German veterinary surgeon and 2002 Rolex Associate Laureate Ilse Köhler-Rollefson has been presented with a prestigious Indian prize – the Nari Shakti Puraskar (Women’s Power Award) – for devoting over 25 years to saving Rajasthan’s camel herds, which are at the heart of the way of life of India’s Raika people.
Köhler-Rollefson said that when her name was called at the presentation ceremony in New Delhi, “I walked up there in my sari and I felt vindicated somehow for taking such a crazy path in life.”
Initially qualified as a veterinary surgeon in Germany, she worked for ten years as an archaeo-zoologist in Jordan, studying domestication and early human-animal relationships. She became interested in camels, leading to a doctorate in Hanover on camel domestication. In 1990, she went to Rajasthan to study the Raika camel herders and has spent much of her life since then advocating for them and their herds. She has also become a leading advocate for pastoral peoples worldwide.
Köhler-Rollefson was one of 31 women to receive the Nari Shakti Puraskar for 2016, presented in March this year. “The other winners were the most diverse and spirited assemblage of women you could imagine,” she said, “including artists, social entrepreneurs, a Mt Everest climber, a survivor of an acid attack, conservationists, space engineers – a wonderful and powerful network has been created.”
Other winners included dancers and India’s first female graphic novelist.
Arguably the most important national award for women in this country of 1.25 billion people, the awards were presented by India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, with Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi attending, in the Durbar Hall of the Raj Bhavan, built by the British and the place where India’s first independent government was sworn in.
The only foreigner among the 31 winners, Köhler-Rollefson said Prime Minister Modi expressed interest in her work, as he knew of projects with camels from his time as Chief Minister of Gujarat, a state neighbouring Rajasthan. She added that at the prize-giving particular attention was paid to her 25 years working with the Raika people and to the fact that the government sought her advice.
The Nari Shakti Puraskar, which celebrates the empowerment of women, will, Dr Köhler-Rollefson believes, give her “a lot of added credibility. According to Maneka Gandhi who heads the Ministry of Women and Child Development that selected the awardees, the point of the award is to empower women so that they are on eye level with policy-makers and politicians and gain more influence. So I expect it to make a significant difference.”
Dr Köhler-Rollefson spends much of the year in Rajasthan. She also travels for her other duties – she is a core staff member of the League for Pastoral Peoples and a member of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, a multi-stakeholder initiative managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – and returns to Germany regularly to visit family members.
But her priority remains the way of life of the Raika people: “Their way of life continues to be totally threatened. Of course, things cannot stay static and need to evolve. But the reincarnation of the Raika as people who take care of both livestock and the environment has not happened and that’s what we need to work for.”
Dr Köhler-Rollefson is also writing a sequel to her 2014 autobiography, Camel Karma : Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads.Learn more about Ilse Köhler-Rollefson