Photos: Milking a profit from shrinking camel herds in Rajasthan

Once dubbed the "ships of the desert" and indispensable to life in India's arid west, camel numbers have steadily declined as they have been usurped by technological upheaval. The National Research Centre on Camel says India's camel population has shrunk by around 30% in just a few years. Sales have been flat at Rajasthan's famous camel fairs. Researchers hope to halt this decline by partnering herdsman with entrepreneurs needing fresh milk for an emerging line of boutique products made from the milk including chocolates, cheeses, ice creams, and skin creams.

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST 12 Photos
1 / 12
Iakesh Raika, 34, takes his camels for grazing in Rani village, some 130km south of Jodhpur, Rajasthan. On a recent winter day, his father Lakshman Raika boiled tea with fresh milk from one of his camels, gently stirring the brew his tribal herdsman have consumed for generations. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

Iakesh Raika, 34, takes his camels for grazing in Rani village, some 130km south of Jodhpur, Rajasthan. On a recent winter day, his father Lakshman Raika boiled tea with fresh milk from one of his camels, gently stirring the brew his tribal herdsman have consumed for generations. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
2 / 12
A shopkeeper displays body butter made from camel milk at a camel research farm in Bikaner. Far away in city supermarkets demand for chocolates, soaps and skin creams made from such milk is growing -- a boon for nomads like the Raikas and India’s fast disappearing camels. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

A shopkeeper displays body butter made from camel milk at a camel research farm in Bikaner. Far away in city supermarkets demand for chocolates, soaps and skin creams made from such milk is growing -- a boon for nomads like the Raikas and India’s fast disappearing camels. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
3 / 12
Roads now stretch deeper into the desert cutting days off the same journey by camel, while increasing mechanisation in agriculture means the animals are increasingly unnecessary on farms. The days of Raika and his kin leading grand caravans -- some hundreds of camels long -- over the sands with passengers, cargo and precious stores of water are all but over. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

Roads now stretch deeper into the desert cutting days off the same journey by camel, while increasing mechanisation in agriculture means the animals are increasingly unnecessary on farms. The days of Raika and his kin leading grand caravans -- some hundreds of camels long -- over the sands with passengers, cargo and precious stores of water are all but over. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
4 / 12
“Not long ago, village hierarchies in our communities were determined by the size of each family’s herd. Not anymore,” lamented the elder Raika, as he smoked a pipe and sipped his tea on the outskirts of Rani. “These days, just like old men, no one is really interested in them,” he added. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

“Not long ago, village hierarchies in our communities were determined by the size of each family’s herd. Not anymore,” lamented the elder Raika, as he smoked a pipe and sipped his tea on the outskirts of Rani. “These days, just like old men, no one is really interested in them,” he added. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
5 / 12
A herd of camels graze. Raika has more than halved his herd in the past year. Unable to afford upkeep, many were given to relatives at bargain-basement prices, he said. Sales have also been flat at Rajasthan’s famous camel fairs, where herdsman in red turbans converge on cities like Pushkar and Bikaner with tens of thousands of beasts to trade. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

A herd of camels graze. Raika has more than halved his herd in the past year. Unable to afford upkeep, many were given to relatives at bargain-basement prices, he said. Sales have also been flat at Rajasthan’s famous camel fairs, where herdsman in red turbans converge on cities like Pushkar and Bikaner with tens of thousands of beasts to trade. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
6 / 12
A camel pokes its head through a hole in the wall of a camel research farm in Bikaner. The National Research Centre on Camel, a state-run institution in Bikaner, says India’s camel population has shrunk by around 30% in just a few years. “The situation is indeed worrying,” N.V Patil, the centre’s director, told AFP. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

A camel pokes its head through a hole in the wall of a camel research farm in Bikaner. The National Research Centre on Camel, a state-run institution in Bikaner, says India’s camel population has shrunk by around 30% in just a few years. “The situation is indeed worrying,” N.V Patil, the centre’s director, told AFP. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
7 / 12
Researchers hope to halt this decline by partnering herdsman with entrepreneurs needing fresh milk for an emerging line of boutique products made from the milk including chocolates, cheeses, ice creams, and skin creams. Camel milk is being touted by some as the latest superfood with supermarkets in the US and the UK, as well as online retailers such as Amazon, also tapping into growing consumer interest. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

Researchers hope to halt this decline by partnering herdsman with entrepreneurs needing fresh milk for an emerging line of boutique products made from the milk including chocolates, cheeses, ice creams, and skin creams. Camel milk is being touted by some as the latest superfood with supermarkets in the US and the UK, as well as online retailers such as Amazon, also tapping into growing consumer interest. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
8 / 12
A shopkeeper reaches out for camel milk ice-cream. Camel milk can be a tough sell in a country where cows are worshipped as mother figures and their milk closely linked to food and faith. It also has a fatty, saltier flavour profile -- something that could prove a challenge in India, where people have grown used to the taste of traditional dairy options. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

A shopkeeper reaches out for camel milk ice-cream. Camel milk can be a tough sell in a country where cows are worshipped as mother figures and their milk closely linked to food and faith. It also has a fatty, saltier flavour profile -- something that could prove a challenge in India, where people have grown used to the taste of traditional dairy options. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
9 / 12
A shopkeeper sits inside his shop that sells various camel products at the camel research farm in Bikaner. Even the bones salvaged from dead camels are being utilised -- they are transformed into trinkets and souvenirs for tourists. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

A shopkeeper sits inside his shop that sells various camel products at the camel research farm in Bikaner. Even the bones salvaged from dead camels are being utilised -- they are transformed into trinkets and souvenirs for tourists. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
10 / 12
Amul, starting selling bottled camel milk in January for city supermarkets in Gujarat, extolling its health benefits. It already sells a boutique chocolate line that includes a camel milk variety. Ensuring supply and quality control are challenges when dealing with semi-nomadic tribespeople and a new, emerging industry, businesses say. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

Amul, starting selling bottled camel milk in January for city supermarkets in Gujarat, extolling its health benefits. It already sells a boutique chocolate line that includes a camel milk variety. Ensuring supply and quality control are challenges when dealing with semi-nomadic tribespeople and a new, emerging industry, businesses say. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
11 / 12
A ninth-generation camel tribesman, Rakesh Raika has been selling milk from the family herd, making a small profit while keeping traditions alive. “These traditional communities will have an economic incentive to keep their herds, as demand for the milk and other camel products increases and the sector matures,” PK Sawal, a senior official at the camel research centre said. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

A ninth-generation camel tribesman, Rakesh Raika has been selling milk from the family herd, making a small profit while keeping traditions alive. “These traditional communities will have an economic incentive to keep their herds, as demand for the milk and other camel products increases and the sector matures,” PK Sawal, a senior official at the camel research centre said. (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
12 / 12
“If not for him, we would have already sold the herd,” Rakesh said, gesturing to his father seated nearby enjoying the desert sun. He explained: “We do really hope this market for camel milk flourishes. It will be really helpful for communities like ours.” (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

“If not for him, we would have already sold the herd,” Rakesh said, gesturing to his father seated nearby enjoying the desert sun. He explained: “We do really hope this market for camel milk flourishes. It will be really helpful for communities like ours.” (Chandan Khanna / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2019 10:44 AM IST
SHARE
Story Saved