A Kharai camel plods and plops across the muddy banks of the Kutch district, searching for mangroves. Its long, skinny legs sink into the soft earth as it moves. It’s hard work, but the camel presses ahead regardless. It’s probably hungry and needs to get to those tasty mangrove leaves.
Suddenly, one foot sinks into a deep mud hole, then another. Before the camel knows what’s going on, it’s stuck and unable to climb out of the squelching patch of ooze. It struggles in vain.
The unusual and endangered Kharai camels are bred by the Jat Maldhari people who live in the Kutch district of Gujarat. These fascinating camels have an unusual talent: swimming. And what makes them so unique is their ability to survive in coastal as well as dry ecosystems. Astonishingly, they can paddle up to three kilometers out to sea in search of mangrove leaves, their favorite food.
Of course, all that aquatic skill is no help to this particular camel that’s stuck in the mud. But fortunately for our humped friend, a team of rescuers soon rushes to its aid, accompanied by photographer Ishaan Raghunandan, who documents the whole operation.
When word reaches the nearby village that a camel is stuck, a rescue party sets out immediately. The camel has waded across the shallow backwaters in search of mangrove leaves – a forest filled with the delicious vegetation where it would normally spend three days eating before returning to the mainland for fresh water.
“The mangroves are not reachable by land,” says Raghunandan. “I am offered a seat on the boat while the Maldhari men that accompany me squat. It is a half an hour journey to the other bank.”
When the rescue team reaches the camel, it looks crushed, lying sprawled in the mud and exhausted. The rescuers have themselves had a hard trek.
“The other bank has a hostile terrain,” says Raghunandan. “Every step one takes is painful for a while as shells are suspended in the mud. With every step one sinks a bit into the ground. Soon the shells vanish and a two kilometer trek in the slush awaits us.”
The men know what to do. This isn’t their first camel rescue. They have brought the rope and manpower they need to free the helpless animal. First, they have to get their rope around the mud-coated camel – and it can’t be an easy task. The camel doesn’t seem to be enjoying the process much either.
Somehow, the rescuers have managed to get their rope under and around the camel’s front legs. Now it’s “One, two, three – heave!”
The men pull on the rope, straining against the sucking mud. One of the camel’s legs pops out, but it still doesn’t look too pleased with all the pulling.
The Maldhari Jats are a cattle- and camel-rearing nomadic Muslim community native to the Kutch district. A large part of the region is made up of grasslands, as well as marshy salt flats known as the Rann of Kutch. During the monsoon season, swathes of the previously dry area become wetlands – which, we assume, is why the camels of Kutch have adapted to cope with both ecosystems.
With its front legs freed, the camel tries to pull itself out of its muddy pit, but there’s still too much of its body stuck in the ground. Whether it likes it or not, it’s going to need more help from its human rescuers.
One of the men gives the camel an extra push from behind while the others keep pulling. With its long, thin legs and heavy body, it’s a challenge to get this beast out of the mud and standing again. But the rescuers are not going to give up.
There’s more tugging on the rope. By now, though, the camel at least looks calmer. Perhaps it knows the men are only trying to help. Or maybe it’s just too exhausted to complain anymore.
Two Kharai camel breeders, Adam Abdreman Jat from Abdasa and Amand Varindh Jat from Bhachau in Kutch, were recently given the Breed Saviour Award for their efforts in keeping the threatened breed alive. And for all their hard work, we think this rescue crew deserves an award for keeping this particular Kharai camel alive as well.
After trying to push itself up, the camel collapses on its side. At least more of its body is now free from the sticky, stubborn mud. But it’s definitely not in the clear just yet. The Jat rescuers decide what must be done next.
It’s back to pulling on the ropes. This time, the camel’s whole body is stretched out across the mud as the men try to drag it to firmer ground.
One assumption we can make from this is that camels must have really strong necks! And the men pulling it out of the mud must have strong legs and arms, too. We can only imagine the effort required to drag a large animal like this out of the mud.
The camel is almost free. All of its limbs seem to be out of the mud, but the rescuers need to keep it away from the watery patch behind it so that it doesn’t sink in and have to be rescued all over again.
Finally, it’s out! For a while, the camel simply sits with a dazed look on its face. Perhaps it’s not sure if its ordeal is really over. All that struggling has surely been exhausting as well, so it takes some time for it to get its bearings. One of the men gives it a reassuring pat on the back.
The camel can’t stay sitting here in the mud forever though. Eventually, it staggers to its feet, easing itself onto its hind legs. Perhaps it’s taking a bow after such a great performance!
Next, the front legs straighten up, and the tired, dirty and no doubt hungry camel is on its feet, albeit still a little shakily. It must feel pretty great to be up and free from the soggy ground after all that time in the mud.
“Oh look, is that a mangrove tree?” The camel saunters off – no doubt in search of a few comforting leaves – leaving its muddy prison behind as if nothing had happened. Maybe next time it will be more careful when it’s foraging around such wet, sludgy and dangerous terrain.
The rescue mission has been a complete success. As the freed camel ambles off, the men can congratulate themselves on a job well done.
Their effort is well worth it as well, because Kharai camel numbers are dwindling. According to the experts, their reduced numbers are a combination of climate change, a lack of genetic diversity within the breed, and possibly other factors as well. So every camel, including this one, is valuable.
Everyone, human or camel, would need a good wash after this kind of ordeal! It’s likely the camel will go for a swim to clean up. As far as anyone knows, the Kharai camel is the only breed of camel that takes to the water, so it might as well make the most of it.
The good news is sent back to the village. Hopefully, the future will be as positive for the Kharai camels in general. The government plans to open a special ‘camel dairy’ to encourage and support breeders in the region. And according to scientific evidence, camel milk is healthy and easily stored.
In the past four years alone, Kutch camel numbers have dropped from 38,000 to a mere 12,000. It is hoped that initiatives like the camel dairy can reverse that trend and keep this unique breed alive for many more generations.
We thank photographer Ishaan Raghunandan for sharing his wonderful images of the Kharai camel rescue with us.