LAST NOVEMBER’S CAMEL MELA IN PUSHKAR, the animals didn’t look happy. Some stamped restlessly and brayed in distress, and others sat bored on folded limbs. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a global champion of pastoralists’ rights and a Pushkar regular, picked her way through the annual throng of herders and tourists. Dark glasses shielded her blue eyes against the desert sun. “This is the lowest turnout of camels at Pushkar,” she said, in her slight German accent. “I don’t think there are more than 2,500 camels. In previous years, there were 50,000 camels. The draft bill has definitely scared everyone.”
The Rajasthan Camel Bill, pending before the state legislature, proposes a blanket ban on camel slaughter, and on the export of camels from the state. Its provisions are meant to stem a decline of camel numbers in Rajasthan, and follow the recognition of the camel as a state animal last June. But the bill has caused deep disquiet among the Raika, a Hindu community traditionally responsible for most of the camel breeding in Rajasthan, by threatening the last remaining economic incentives for raising the animals.
For centuries, the Raika sold male calves as draught animals to farmers, merchants, and the cavalry regiments of the area’s Rajput chieftains. Females augmented herds and were never sold, and there was a taboo among the community, which is vegetarian, against selling their camels for meat. But as mechanisation reduced demand for draught animals, some Raika quietly started selling camels for slaughter. As the practice continued, herds were decimated. Censuses by the central government show that Rajasthan’s camel population declined from 669,000 to about 422,000 between 1997 and 2007, and then to just above 325,000 in 2012.
Köhler-Rollefson and I walked to a visitors’ stall run by the Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, or LPPS. She works closely with the NGO, founded to support the Raika by a local activist, Hanwant Singh Rathore, in 1996. In 2001, she told me, “Raika leaders, assembled here in Pushkar, called Hanwant and me for a meeting. They said many in their community were selling their female camels for meat. We were shocked.” The leaders wanted a ban on slaughtering females. “We wrote to everybody,” Köhler-Rollefson said, “from the district collector to the chief minister,” but no action was taken.