Swim­ming camels, man­grove is­lands of Kutch face chal­lenges

The Sunday Guardian - - COVERT - AZERA PARVEEN RAHMAN BHUJ (GU­JARAT)

In the land of con­trasts that Kutch is, winter is the lean feed­ing sea­son for its unique breed of Kharai camels. These camels, un­like the kind most of us are fa­mil­iar with, are typ­i­cally de­pen­dent on the man­groves for their food, and dur­ing mon­soons, they swim to the man­grove is­lands in hordes and stay there for days al­to­gether.

The sight of swim­ming camels, as one can imag­ine, is spec­tac­u­lar, but faced with chal­lenges such as rapid in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion in the coastal areas, and man­grove de­struc­tion, their pop­u­la­tion is dwin­dling, mak­ing it a threat­ened breed.

The Kharai camels are held with re­spect by the Rabari and Jat com­mu­ni­ties—the two tribes which own and han­dle the an­i­mals—and un­til a few years ago they did not even sell its milk or wool. For in­come, they de­pended on sell­ing the male camels to traders who used them for trans­porta­tion. With the ad­vent of small com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles that can go deep into small towns and vil­lages, camels are not used as much—one of the many rea­sons why these tribes are strug­gling so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally today.

The big­gest rea­son, how­ever, is re­stricted ac­cess to the man­grove is­lands, or Bets as they are called lo­cally, and man­grove de­struc­tion. For eight months in a year, the Kharai camels are com­pletely de­pen­dent on the man­grove is­lands, spend­ing weeks to­gether on these masses. They eat the saline plants and the man­grove species and drink rain­wa­ter ac­cu­mu­lated in de­pres­sions on these is­lands. Dur­ing winter, their han­dlers from the Jat com­mu­nity— Rabaris are typ­i­cally the own­ers—graze them on the dry land.

The 2001 Bhuj earth­quake saw mas­sive dev­as­ta­tion in Kutch, and as re-build­ing ef­forts gained tempo, there be­gan steady in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion along the coast­line. There was a spurt of salt and ce­ment fac­to­ries.

Mahendra Bhanani of Sah­jee­van, an NGO that has been work­ing on the wel­fare of pas­toral­ists and the Kharai camel for years now, said that in­dus­tries typ­i­cally block the nat­u­ral creek in an area and cre­ate bunds that do not al­low the nat­u­ral tidal wa­ter to come in. This dries up the man­groves, and once that hap­pens, it’s eas­ier for heavy ma­chin­ery to up­root them so that creation of salt­pans is eas­ier. Jet­ties do the same, block­ing the wa­ter route of the camels per­ma­nently. G.A. Thivakaran, chief prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist and head of the Coastal and Ma­rine Ecol­ogy Divi­sion of the Gu­jarat In­sti­tute of Desert Ecol­ogy, said that, in Kutch, man­groves are pre­dom­i­nantly dis­trib­uted in three coastal stretches— Jakhau-kori, Mun­dra and Kandla-sura­jbari.

“Iron­i­cally, in all these places in­dus­tries are be­ing ag­gres­sively de­vel­oped. The gen­eral im­pact of coastal in­dus­tries on man­groves is habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion, clos­ing feed­ing creek sys­tems, ship­ping which cause grad­ual degra­da­tion, changes in wa­ter hy­draulics due to dredg­ing and other land­form mod­i­fi­ca­tions,” he said.

Be­sides these, other fac­tors such as ob­struc­tion of nearshore cur­rents, in­creased sed­i­ment load in the wa­ter col­umn, and phys­i­cal de­struc­tion means that “coastal in­dus­tries are gen­er­ally detri­men­tal to man­groves”.

The ef­fect of such in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion on the Kharai camel has been grave. In Tunda vandh, a coastal vil­lage in Mun­dra, there was a time when al­most ev­ery fam­ily owned Kharai camels. Dom­i­nated by the Rabari tribe, the res­i­dents re­mem­ber in­stances when, dur­ing high tide, the sea wa­ter would flow into the bound­ary of their homes.

How­ever, with two power plants com­ing up on ei­ther side, its ac­cess to the wa­ters was cut off by a canal and con­veyor belts built by the com­pa­nies run­ning the power plants. As a re­sult, the han­dlers had to walk the camels a much longer dis­tance around in order to reach the sea. Some breed­ers gave up, while oth­ers moved away from the vil­lage. So from around 2,500 camels about a decade back, less than 200 re­main in the vil­lage today. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey car­ried out by Sah­jee­van, Kutch had 2,200 Kharai camels five years ago. In 2018, the num­ber dwin­dled to 1,800. Gu­jarat, as a whole, has about 4,500 Kharai camels left. The im­me­di­ate ques­tion loom­ing over the pas­toral com­mu­ni­ties and their camels is of sus­te­nance and for this, or­gan­i­sa­tions like Sah­jee­van have been lob­by­ing hard at dif­fer­ent levels. — IANS (In ar­range­ment with Mongabay. com, a source for en­vi­ron­men­tal news re­port­ing and anal­y­sis. The views ex­pressed in the ar­ti­cle are those of Mongabay.com. Feed­back: [email protected])

Kharai camels are the only breed of camels that have adapted to coast and dry land. They can swim and also de­pend on man­grove plants for food. (Photo pro­vided by Sah­jee­van)

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