Review: Hoofprints on the Land by Ilse Kohler-Rollefson
Ilse Kohler-Rollefson writes about the need to promote traditional forms of animal herding over industrial livestock farms and the benefits that will result for animals, humans and the planet
If you are interested in herding cultures, alternatives to industrial agriculture, and the ethical treatment of animals, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson’s book Hoofprints on the Land is a must-read.
The author has been living with Raika camel herders in Rajasthan for three decades and her book draws on her observations and interactions during this period. Her experience has given her the opportunity to reflect on her training in veterinary medicine in Germany and learn from the traditional wisdom of the Raikas that is transmitted orally across generations.
She believes that people who are concerned about animal welfare need to engage seriously with how herding cultures tend to camels, sheep, goats, yaks, alpacas, and other creatures, instead of advocating for a ban on dairy and meat production and the global adoption of plant-based diets. Her argument is that factory farms view animals as machines to exploit and profit from but herding cultures have animals at the “centre of their social order” and as part of their creation myths, rituals, and life cycle events. Animals, to them, are a source of pride.
The author is the founder of the League for Pastoral Peoples, an international advocacy organization giving a voice to herders at the global level, and the co-founder of Camel Charisma – a social enterprise that develops products sourced from camels. However, instead of positioning herself as an expert, the author honours the insights that she has picked up from her Raika friends, especially Madhuram Raika and Dailibai Raika. She provides rich descriptions of them in their own environment, and shows how their practices steward biological diversity, maintain soil health, and produce food without depleting water resources.
She writes, “Life without livestock is unimaginable to them on both a spiritual and material level… Pastoralists care for, respect and even venerate their animals – as behoves a partner without whom there would be no life… People and animals are in it together: without the other neither can survive.” The book has moving descriptions of Raika men talking about the favourite seasonal foods of camels, and Raika women taking care of orphaned camel babies.
It is heartwarming to read about how deeply invested they are in keeping their herd healthy and happy, their knowledge of the nutritional value of various shrubs, grasses, trees, vines and flowers that camels forage on, their ability to tell whether a camel is pregnant or not based on the footprints, and their expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. The author provides this information to back up her claim that farm animals kept by pastoralists are not merely “pitiable objects of exploitation that need to be liberated”; they are partners.
At the same time, she does not shy away from acknowledging that some species are treated better than others. The animals that are most economically beneficial are the ones that get best taken care of. She reveals that only one adult male camel is required for impregnating between 50 to 60 female camels. Most male camels get sold for meat because pastoralists do not want them getting into fights with each other. Only those male camels that are likely to “father the right kind of offspring” are kept.
While the book does not explore the ethical issues that arise when human beings control how animals reproduce, with whom, and how often, the author does emphasize that herding cultures are not the only ones who benefit from the animal-human relationship. Since pastoralists offer protection from predators, insects and the elements, animals that are kept in herding cultures usually tend to enjoy a much longer life span than their relatives in the wild and their kin raised in industrial livestock systems.
That said, she realizes that animal slaughter is a difficult topic for many people to engage with. “If we concede that a certain number of farm animals are essential for human nutrition and the health of the planet, we must accept the fact that culling is a biological necessity. As their guardians and caretakers, we have to take on the role of the apex predator,” she states.
Some might find this line of thinking unappealing but it is true that people, including vegetarians like myself, benefit greatly from the oppression of animals as we consume dairy products made from the milk that they produce. Even vegans benefit from the manure produced by animals kept by pastoralists.
As the author points out, manure is possibly their “most abundant and most precious output” because it is generated several times a day. It gives the soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and trace elements that plants need to build leaves and stems. This organic matter does not come with the hazardous effects of chemical fertilizers. The hooves of animals help to aerate or loosen up the soil, and this improves its capacity to absorb water.
The author states that herding cultures, which operate in harmony with nature, are unfairly blamed for the methane emissions generated by factory farms that are among the biggest contributors to global warming. Factory farms do not care about animal welfare, soil health or climate change but only about maximizing production and profit. They often use animal feed that is not locally grown but shipped from miles away.
Regardless of whether or not you accept the author’s worldview, it is certainly a compelling perspective worth reflecting on, especially as this way of life is under threat. As Ilse Köhler-Rollefson says, “Herding is therapy, not just for the planet, but also for our souls.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.