In 1990, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson went to Rajasthan in north-west India to research camel pastoralism and was shocked at what she found. The Raika – the region’s legendary camel breeders – were losing their traditional livelihood, cultural identity and livestock to motorized transport, disease and loss of grazing rights, and were voiceless in the government policy making that affected them.
The German veterinarian became enchanted by these semi-nomadic people and their animals. “They believe that without camels, there would be no Raika,” she says. “You can’t imagine how much that moved me. They have a connection to animals that I had found was missing in the Western practice of veterinary science.” She decided that from then on she would do everything possible to protect the 500,000 Raika people and the camels to which they are so closely linked.
In 1996, she helped establish Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), an NGO that provides a combination of traditional and Western medicines and pastoral management techniques; to implement and co-ordinate projects that encourage breeders to conserve their camels (and therefore protect biodiversity); and to lobby India’s state and federal governments on their behalf.
Throughout the 1990s and up to the present, she has sought new ways to defend the Raika’s interests and culture. Last year, she and Hanwant Singh, director of LPPS, established Camel Charisma to develop, promote and sell camel-derived products handmade by Raika women that combine both tradition and innovation: camel-dung paper cards, and a series of products in camel-wool – mobile-phone covers, rugs and shawls.
Köhler-Rollefson’s commitment and lobbying are yielding results. In Jaisalmer, known as Rajasthan’s “golden city” for its temples and palaces, a five-year project – incorporating veterinary care, demonstration of the potential income from camel products and legal action against camel thieves and careless drivers – has achieved a 26 per cent increase in the local camel population.
In recent years, Dr Köhler-Rollefson has been prominent, as founder of the league of pastoral peoples and endogenous livestock development, in speaking out at international gatherings, both publicly and as a skilled lobbyist, for the rights of all pastoral peoples, including the Raika.
Celebrating the informal agreement in May 2012 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to create a mechanism enabling small livestock keepers to participate as stakeholders in the FAO’s Global Agenda of Action towards sustainable livestock development, she declares: “this is a major step forward for us. Until now, the stakeholders were governments, NGOs, research institutions and the private sector. Industrial agriculture is a huge problem. If you involve and support the people in remote areas who use vegetation that can’t be used otherwise, then livestock production can be increased, animal welfare is improved, food is healthier and poverty is alleviated.”
Kamal Kishore, co-ordinator of the Rainfed Livestock Network in Hamachal Pradesh, in northern India, believes the FAO decision is largely attributable to Köhler-Rollefson’s focus on the essential contribution to animal welfare and healthy biodiversity made by small livestock keepers and their local knowledge. “She has been able to bring that understanding into the whole system. The world would be a much happier place if it contained another six or seven Ilses.”
Selected as a Rolex Associate Laureate in 2002, Köhler-Rollefson says the Award helped her pursue her goal of protecting the Raika people and, most of all, “it gave me confidence – the fact that the Rolex Awards jury had chosen my project made me determined to continue.”
Prue DashfieldLearn more about Ilse Köhler-Rollefson