It was a very specific window of time, in the mid-morning, when the tide was low and the currents minimal that Noor and Saleh Mohommad herded their camels into the sea. In a line, with the older camels leading, they swam through the turquoise water, crossing over to the island of mangroves about a kilometre away.
The mothers swam protectively close to their young ones, who took to the water like fish. It’s not known exactly when these camels started swimming but the Fakirani Jat community says they’ve been crossing waters with their camels for about 300 years. They believe these camels came from the sea, as did they.
The Kharai camels of Kutch are the only ones of their kind in the world that can swim. They live with the Jat community, who have been nomadic camel herders for generations, in a beautifully symbiotic relationship. The camels and the herders form very close bonds but now all of this is in jeopardy because of the changing landscape.
Jetties are coming up rapidly along the coasts of Gujarat, completely changing the routes that the camels were familiar with. And in some cases denying them access to mangrove islands. "The camels are less sure crossing the water now," Saleh tells me, because of the change in topography the rampant construction has brought.
After the Bhuj earthquake, in an attempt to rebuild Kutch, the mining, saltpan, cement and windmill industries began expanding in a big way in the region. In the name of development, new roads are being built through delicate ecosystems and these often cut through the camels' traditional paths. All of this is leaving very little mangrove available for the camels to eat.
As mangroves are an integral part of the camels' diet, the herders are forced to roam much bigger distances or look for alternative means of livelihood. Sometimes this even requires working in the mines that are destroying the mangrove forests they depended on. Kutch's being on the border with Pakistan also means that there is an intense amount of monitoring from the BSF (Border Security Force). There have been instances of camels inadvertently crossing the border and getting lost. The Jats have to keep the forces regularly updated on their whereabouts and often need to gain permission to travel routes that earlier they were free to.
With all of these challenges, there are fewer herders keeping camels now, as a result of which camel numbers have begun to dwindle. In 2012 the number of Kharai camels reported in Kutch was 2,200 and in 2018, this number dropped to 1,800. "Dust from the cement industries settle on the surrounding patches of mangrove and this gets eaten by the camels. We're seeing them fall ill now and develop skin diseases like nothing we've ever known," Saleh Mohammad says.
In 2011, members of the Jat community unionised with the Maldharis, the other traditional camel herders of Kutch. They formed the ‘Kachchh Camel Breeders Association’ and have been working towards the conservation of this indigenous and endemic breed of the camel. With solidarity between the pastoral communities and the help of organisations such as Sahjeevan (a local NGO working for conservation), there is a growing sense of hope for a remedy.
In early 2018, the association appealed to the National Green Tribunal against the Deen Dayal Trust that was giving out leases for more salt pans indiscriminately. The NGT has stayed further expansion for the interim which was the Association's first big success. However the final judgment is still awaited.
Before the advent of vehicles, the Jats would occasionally sell their male camels, used as transportation by traders in the desert. As a means to keep up with the times now, they are turning to sell camel milk for which there is a small but growing market. Since early 2019, Amul has shown interest in working with the herders on this project.
This means that the Jats can think about continuing a line of work that has seen them through for the last 15 to 16 generations. That is, if they can find enough mangrove, with which to feed their camels.
In these images (from top):
Bleed image — The Kharai (which means salty) camels are endemic to Kutch. They glide through the water as easily as they traverse land, with a slow and purposeful grace.
— Saleh (right) and Noor (left) Mohammad belong to the Fakirani Jat community who come from a line of nomadic camel herders.
— The herders and camels can spend up to 2-3 days on the mangrove islands but then have to return to the mainland for fresh water. In this time the herders live on the bare minimum for food and swear by camels milk which they say gives them all the energy they need.
— Saleh Mohammad swimming with his camels, towards the mangrove island where they will spend the next couple of days grazing. With new jetties coming up all along the coast of Gujarat, access to these islands has become a lot harder and more dangerous for the camels to navigate.
— The landscape is changing fast for the Kharai camels. Roads and windmill farms are not only destroying mangrove forests but also cutting through their traditional paths and denying them access to routes they've taken for centuries before this.
— Salt pans are one of the largest growing industries in the area and this rapid expansion is causing a huge loss of natural habitat for the camels. In turn, mangrove destruction is beginning to directly affect the population of Kharai camels.
— In June, it was the height of summer with temperatures reaching the high 40s. Water levels in most wells were dangerously low. At this point, it had been three years since the last rains.
— This settlement of 4 to 5 Jat families have lived exactly like this, exposed but completely in symbiosis with the elements out in the desert for generations.
— Noor Mohammad sitting outside his house in Mohadi, which is the village he grew up in. His children both go to school and he's unsure if either of them will continue to keep camels. They would be the first generation in his family to move away from this means of livelihood.
— Saiba, Noor's wife talks about the camels like they are her children as well. The Jat women spend more time than the men of the community with the camels, tending to them, feeding them, milking them, raising the calves with the mothers.
— There is now a small but growing market for camel milk. This is giving the traditional pastoralists of Kutch some hope for the future and a way for them to preserve their way of life.
— Saleh Mohammad tells me that camels can live up to 30 years and are extremely intelligent creatures with a lot of individual personality. He's got over 60 camels himself and knows and understands each of them like they are his family.
— All photographs courtesy of the author.