06 March 2018

Our Lady of the Camels (1)

Yours truly is far from the only first-world person extraordinarily interested in the lovely beasts called camels. But some go well beyond the dilettante stage of enjoyment. Some spend their lives raising, nursing, training, mending, and tending camels. Gradually I became aware of a few who make a difference in their worlds. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a German veterinary surgeon, is the first one I will feature.

Raika tribe families in Rajhastan, India, have been struggling to preserve their camel culture way of life. Camels are treated with love and respect for their milk, wool, and as superb draft and transport animals. Families have been dependent on having camel herds for sustenance and trade. But changes in economics and ecology plus disease are decimating the number of animals, especially in remote settlements.

Köhler-Rollefson came there over twenty-five years ago to study for her Ph.D. And she stayed. The intimate bond between the families and their beasts impressed and inspired her. Despite being an outsider she was eager to help revive and improve the situation.
Written of a local camel fair:
Like many people in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, she [a camel handler] reveres camels the way that Hindus worship cows. Many who have brought their camels here are Raikas, a special caste of camel breeders, who believe they were created by Shiva to be camel guardians. They worship the camel god Prabuji. (1)

Very gradually, being able to treat sick camels, Köhler-Rollefson was accepted. Treatment now involves both modern and traditional medicines, the former still rather difficult to obtain. She set up an NGO called Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) to facilitate supplies and raise money. Thus she became an advocate and an activist on behalf of the Raika whose very identity is wrapped in camel culture. Nevertheless, Rajhastan's camels and rural livelihood are still in critical danger of eclipse.

From her blog:
"Meeting the herders is a humbling experience, seeing how the old Raika philosophy of “first the camels, then us” is still alive, the hardships and hard work they perform to keep their camels healthy, how many farmers appreciate the manure that the camels deposit on their fields as organic fertilizer, how closely the herdsmen observe nature and the effect of camel browsing on the trees of the Aravalli Hills. One can feel how camels are a crucial part of the agro-ecological web whose disappearance would undermine both local food production and ecology."(2)

Camel Charisma (https://www.camelsofrajasthan.com/) was a concept she created originally to operate a camel dairy. Now numerous projects have grown to support camel breeding, camel-related products, and biodiversity within the Raika camel culture heritage.

A pastoralist, Köhler-Rollefson in her words:
"Now I do everything that I feel is necessary to work towards policies and practices that support socially responsible and ecologically sustainable livestock development, and to develop alternatives to the “Livestock Revolution” which is one of the socially and ecologically most disastrous trends globally.  So I am variously a researcher, a writer, an activist, a fund raiser, a teacher and trainer." (3)

In 2016 Köhler-Rollefson received the Nari Shakti (Women Power) Award from the President of India, the first foreigner to be so honoured, for her contributions to the Raika pastoral community. It was *** a string of recognition awards. Her book, Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India's Camels Nomads is available on Amazon.

Imagine dedicating your life to help renew a unique culture and livelihood that was slowly fading. Changing the course of her life helped change the lives of many Raika.

Our Lady of the Camels ... passionate, compassionate, and tireless.

(1) Jasvinder Sehgal, 18 December 2017, WorldCrunch (https://worldcrunch.com/culture-society/where-indian-camels-are-as-sacred-as-cows-but-vanishing-fast)
(2) and (3) ilse-koehler-rollefson.com

© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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