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Her love for camels is saving a community

Camel Charisma, the brainchild of vet Dr Ilse Kohler-Rollefson and her Rajasthani partner Hanwant Singh Rathore, is a social enterprise which has been developing and promoting environment-friendly products from camels with the sole purpose of saving the animal from extinction. Dr Kohler is also the author of Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads. The book chronicles her journey, relentless pursuit and undying passion to bring about a change to the lives of the pastoral community of Raika. In a warm and insightful interview with Soulveda, Kohler talks about her work, writing and Camel Charisma. Excerpts:

Could you throw some light on the functioning of Camel Charisma?

We have set up many different value chains, each of them requiring detailed technical expertise, including camel hair value addition, camel poo paper and camel milk soap. Now, we supply frozen camel milk to many places in India. It helps people suffering from autism, diabetes, liver problems and many other diseases. There is a myriad of challenges in setting up a social enterprise and making it self-sustainable and profitable. One needs to have business acumen. Unfortunately, that is not in my genes but it is very satisfying to be a part of this development and the revenue makes a significant difference to the Raika.

How does Camel Charisma contribute to conserving the biodiversity and agro-ecosystem?

By generating income from camel products, it supports a local biodiverse economy and, based on the many types of trees, shrubs and grasses that camels forage on, it helps the agro-ecosystem. Unless the breeders can generate some income from camels, the animal is set for extinction in India.

“I was strongly attracted to the Raikas’ bond with their animals. Following my interaction with them, I realised they wanted my help regarding camel medication, so I felt I had to do the best to support them.”

You mentioned Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan (LPPS). Can you tell us about it?

LPPS is a voluntary society that works for the welfare of pastoral communities. It promotes Rajasthan’s livestock culture and heritage on a global platform. As part of its value addition, LPPS helps us mobilise funds for the training of both the Raika and artisans that is necessary to bring Camel Charisma products to the market.

What motivated you to work with the Raika and camels? 

I was strongly attracted to the Raikas’ bond with their animals. Following my interaction with them, I realised they wanted my help regarding camel medication, so I felt I had to do the best to support them. Nothing was planned, it just happened gradually. I was an academic in Germany and became an activist only in India. Also, I love camels and find them much more interesting to work with than pets or farm animals.

What is the lifestyle of the Raika? Do they share a close relationship with camels?  

It is a tough life dominated by the need to take care of animals and to ensure their wellbeing. A Raika’s mind mostly revolves around finding grazing land for their animals.They look at the landscape through that lens. They treat camels and other animals as their own children.

What are the challenges and problems faced by the Raika?

Disappearance of grazing areas, absence of veterinary care and lack of markets for the products are the biggest challenges. Therefore, they have no income. Most importantly, they lack recognition by the society even though they are the ‘guardians of biodiversity’.

What inspired you to write Camel Karma?

Though I started writing the book way back in 2003, I never had time to work on it for long periods of time. I wanted the world to know about the intrinsic nature of the relationship of the Raika with their animals. I thought the story would be best if it is about the personal journey.

How did you blend into the traditional societies of Rajasthan?

Personally, I don’t think I have managed to blend in yet, but have certainly become a part of the landscape. Local people and the Raika have enormous respect for me. While I like Raika’s culture–their relationship with animals, humour, hardiness and sense of aesthetics–I am not in favour of their take on caste and the status of women in the community. Sometimes, they also appear averse to change. However, I believe that they can provide a global model for sustainable livestock keeping.

Where do you derive your strength from and how do you find endurance to go on?

I derive strength and inspiration from the great people I work with. I believe I can change something. This is very rewarding. My life never gets boring as I do different things–organising workshops, writing both academically and for a larger audience, planning and implementing projects, meeting fascinating people–while living amidst nature.

How do you manage your personal and professional life?

My personal and professional lives are deeply intertwined–my best friends are the ones I work with–even if they reside in different parts of the world. I do miss home but I go there regularly and keep in touch with my children. I consider myself blessed to be able to do what I believe in, and be at nobody’s beck and call.

How do you envision the future?

I wish to set up a model for a self-sustainable camel dairy unit at the edge of the Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary that would produce fresh milk for therapeutic purposes, gourmet camel cheese and luscious camel milk soaps. This model could then be replicated across Rajasthan and ensure economic survival of the Raika. Apart from that, I am working on several books, including a sequel to Camel Karma. I cannot tell you with certainty whether the camels and Raika culture will survive, but our team will do the best in this regard. We need support from the government or the private sector.

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    Dr Ilse Kӧhler-Rollefson is a German vet, anthropologist, author and activist, who has spent over 20 years in Rajasthan working for the welfare of the Raika community. Along with 'Camels of Kumbhalgarh: A Biodiversity Treasure', she has published more than 100 papers in scientific journals.
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