Kutch is home to one of the rare camel species – Kharai camel. The breed, which numbers around 2,200, feeds on mangroves and other saline plants, is the main source of livelihood of mainly Jat and Rabari communities in several of the villages of Mundra, Lakhpat, Abdasa and Bhachau taluka. One of its main characteristics is, it can swim through deep sea waters.
Nearly 72 cattle breeders or maldharis from 10 villages — Tundavandh in Mundra taluka; Mohadi, Bhangodivandh, Valavarivandh and Nimrivandh in Abdasa taluka; Tero, Gugiranu, Dhragavandh, and Medi of Lakhpat; and Jangi village of Bhachau taluka – rear this camel breed by refusing to interfere in the typical feeding habit of the breed. These are mainly coastal villages. Some of the maldharis, along with their camels, have migrated to Jamnagar and Bhavnagar coastal regions due to destruction of mangroves for the development of ports during the post-earthquake era of Kutch.
In fact, growth of industrial activities in the coastal areas of Kutch has minimized the availability of camel food and water sources. Salinity has increased throughout the region. Thus, the socioeconomic condition of Kharai camel breeders in Kutch is under threat. There is a need for the government to intervene to deal with the situation. Today, when human interference with nature is being cited as the main reason behind global warming, these communities still follow a lifestyle which does not hamper in any way natural resources. Their low carbon footprint in life has never been acknowledged; rather, those who swear by development term their lifestyle primitive.
A survey carried out by the Sahjeevan Trust has found that the majority of breeders (43.06 per cent) have small-sized herds of 11- 30 camels followed by 27.78 per cent having medium-sized herds of 31-60, whereas 6.94 per cent have more than 60 camels with them. Notably, 16 out of 72 camel breeders have marginal herds, up to 10 camels.
In order to ensure that the Kharai camel breed survives, the breeders have meticulously followed the traditional grazing pattern in the coastal districts. They do not provide special housing or shelter to the camels. Generally, during monsoon, Kharai camels stay in bets for 2-3 months at a stretch, as sweet water is available on the bets. The camels drink the rainwater stored there. During summer and winter, Kharai camels are taken to bets near creeks for grazing on mangroves for two to three days. Then, the animals are taken back to the mainland for watering.
During low tide, adult camels walk through the sea water, while the young ones swim through. During high tide, both adult and young camels swim in deep-sea waters. Besides mangroves, Kharai camels feed on other saline trees, shrubs and grass species such as kharijar (salvadora persica) and lano (suaeda spp) near village Simtal. They are taken to a radius of about 10-15 km on a rotational basis in order to avoid overgrazing. Ponds, wells and village cattle troughs are the main sources of water for the camels. An adult camel requires 20-40 litres of water per day. Generally, the watering time is between 12 noon and 3 pm, as per availability, and based on the source’s distance from the grazing area.
• Are an eco-tonal breed, as they survive in a dry land ecosystem as well as in a coastal ecosystem, and can easily swim in deep sea
• Are less affected by common skin disease such as khaji or dermatitis
• Cab excellently feed and digest on saline trees and shrubs
• Can tolerate water with high TDS (total dissolved solid) up to 10,000 ppm.
• Their short chest pad does not touch the forelegs while they walk
• They have smooth and long hair, which can be used for the preparation of soft clothes. The smooth, long hair can serve as a means of livelihood for the Kharai camel breeders
Despite visible advantages associated with the camel breed, the Kharai camel breeders’ main source of income comes from the sale of young and adult camels. They use milk to feed camel calves, or consume it themselves. The camel wool is mostly used to prepare cheko/veno for the female camel to avoid milk suckling by calves.
In Kutch, there is no market for camel milk or wool, so the breeders mostly depend on camel selling. Few breeders are engaged in dry-land agriculture, and grow crops like bajra, mag, guar and math during monsoon, and jiru and eranda in the winter season. Most of the breeders are illiterate and have been engaged in the Kharai camel rearing for generations, though today some among the younger generation breeders have left the trade due to lack of interest or in search of higher-income, and more stable work.
While grazing the animal far from their place of living, the maldharis consume bajra roti with camel milk. They stay in temporary huts, locally called pakkha, which is made of grasses, like lampdo (celosia argentia) and ekad (sesbania sesban), which are non-palatable species. They rebuild their pakkha after every 2-3 years. Some rabari breeders give their camels to Jats on monthly grazing charge of Rs 30 to 50 per camel.
Most of the breeders receive money on credit at an interest rate ranging from 5 to 10 per cent, which they use for ration, animal health care, or social functions. Because they only sell camels and not milk or wool products, the money they make goes back to the merchants, who extend the credit, leaving them with little extra income. They migrate with their animals in search of proper habitat and water in different parts of Kutch as well as out of Kutch in order to protect the unique camel breed.