knew only a smattering of Arabic, I became good friends with the family that was very poor, but very hospitable and happy and had a great sense of humour. I spent most of my free time with them, really enjoying their company. Then, from one day to the next, the tent was suddenly gone—they had moved to “greener pastures.”
After I returned to Germany I started reading everything about camels and realised how useful they are in deserts and how important for food security in arid and semi-arid areas. I also became fascinated by the description of the different camel cultures around the world and how they relate to the camel—all of them giving enormous respect and even love to this species.
FT: You write in Camel Karma about the Raikas' great regard for camels; how is the role of the camel in Raika culture unique?
IKR: The Raika are the only Hindu camel breeders in the world and they seem to have transferred some of the Hindu reverence for cows to the camel. They are (or were—things have changed in the meantime) the only camel people globally who had an absolute taboo on the slaughter of camels and using them for meat. Their whole identity was based on being “camel care takers” and it was unimaginable for them to stop rearing camels, despite it being no longer profitable. Well, as mentioned above, all camel cultures love their camels—sometimes even more than their children—but I think the Raika have taken this attitude to new heights.
FT: What are some of the challenges, or to borrow your words, "existential problems" of the camel culture in Rajasthan? Do you find this true of camels in other pastoral cultures as well?
IKR: The existential problems of the Raika have arisen because the demand for camels as draught animals has largely petered out (although not completely, and there are still a lot of poor people who depend on camels for pulling carts). Because of the cultural restrictions on using camels for meat, the economic rationale for breeding camels is mostly gone. It would be different if a market for camel milk had been built up, but so far this has not happened.
Fortunately, in most other countries the situation is better. In most African countries, and in neighbouring Pakistan, camel numbers are growing. In Africa this is partly due to climate change, as camels become adopted by people who earlier only kept cattle, but who find that camels can better withstand droughts.
In Pakistan, camels are used for meat and also exported in significant numbers to Arab countries as dairy animals. The rich Gulf countries now compete for developing the biggest camel dairies. They all try to follow the example of Dubai where the company Camelicious has set up a huge camel dairy with many thousands of camels. There is a run for the best dairy camels and the ruler of Dubai has two Boeing 747s just to transport camels. They are also eying to supply the European market for camel milk.
FT: Why is it important to honor the camel and sustain the camel culture seen in places like Rajasthan?
IKR: To my mind, the responsible attitude of the Raika—not just towards camels, but towards all kinds of livestock and animals in general—presents a model for a humane relationship between humans and farm animals. As you at Food Tank will know, modern animal industries look at animals as machines rather than sentient beings. For this reason, many people have become vegetarians or vegans. The Raika refer to their livestock as “their children” and show that you can utilize an animal and still respect and care for it. I find that very important, as we need farm animals in the landscape to hold up the agro-ecological cycle. Without farm animals providing manure, organic food production is hardly possible—vegans forget this.
FT: What do you think are the implications of Rajasthan declaring the camel the "state animal" this past June?
IKR: If the declaration would go along with investment in developing new kinds of camel products and in support for the camel breeders, then this will be great. Unfortunately this has not happened so far and the legislation that is in the pipeline restricts the use of camels in many ways, which will make it impossible for the Raika to continue making a living from breeding camels. Essentially the camel will turn into a zoo animal and no longer be part of the farming system and of the landscape. We are making an all out effort to change this and ensuring a place for the camel in Rajasthan’s rural economy. Please sign our petition.
For further information, please also visit our website at www.camelsofrajasthan.com which many eminent scientists have signed onto.
FT: Tell me more about the Camel Conservation Centre that you founded with Hanwant Singh Rathore; what is your vision for how it will sustain and support the camel culture of Rajasthan?
IKR: The Camel Conservation Centre is our own contribution to saving Rajasthan’s camels. We have a resident camel herd and are working on developing new camel products that can create income for camel breeders. We already have a lot of the infrastructure in place, such as a wool carding unit, a small “factory” for hand-making paper from camel poo, a small dairy unit and soap making facility for making camel milk soaps. We are trying to create the linkages between the camel breeders as producers of the raw materials and consumers of ethically produced and environment friendly camel products. This is also contributing to the revival of local crafts, such as spinning and weaving that are at the verge of disappearing.
We also seek to keep the traditional knowledge of the Raika about camel management alive and are offering the opportunity to “be a camel herder for the day” and join a Raika herder on his daily herding round.