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Abandon ship

In the Thar desert in Gujarat and Rajasthan, along our 1,400-km border with Pakistan, tensions are rising – not between the Indians and the Pakistanis, but between the Indians and their camels.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2009 01:23 IST
Presley Thomas

In the Thar desert in Gujarat and Rajasthan, along our 1,400-km border with Pakistan, tensions are rising – not between the Indians and the Pakistanis, but between the Indians and their camels.

Specifically, the camels of the Border Security Force (BSF), which guards this frontier. The BSF, one of the few border patrol forces in the world to use the animals extensively, does not want them any more. It says the ship of the desert — which began service in the BSF in 1965 — is simply too temperamental and high-maintenance to be practical in the harsh, treacherous sands of the Thar.

The BSF uses camels here primarily to check infiltration by smugglers and insurgents, to transport troops and rations to remote areas, and rescue soldiers bitten by snakes or scorpions.

And it wants them replaced with desert scooters, hovercraft and All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), which it says will be more economical and user-friendly. BSF officers point out that camels only made sense before large parts of this border were fenced in, starting 2003.

Now, they are seen as unacceptably moody, and expensive to operate. The BSF spends close to Rs 3 crore every year to maintain the 900-odd camels it has in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Each camel is fed 10 kg of fodder and 3 kg of feed every day.

Prakash Singh, former BSF director general said: “The BSF needs to modernise. If desert vehicles are available, it should definitely consider them. An ATV can cover 200 km across the desert non-stop without trouble — a camel can’t. Also, ATVs will be a much better surveillance platform and can be weaponised if needed.”

A BSF officer who handles camels said, requesting anonymity: “Camels have a very short memory. They can forget all the training they get if they’re left idle for two days.”

And they’re not above biting the hand that feeds them — literally. “The handler has to keep a close eye on the camel’s body language. One mistake and he can be thrown down and bitten. We’ve seen so many cases of this,” the officer added.

And when winter sets in, the gentle looking animals indulge in the height of their tantrums. “This is when they start growling, refuse to obey commands, and get very aggressive if they smell a female camel around,” the handler said.