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Can Camel Milk Save India's Nomadic Raikas?

Activist Ilse Köhler-Rollefson says emerging markets for milk could revive herders' fortunes.

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Ilse Köhler-Rollefson sits with a Raika woman and her daughters. Raika society is usually closed to outsiders.


Got (camel) milk?

It’s a central question to Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, who's spent much of the past 25 years trying to preserve and champion the camel-herding lifestyles of rural India’s seminomadic Raikas.

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Hanwant Singh, who co-founded a welfare organization with Köhler-Rollefson to help camel herders, meets with Raika herdsmen in Jojawar, India.


Trained as a veterinary surgeon, Köhler-Rollefson was drawn to camels after encountering herders in Jordan. A research fellowship to study camel socioeconomics and management systems took her to remote Rajasthan, where pastoralists have herded camels for centuries. But their traditional way of life and cultural identity has been usurped by disappearing grazing lands, mechanized farming, parasitic disease, and decimated demand for camels. In Rajasthan their numbers have dropped from about a million in the 1990s to about 200,000 today.

"I was enchanted by the intimate relationship between the camels and the first Raika herding family I met. But then I was also confronted by their problems,'' she says. Shocked and moved, her time with the Raikas led to a life-altering experience for the German native and Rolex Laureate, who began spending about half her time in India, leaving her then small children in the care of her mother.

Still, helping the Raikas treat sick camels and becoming an activist and advocate on their behalf wasn’t easy for an outsider to a culture that usually abhors outsiders. "Now they are happy with me and give me a lot of respect,'' she says. Eventually, she co-founded Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, a welfare organization for herders. LPPS also provides camel veterinary care using both traditional remedies and modern medicine.

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Köhler-Rollefson and a Raika man treat a camel for mange.


"We've reached a point where even state and national government officials seek our advice,'' says Köhler-Rollefson, who eventually wrote Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads and earned the local moniker "Our Lady of the Camels."

By 2010, Köhler-Rollefson had helped to start Camel Charisma, a micro-dairy near Jaisalmer that produces about 150 liters of camel milk a week. Köhler-Rollefson's goal is to perfect supply and management, eventually boosting production to 300 liters a day. While raw milk can be consumed locally, shipments must be pasteurized, refrigerated, and frozen for transport to Delhi and elsewhere in the region.

Camel's milk is noted for its purported health benefits due to the varied diet of camels—some three dozen Rajasthan trees and shrubs are known for their medicinal properties. While demand for camel milk is rising, it's just one outlet for maintaining the Raika’s camel-dependent way of life. So are developing and marketing camel products, says Köhler-Rollefson, including other dairy products, soap, wool, and paper—the latter made from camel dung.

“It’s clear that if you want the Raikas to preserve their traditional way of life and have an income from camels, you need to develop new products and markets,’’ she says.

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.