Bactrian camels are a popular tourist attraction of Ladakh, bringing income for locals. The depleted population of the double-humped camels is said to have increased ever since they were put to work giving rides to tourists in Nubra Valley. Animal researchers and conservationists credit camel ride tourism with conserving this endangered species in Ladakh. However, making the Bactrian camels work is not without ethical and sustainability issues. This article sheds light on these issues people choose not to see and need to be aware of.
Bactrian camels giving rides to tourists on the sand dunes stretched between Disket and Hundar villages in Nubra Valley, Ladakh.
Background to the Bactrian camel rides in Ladakh
Animal rides are a popular tourist activity worldwide. The animals commonly used for riding are horses, ponies, mules, donkeys, elephants and camels. Riding Bactrian camels is a highly popular tourist attraction in Ladakh. Tourists cross the Khardung La pass from Leh to reach Nubra Valley to ride the double-humped camels on the sand dunes stretched between Disket and Hundar villages.
Native to Central Asia, it is believed that the Bactrian camels arrived in Ladakh in the 19th century during the inland trade between China and the Western world. Camels were used in trading caravans for load bearing and transport. They were also prized for their wool, milk and meat. Following the Indo-China War in 1962, when the trading corridor between India and China through the Himalayas was closed down, the once-important Bactrian camels of Ladakh were left to fend for themselves. With no one to care for them, their population declined to a point where the Bactrian camels were about to go “extinct” in Ladakh .
In the 1990s, when tourism boomed in Ladakh, locals of Hundar village started using the Bactrian camels for tourist rides. This opened a new source of livelihood for locals. The camel population also increased as locals consciously maintained the animals. Today, camel riding is the favourite activity of tourists at the ‘Sand Dune Adventure Park’ in Nubra Valley, with other activities being archery, ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) rides, Paintball, Volleyball and photoshoots in traditional costumes. If tourist influx is good, a single camel can generate an income of about 1,00,000-2,50,000 INR during the summer season (Vyas and Bissa, 2019).
A placard by the Tourism Department of UT Ladakh at the sand dunes mentions the place as "home to the Bactrian camels, tourists like to ride the camels to the remote village of Hundar."
Placard at the sand dunes listing the various entertainment activities offered to tourists.
Tourists enjoying archery.
Popular perspectives on the Bactrian camel rides
The locals engaged in camel ride tourism see it as an agreeable trade. Defending accusations of mistreatment towards the animals, camel owners and handlers maintain that they would not mistreat the animals that fetch them income. Conservationists and animal researchers attribute the conservation of Bactrian camels to their use in tourism. In their opinion, were it not for the camels’ commercial use, the future of this endangered species in Ladakh would be bleak. Tourists are enamoured by the Bactrian camels. Standing on the silvery sands, their saddles decked with oriental rugs, the double-humped camels far exceed the imagination of tourists, who ride this fabled creature with great excitement.
Camel handler preparing the animal for a ride.
Bactrian camel safari is by far the most popular tourist activity at the sand dunes.
Ethical and sustainability issues in camel ride tourism
The abuse of animals such as horses, mules and ponies in India has come into the limelight due to open acts of cruelty against the animals like beating and drugging . However, the Bactrian camel ride of Ladakh has escaped notice in the absence of instances of outright cruelty. Where animals are concerned, the standard of welfare around the world is low. Unless monstrous assault is committed on an animal, it is not considered cruelty. As per the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 in India: “If any person― (a) beats, kicks, over-rides, over-drives, over-loads, tortures or otherwise treats any animal so as to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering or causes or, being the owner permits, any animal to be so treated" . But then again, slaughtering animals for meat is almost universally accepted. In the case of Bactrian camels, even without the lens of animal rights activism, it is easy to see what's going on: camel handlers confer kicks on the animals and constantly nudge them by the nose ring fixed on their nostrils for control.
Even if powerful by constitution, no animal is born to transport loads. To make animals work for humans, they are tamed and trained, which involves months or even years of restraining, coercion and hard work. The same is true for camels. Writing about the training of camels in Rajasthan, livestock science researchers Rakesh Ranjan et al. (2016) refer to the process, which starts at the age of 2.5-3 years, aptly as “breaking of a camel”. They write that camels are more energetic and fearful of human handling than cattle hence more difficult to train. It suggests that training camels may involve even greater or prolonged intimidation than training cattle.
The nose ring is one of the standard methods used for controlling camels. Implements like nose rings and nose pegs are meant for the “transfer of power from animals to the implement” (D.H. Nyako et al., 2010). Placing a nose ring on a camel requires piercing the cartilage of the nostrils, which Rakesh Ranjan et al. (2016) categorise as a “painful procedure”, requiring the animal to be restrained over a long period by: “Tying all four legs in sitting position, placing a loop over the neck with fore-legs tied together, hindquarters tied with a crossover rope passing above the back.” Tugging by the nose ring forces the camel to conform to the handler out of pain.
