New direction for the ship of the desert

The camel may soon emerge as an important dairy animal, valued for its milk having distinct quality and therapeutic traits. In Europe and some other countries, camel milk is already sold as functional food, or nutraceutical, at premium prices. Scientists of the Bikaner-based National Research Centre on Camel (NRCC) maintain that the Indian camel owners, too, can hope to get high prices, up to Rs 250 a litre, if camel milk is presented as a super food capable of averting several lifestyle ailments, including type-1 diabetes and hypertension. It is recommended also to prevent and cure dreaded diseases like jaundice, tuberculosis, asthma, kala-azar and personality disorders among children, notably autism and mental retardation. Latest research has discovered even anti-carcinogenic properties in camel milk.

Some major milk trading companies, including the cooperative sector giant Amul, are planning to introduce camel milk in towns like Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi. Several start-ups are coming forward to market camel milk and its products as health foods through electronic marketing (e-marketing). As the awareness about the virtues of this milk grows, leading to firming up of its demand, more entrepreneurs can be expected to enter this field to set up camel farms, camel milk processing plants and trade channels.

The camel has traditionally been viewed in India mainly as a draught animal for transportation and farm work in desert and arid areas. However, with the growing use of mechanised transport vehicles and other machines for farm chores, the camel’s demand for these tasks has waned. Their population has, consequently, dwindled in past four decades from over a million to just around 400,000. The lack of appreciation of its role as a milk producer also seems to have contributed to the decline in its numbers. 

The least realised truth is that camel yields more milk of better dietary and economic value and for a longer period than most milch animals under harsh conditions in deserts and dry regions. This, in fact, is the only animal which survives in the inhospitable environment during droughts when other farm animals tend to die of dehydration and starvation. It helps its owners also to withstand adversities by providing them life-sustaining milk without consuming water for up to three weeks and subsisting on just remnants of vegetation. Camel milk has a relatively longer shelf life of around eight hours at the room temperature of up to 37 degrees Celsius and over three weeks under refrigeration at four to six degrees Celsius. Besides, camel has the longest lactation period (milk secreting phase after calving) varying from eight months to two years (average being around 16 months), against cows’ eight to 10 months. It produces, on an average, four to six litres of milk per day with some good animals yielding even up to 10 litres. This is, more or less, on par with the milk yield of nondescript indigenous cows though it is lower than the daily output of cows of recognised milch breeds or cross-bred cattle. The U N Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) feels that camel’s productivity can be stepped up to around 20 litres with proper feeding and improved husbandry. Some camel breeds of Pakistan and Afghanistan yield up to 30 litres of milk a day.

The NRCC has been striving to boost the inherent milk-yielding potential of Indian camels and to develop technologies to manufacture value-added products from their milk. It has identified three indigenous camel breeds — Bikaneri,  Kachchi and Mewari — as good milk producers. About 102 elite camel bulls have been distributed in the camel rearing areas to be used for breeding purposes, says NRCC director N . Patil. Moreover, camel farmers are being encouraged to form self-help groups, farmers’ producer companies or cooperatives to undertake the domestic trade and export of camel milk and its products. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has recently notified standards for camel milk to ensure its smooth marketing. Thus, the stage seems set for camel to assume a new role and a new image.