Close to small fishing hamlets alongside the coast of northwest India, the blue-green sea is speckled with islands of mangroves. It’s as picturesque a setting as you’ll discover, however on some days, the tranquility is punctuated by a deafening sound: dozens of camels, like a fleet of furry ships, bleating and honking as they swim among the many timber.
The camels are adopted intently by their human companions, who swim alongside the herd on small rafts, calling out to them and main them to the islands the place they feed on scrubby vegetation. Not solely can the camels swim over three kilometers, locals say they will survive by consuming seawater. In truth, that’s the place they bought their title: “Kharai”, which suggests “salty” within the regional language of Gujarati.
The Kharai camels—the world’s solely swimming camels—was once reared by the hundreds by two conventional breeding and herding communities, the Rabari and the Jat. In 2012, there have been simply four,000 left. The home breed is disappearing resulting from a decline in its mangrove habitat, and financial adjustments which can be making semi-nomadic life more durable to maintain.
If the Kharai camels go extinct, so does a centuries-old tradition.
“Camel breeding is a conventional livelihood and occupation,” stated Pankaj Joshi, government director of Sahjeevan, a Kutch-based group targeted on supporting marginalized communities and reviving conventional life. “Culturally and religiously, the herders are linked to this animal.”
Traditionally, Kharai camels have additionally been used as draft animals, and as an vital supply of manure for native agriculture.
Joshi has spent a long time working with native folks within the district of Kutch, situated within the western Indian state of Gujarat. He says saving the district’s 2,000 Kharai camels has every part to do with conserving Gujarat’s mangroves, which offer over 70 p.c of the camel’s food regimen.
“If you wish to preserve the camel, it’s a must to defend their habitat and their ecosystem,” he stated. “There is no such thing as a different possibility.”
A serious risk to these ecosystems is fast industrial improvement. For the reason that early 2000s the Kutch shoreline has grow to be dotted with oil refineries, factories, and ports. Dredging and adjustments to pure tidal flows have triggered the mangroves to fade in some locations.
The excellent news for mangroves is that because the large-scale advantages of those ecosystems are higher understood, the Indian authorities has grow to be more and more critical about their conservation, each in Gujarat and across the nation. After dropping round 40 p.c of mangrove forests within the 20th century, the federal government made mangrove conservation a nationwide precedence, designating dozens of mangrove forests as protected areas.
However satirically, this has created a brand new situation for camel herders: Some analysis suggests the Kharai camels really degrade mangroves.
Analysis by Alagiri Thivakaran, a scientist at Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology and certainly one of India’s main specialists on mangroves, reveals that by consuming the rising buds of the timber, the Kharai camels can stunt their development. He additionally says camels also can trample youthful vegetation, inflicting them to die. The concept camels are dangerous for mangroves has triggered some coverage makers in India to discourage herders from maintaining them, in accordance with analysis by Lyla Mehta and Shilpi Srivastava, social scientists on the Institute of Growth Research on the College of Sussex.
“A few of these conservation teams don’t need native folks to have entry to mangroves,” Mehta, who has been conducting analysis in Kutch for 20 years, informed Earther. Nevertheless, Mehta famous that the science about camels and mangroves is disputed and that extra analysis is required.
“When you discuss to Sahjeevan and native NGOs in Kutch, they may inform you camels are literally good for the mangroves,” she stated.
Final yr, Mehta and Srivastava printed a paper on the connection between folks and mangroves in Kutch. They interviewed conventional herders who say camels’ hooves press mangrove seeds into the mud, serving to them to germinate.
Mehta and Srivastava imagine lots of the state-sponsored scientific analysis saying camels destroy mangroves undermines and undervalues the herders, who possess a deep understanding of their conventional landscapes. Despite the fact that their information just isn’t at all times in peer-reviewed journals, it nonetheless issues and ought to be thought of.
“Why would the camel have the ability to swim if they didn’t coexist with mangroves historically?” Mehta requested.
Even Thivakaran believes that there are so few camels that they don’t pose a big risk to mangroves. “Mangroves and Kharai can undoubtedly co-exist in Kutch,” he stated.
Mangroves apart, the Kharai camels face one other existential risk. Many conventional herders are giving up camel breeding, or transitioning to different kinds of livestock, reminiscent of buffalo. That’s inflicting a precipitous decline within the animals’ numbers. In a single hamlet referred to as Phuleri, the camel head depend went from 10,000 to solely 80 over the previous few a long time.
Based on herders interviewed by Mehta and Srivastava, improvement on the coast makes it very tough to graze their camels. And whereas camels used to supply manure for native agriculture, over the previous few a long time, their companies have been largely changed by artificial fertilizers.
Native organizations, reminiscent of Sahjeevan and the Camel Breeders Affiliation, are decided to avoid wasting the camels. In 2015, the teams had been capable of get the Indian Nationwide Bureau of Animal Genetic Sources to designate the Kharai as a distinct indigenous breed of dromedary (one-humped) camel. Joshi says this designation permits Kharai to get particular standing as a threatened indigenous species in India.
Joshi hopes that elevated consciousness concerning the swimming camel’s precarious state will unfold to incorporate the people who find themselves liable for the animal’s continued existence. Mehta and Srivastava agree.
“If you wish to restore and revive the system, it’s a must to do one thing about these two communities and perceive their livelihood patterns and what’s threatening them,” stated Srivastava. “This stuff are fairly intricately linked.”
To answer the financial adjustments that threaten the camel herding way of life, Sahjeevan helps create a marketplace for camel merchandise, reminiscent of wool and milk, which have at all times been utilized by the herders however by no means was once offered. They’re within the technique of piloting milk distribution techniques, they usually hope that camel milk from Kutch will quickly be extra extensively accessible within the type of milk powder, cleaning soap and even chocolate.
Final summer season, Sahjeevan labored with native organizations to get camel milk formally acknowledged as an edible meals merchandise by The Meals Security and Requirements Authority of India, which can make it simpler for the dairy product to search out its technique to grocery store cabinets.
The camels breeders’ allies are additionally taking authorized motion. This previous yr, Sahjeevan and a camel pastoralist group sued native salt miners for destroying patches of mangrove forest, and had been profitable in stopping the economic encroachment.
By not giving up on the Kharai camels, breeders and their supporters are additionally difficult the narrative of what improvement appears to be like like in a area that has largely embraced trade. Camels and grass-huts might look anachronistic subsequent to energy vegetation, however Mehta and Srivastava imagine that herders shouldn’t be bullied into giving up their lifestyle.
“It’s a way of life option to nonetheless breed camels within the 21st century and never work in a manufacturing facility,” Mehta stated. “That is what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. That is a part of their identification. That is a part of who they’re.”
Anna Kusmer is a radio reporter and freelance author engaged on tales about science, well being and setting. Her work has appeared in NPR, PBS, Smithsonian, Rewire.Information and Atlas Obscura.