Hitesh Rathi, Founder, Aadvik Foods
For the Raika nomadic herders in Rajasthan, camels were a prized possession. They survived in harsh desert temperatures and relentlessly provided mobility for humans and cargos. Historically, the Raikas have had an enduring relationship with camels. The nomadic tribe believes they were created by Lord Shiva for looking after these animals. So, they consider it their responsibility to keep these mighty camels healthy and happy. This intimate bond came with certain rules as well. The Raika tribe has been strictly against selling either camel meat or milk.
However, this has started changing of late. Over the years, the cameleers of Rajasthan have delved into selling camel milk. This change stemmed from the fact that Rajasthan’s camel population is plummeting. According to the 20th Livestock Census 2019, the total camel population in the country decreased by 37.1% over the previous Census 2012. From 4 lakh in 2012, the overall camel population in India declined to 2.5 lakh in 2019.
Times have changed
The dwindling camel population has become one of the major concerns for the breeders as these animals provided them with sustenance, wealth, and companionship. The economic importance of the camels has been on a decline and the tribes are losing their livestock to urbanization. These animals, that were once welcomed by farmers because their dung was used as fertilizers, hold minimal value today. With more roads being constructed, there is a scarcity of green pastures for camels to graze.
Moreover, camel breeding is becoming expensive, making it difficult for the herders to continue to take quality care of their animals. Adding to their woes is the falling camel sales in India’s famous annual Pushkar fair. Previously, breeders could earn up to Rs 20,000 for a healthy camel at a camel trading fair. Now, there are hardly any takers.
Unfortunately, the picture looks quite grim for the camels and their loyal breeders. Using these elegant ships of the desert for milking was never in the tradition. But such use may be the only way to preserve a culture on the edge of extinction.
A drop of hope
The tribe’s optimism emanates from the fact that camel milk is being lauded as a healthier alternative to typical dairy milk. People are coming around to the idea of drinking camel milk. According to the Camel Dairy Market: Global Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity, and Forecast 2019-2024 report, the global camel dairy market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8.01% during 2019-2024. Its immense health benefits are the reason for this growing demand for camel milk.
Historically proven, when drought hit Rajasthan in 1937, the Raika community survived only by drinking camel milk. They believe that it can cure any disease. Also, with almost 60 percent of our population being lactose intolerant, people are opting for an alternative yet healthier way to nourish themselves. Camel milk could be a great substitute for a regular cow or buffalo milk.
Recognized as a superfood, camel milk is low in lactose, allowing it to be digested by people with a dairy intolerance. It further has several times more iron, vitamin C, and calcium compared to cow’s milk. It also contains proteins, which are similar to insulin and good for managing diabetes.
According to the book ‘Camel Karma’, camels feed on at least 36 different types of plants. Most of these trees and plants are used in Ayurveda as medicine and, therefore, the milk is highly nutritious. The milk is rich in Lactoferrin which prevents viral and bacterial infections on the back of its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. As a natural pro-biotic, camel milk promotes a healthy gut and aids digestion. It may even help ease the symptoms of autism in children.
Driven by these nutrient-rich features, camel dairy products have been slowly gaining popularity across the world. Adding to the hope, several startups are also setting up camel milk dairies in states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. Herders are earning decent money to sustain their herds and families by selling camel milk. Further, the manufacturers of camel dairy products are also diversifying the range and offering products such as flavoured milk, cheese, ice-cream, and many more. A healthy ‘ship’ seems to have sailed towards the dock.