India's famed camel trade faces new challenges as modern transportation and the loss of grazing land has lead to shrinking herds. The decline was evident during the recent camel fair in Pushkar, in Rajasthan state, where a statewide drought has helped reduce herds.  Indian authorities are looking for other ways for camel owners to survive even as their animals lose their role as "ships of the desert".

On the outskirts Pushkar in Rajasthan state, this camel expresses his displeasure at being among the thousands of camels, horses and cattle traded at the annual camel fair.

The fair in the desert town coincides with the pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Hindus to bathe in Pushkar's sacred lake.

Traditional Rajasthan minstrels Babu and Seru annually travel to perform at the fair with their families.  They have long been keen observers of the camel trade, and say a top camel can be worth 50,000 Indian rupees - just over $1,000. 

"A new one, very strong, it's strong ?. New camel, 25,000 [rupees], 30,000, sometime 40,000," Babu said.  "A small one, a small price, a good camel, a good price. The last one, very good, a nice one he is strong - this 40 to 50,000."
"The camels come from Rajasthan - from the desert part of Rajasthan, and they're being traded between who are the real user of camels," said Penwar Liam, an assistant director of tourism in Rajasthan. "Then horses from the surrounding estate, adjoining estate and there are some purchasing these horses for their use for hotels because of their use for hotels you see in India, horses are used in the marriages [wedding ceremonies]." 

Traditionally, the camels transport farm goods and people, haul water from deep wells, and even power mills that extract oil from oilseeds. Owners also sell camel hair, dung, hides and bones.

But the trade faces problems. The camel population has fallen dramatically over recent years. A report by a Rajasthan group says that India's camel population fell by more than half since the mid-1990s, to just over 600,000 in 2005.

Jain says the decline was evident at the recent camel fair.

"This year we have roughly about 17,500 cattle [livestock] - which include camels, horses, and others," Jain said.  "There is a big change this year - there is a decline of camels - this year from last year." 

In 2004, the League of Pastoral Peoples, a Rajasthan civic group, says 50,000 camels were brought to the fair.

Pradeep Singhal is a veterinarian with a volunteer group that helps herders care for their camels. 
"In earlier days there were more camels traded here," Singhal said.  "So trading is getting down. It's due to so many factors - the most important one is globalization. Camels most probably are being used for transportation of goods from one place to another. It is being replaced by trucks, vehicles, modernized vehicles." 

At the same time, the forests and grasslands are being converted to other uses, or are being damaged by climate change. That makes it difficult for herders to feed their camels, particularly since courts banned grazing in national parks a few years ago.

While conservationists welcomed that decision, it forced owners to sell thousands of animals they no longer could feed.

But fewer camels do not just hurt farmers and herders. A quarter of a million people are estimated to make a living in one way or another from the camel trade.

Pushkar shopkeepers rely heavily on the fair for income. But this year, the combination of declining livestock sales and fewer tourists because of the global economic slump has been painful.

"The international market is down now, everywhere people don't have money to travel," said Abu, who owns a shop in Pushkar.  "This year camels was less, there were more horses than camels. But even there was some virus in the horses so it was not good selling of the animals also. Also it was less raining this year so even the farmers had less money to spend."

Indian authorities hope to sustain herds and raise incomes for herders by promoting the sale of camel milk. Veterinarian Singhal endorses that idea.
"It is very good for health conditions like in the cases of diabetics in human beings and in cases of gastric problems," Singhal said.  "It's very good milk. So the government is planning to take camel milk as a supplement. And they give good money to camel owners for the milk."

The League of Pastoral Peoples and other civic groups want the authorities to help communities that rely on camel breeding.

Without new policies to help herders, many people at the Pushkar Camel Fair fear that herds will continue to decline, as will the livelihoods tens of thousands of people.