The Raikas are a specialized caste of pastoralists from northwestern India, particularly the arid and semi-arid parts of Rajasthan. Although they also raise goats, cattle, sheep, and water buffalo, the most important animal for Raika cultural identity is the camel (Camelus dromedarius). Traditionally, the Raikas gained much of their income from the sale of male camels as draft animals; camels (the “ships of the desert,” as they are often called) are essential for transporting people and goods in arid regions. Unlike all other camel pastoralists in the world, the Raikas have a strict taboo against killing camels and eating their meat. They also do not traditionally sell camel milk, which is considered a gift from God: If there is a surplus of milk, it should be given away for free, and selling it is sometimes equated with selling children.
According to Raika traditional knowledge, camels feed on 36 different plants (mostly trees and shrubs), which affect milk yield and flavor. The majority of these plants are known for their medicinal properties, many of which are likely retained in the milk of camels that feed on them. The Raikas use camel milk to treat various diseases, including tuberculosis. It is consumed fresh or used to make tea, and can also be turned into kheer (rice pudding). Raikas traditionally drink camel milk from a folded aak leaf; aak (Calotropis procera) produces a milky resin and, sometimes, the tip of the leaf is broken so that this resin will mix with the camel milk, improving its health effects. Raika herdsmen may subsist on camel milk for weeks at a time during long migrations.
In the past few decades, Rajasthan’s camel population has declined dramatically. Initially, this was due to loss of grazing areas: Irrigation has made it possible to expand agriculture in the region, both in terms of the area under cultivation and the number of crops that can be grown each year (in the past, Raikas let their animals on fallow or already-harvested fields during summer and winter); infrastructure has disrupted traditional grazing areas; and decreasing common property resources due to land privatization has led to conflicts among herders and between herders and agriculturalists. This loss of access to land has led to overgrazing in the remaining pastures and has made it difficult for camels to satisfy their nutritional requirements. To make matters even worse, the creation of national and regional parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and other protected areas, which are usually off limits to grazers, has made it difficult for Raika herders to access the forests that their camels traditionally depend on during the rainy season, when farmers begin cultivating their fields. This is the case for Raikas in Pali District, who used to take their camels to the forests on the northern escarpment of the Aravalli Range, in an area that is now contained in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Santuary. Although Raikas—unlike many other pastoralists—are usually sedentary, the lack of accessible grazing areas has led to the need for migration, and those members of the community who work with camels now have to move their animals throughout the year, sometimes into other regions of India where the comparatively humid climate is not suitable for camels. In the 90s, camel herds in Rajasthan began falling victim to a number of diseases, and the incidence of miscarriage rose to unprecedented levels. Because Raika camel herders are often on the move, it is difficult to deliver modern veterinary care to their animals. The Raikas have sophisticated ethnoveterinary knowledge and a detailed classification system for camel ailments, but their traditional treatments are ineffective against some diseases. In an effort to revive the camel population, Rajasthan’s government made the camel the state animal in 2014 and passed legislation to restrict the movement of camels into other regions. However, this has undermined the economic viability of raising camels for sale, a practice that was already at risk because of the decreasing prices for camels: New roads and access to vehicles have lead many people to abandon camels as a form of transport and draft power.
The only remaining source of income for Raika camel herders is milk, which they have recently begun to market. Camel milk has great potential for treating diabetes and autism, and some chefs have become interested in using it to make cheeses. A pilot camel dairy project in Pali District, which sells soap and other camel products in addition to milk, has shown that camel milk can provide the basis for a sustainable camel production system and rural economy. And camel pastoralism offers numerous benefits to the landscape and economy more generally, especially in the face of climate change in an already arid region: Because of the range of plants that camels eat, they can survive in areas that are unsuitable for other livestock, turning plant material into protein and other valuable products (camels are about five times more efficient than cattle at turning feed into milk); they also move quickly as they graze, never taking more than a few bites from any single plant, and so do not destroy vegetation—in fact, it appears that camels actually help conserve vegetation and biodiversity; and they can provide natural, organic fertilizer to agricultural areas, as well as draft power, which can decrease dependence on fossil fuel. By changing their cultural attitude toward selling camel milk, the Raikas have found a way to continue their traditional livelihood, and it is crucial that the Raikas’ pastoral system and their milk receive the attention that they deserve.