Long Live The Fossil

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Interventions in conserving the near extinct double humped camel in remote Ladakh have helped the animal increase its population but trickling of funds is proving a stumbling block, reports R S Gull

A tourist riding a double humped camel in Nubra valley, Ladakh.

A tourist riding a double humped camel in Nubra valley, Ladakh.

Double humped Yarkandi Camel, once found abundantly in Nubra Valley of arid Ladakh desert is gradually improving its footprint, thanks to a series of interventions in the last decade. Authorities, however, insist that they need more resources to make the interventions more result oriented.

At the time India and Pakistan were fighting over Kargil heights, the numbers of this camel had reduced to abysmal 68 animals in whole of Ladakh – the only place in South Asia where the camel has an address. This necessitated certain government interventions even though belatedly.

Officials in Jammu said that after consistent insistence of the state government, the central government sanctioned a project for conservation of the ‘threatened breed’. It was under this project that the Animal Husbandry Department set up a ‘Double Humped Camel’ farm at Chuchot near Leh on a nine-acre piece of land that was acquired from IgooPhey Command Area. The farm started off with five camels that were acquired locally.

“From 2005-06 to 2008-09, a total of Rs 54.98 lakhs were released by the Government of India for the project and an expenditure of Rs 48.29 lakh was booked leaving an unspent balance of Rs 6.69 lakhs,” a senior Animal Husbandry officer associated with the exercise said. “The camel population in the farm rose to 13 during 2010-11, to 18 in 2011-12 to 21 in 2012-13 and to 26 during 2013-14.” Officials say they have distributed 13 camels among the willing farmers under a parallel run conservation programme during 2014-15. For now, 17 camels are being reared in the farm.

Besides the Central Government funding, during 2010-11 a corpus of Rs one crore was created by the state government to ensure continuation of the conservation project, officials say. Interest earned on the fund as a bank deposit amounting Rs 7.5 Lakh annually is released to the Animal Husbandry Department for upkeep of the Farm. This amount, however, is falling short of the requirements of the farm.

“The situation is improving,” an officer associated with the project, however, said. “Against the population of 141 double humped camels during the 18th Livestock census in 2007, we counted 189 in 19th census in 2012,” he added.

Usually referred to as “the living fossil”, the camel was introduced to Ladakh long back from Yarkand, Khotan and Kashgar provinces bordering the Gobi desert of central Asia. It served as the main source of transportation in the entire Ladakh region that was connected with the Central Asian republics through the famous Silk Route.  Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, the Central Asian saint who is credited for Kashmirs’ transition to Islam in the ninth century, had used the same double humped camel as the main mode of transportation for himself as well as his 700-odd preachers who came and settled here from 872 to 876 AD.  Even after the closure of the Silk Route, these strange animals found use in the transportation of merchandise across Tangle via Durbook with the Changthang part of the larger Tibet plateau. The contribution of this during the Second World War forms part of the documented war history.

Yarkandi-CamelIn the post-partition period, when the Ladakh region witnessed the laying of roads across its sparsely populated inhabitations, the double humped camel lost its significance. As its rearing and maintenance became unprofitable, the camel was “banished” to Nobra valley of Leh and Changthang area owing to the availability of abundant grasslands. In all, about 60 camels were shifted to the Nobra valley and by 1965 not a single such camel was seen in Leh. The subsequent neglect resulted in its fall in population to around 40 in 1986, according to official sources.

Also called Bactrian Camel (Camelus Bactrianus), it is different from single humped Dormedrian camel found in Rajasthan and Arabia. The camel has more water retaining capacity than the single-humped one. Dr K K Koul, former Chief Animal Husbandry Officer, Leh says that the Sickle-shaped Red Blood cells (RBCs) of the camel and its comparatively dry dung enables it to retain more moisture. Its double hump makes riding through treacherous cold arid desert terrain safe and comfortable. With a smaller body frame, it has a very strong foothold. Besides, its two humps also function as a storehouse of nutrition for the camel making it thereby more adequately suited for cold and arid temperatures.

Other than being a major tourist attraction for foreign tourists, who go for merry rides on its back, and pose for pictures against its double-humped visage, it has certain economic significance as well. The Double Humped camel can carry a load of up to 600 kgs. An adult animal fetches an average of 2-4 kgs of fine and 3 Kgs of coarse fibre annually which can fetch about Rs 400 per kilogram. The fibre has multiple uses. It is used for the manufacture of blankets, caps, mufflers, sweaters and other warm clothes. Its wool, hair, hides, milk, meat and even dung adds to the income of its owner. The camel has a life span of 25 to 30 years and is currently valued at Rs 1 lakh.

Its importance, as per Dr Koul, dwindled after the 1962 Sino-India war. “After the war there was an unprecedented expansion of the road networks in Ladakh. That significantly decreased the utility and hence the importance of the camel,” says Koul. According to a report prepared by the Animal Husbandry Department, the deployment of army on a very large scale in Ladakh decreased the available grassland area crucial for its survival. Other reasons termed responsible for its endangerment in the report include: drownings in the over flowing Shyok river during summers, devouring of young one’s by wolves, abandonment by owners compelling the animal to survive upon the leaves of a thorny plant Hypophia, which is gradually creating some problems to the animal.

“The owners usually throw them out of their homes in winters due to non-availability of food and only the lucky ones return,” adds a deputy director rank officer of the erstwhile Field Research Laboratory (FRL), now called Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), a defence Research & Development organization. “There is also increased rate of Atopic (pseudo) pregnancy in such animals,” he said

Rearing of the camel is not costly as it thrives on small bushes alone except in the winters when it is fed wheat bushes since no foliage in those months. It gives birth to young ones in alternate years, the gestation period being of 385 days. Breeding season is between December and January. It reaches adulthood at two years of age.

A “Working Group on development of Cold Desert” conducted a door to door survey in September 1986, but met with no success to increase the animal’s population. The Animal Husbandry Department in this connection has also made a belated attempt in 1997. A centrally sponsored scheme titled ‘Preservation of Pack Animals’ was launched in 1997 in Diskit area of the region under which a camel breeding unit was also started. It procured five camels including four females for breeding purposes. In 1999 the unit had two female baby camels left.

Even DIHAR in collaboration with Indian Camel Research Institute (Bikaner) started a project at Pratabpur for breeding but made no significant progress.

As not much happened on this front, the private sector started a small intervention. Around 2004, authorities in Leh after active persuasion by a French citizen Jerome Lantz, who headed NGO ‘Friends of Camels’, started a 20-kilometer long safari between twin Nubra villages – Panamik and Kyagar. The next year, it was given a longer track and a larger canvass when a caravan of double humped camels started from Leh to Pushkar in Rajasthan – a 70 days odyssey. A film was also made on the camel festival in Pushkar. The NGO involved three French, a Briton and an Australian and requested Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Leh to sell them two camels. The Authority, however, refused to sell them a male camel for father-stock from the then operational Kuze farm of Chuchot.

The foreigners’ idea was to help the animal survive by making it a part of the surging tourist economy. Though the camel is still seen in Nubra carrying tourists, the formal process of making the animal the focus of the attention has seemingly been abandoned.

Now, as the new minister of Animal Husbandry has taken charge, it needs to be seen how the incumbent Minister, Mr Sajad Lone, takes a step forward in managing the situation between the two humps.

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