The nose ring is used to control the camels and force them to conform to the handlers.
Years of tugging disfigures the nose, depriving camels of the natural ability to shut their nostrils during adverse climatic conditions (Eshra and Badawy, 2014). Many of the Bactrian camels in the tourist safari cohort have ruptured nostrils because the handlers profusely tug at the nose ring to enforce obedience on the animals for hauling tourists. In a bid to utilise animals, it is presumed that they do not feel pain and suffering. In truth, however, the reason for animals to submit to their handlers is the physical and psychological pain caused by the severe treatment meted out to them.
In contrast to intact nostrils (Top L-R), nostrils disfigured from the use of nose rings over the years, depriving camels of the natural ability to close the nose during harsh weather (Bottom L-R).
In his eye-opening book on animal suffering called Bleating Hearts, Mark Hawthorne (2013) defines the animals used for work into two categories: the domesticated ones who are bred selectively and raised in captivity, such as dogs and horses, and those who are captured from the wild and tamed, such as elephants and dolphins. About the latter, he writes that, for all their outward tameness, they still retain a wild spirit. Bactrian camels of Ladakh fall between the two categories. They are born naturally but raised under human supervision, and they are trained to work half the year but left wild for the rest. On an average day during the tourist season in Ladakh, which lasts from May to October, the Bactrian camels put in about 8 hours of work. Huddled in one spot, they wait for customers. They are saddled and unsaddled several times and get shoved around continuously. To the tourists, the sight is one of adventure and merriment. Smitten by the appearance of the camels, they turn a blind eye to the forced labour involved. One tourist describes the scene in the following words: “They have peaky humps, soulful eyes under long lashes, and stoically wait for things to come: rows of couched and saddled Bactrian camels lined up at the edge of a sand dune patch outside Hunder village in India’s Nubra Valley to provide rides for tourists. Against the backdrop of the forbiddingly steep and barren flanks of the Ladakh range, they form an impressive sight, conjuring up reminiscences of the Silk Road trade that once connected northern India with China” . Such descriptions fuel the fancy of tourists who flock to the camel ride in thousands each year.
Saddled camels waiting for the next tourist ride.
Writings on Animal Ethics say that animals experience stress, boredom and fatigue if they do not understand what is going on around them or are denied their normal behaviour. So when tourists cuddle the Bactrian camels, a semi-wild animal with a sagacious persona, it brings no joy to the animals as is assumed. It vexes them, and they make a clear show by turning their head away every time a tourist or camel handler approaches them. Tourists photograph the camels and pose for selfies, which distresses the animals since they don't have a clue that they are the object of admiration and amusement. The camels remain submissive from habit induced by taming.
Tourists photographing with the Bactrian camels.
From time immemorial, animals have been bred, raised, worked, experimented on and killed for human needs and enterprises. If an individual animal or a species is found to be useful then exploiting that animal or species is considered a human prerogative. Studying the use of draught animals in rural labour, Daniel Mota-Rojas et al., (2021) write: “Animals have been involved in the socio-cultural and economic evolution of societies. Most significantly they participated in the process of utilisation of natural resources to produce food and work in rural societies and, more broadly, they promoted the generation of wealth.” The statement suggests that animals eagerly provide their services for human advancement. However, the truth cannot be further from that: animals neither know the purpose of their toil nor benefit from it. It's humans who reap the fruit of their labour . Interviewing the camel-keeping families in Nubra Valley, Vyas and Bissa (2019) found that tourism is their secondary source of income while agriculture and animal husbandry are their mainstay. The families own substantial lands between 5-20 Kanals (0.25-1 hectares) and keep various animals, including cows, sheep, goats, poultry and horses. Some families rent their camels to others for tourist rides. In sum, it’s for the want of extra income that Bactrian camels are forced to work.
Many would argue that in return for their labour, the animals receive food and care. However, the reality is that animals who are made to work lose everything: from freedom to live a natural life to mental and physical well-being. Left to themselves, the Bactrian camels are adept at surviving in the wild. A magazine on Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science states: “The camel is (…) a proven icon of adaptation with its unique bio-physiological characteristics and formidable ways of living in harsh situations of arid and semi-arid regions” . Camel experts Vyas and Bissa (2019) also write: “The double-humped camel can propagate naturally, roaming and grazing in the rangeland all year round without any supplementary feed. They are the only land animals who can eat snow.” It means that Bactrian camels are naturally equipped to live in the harshest environment without the need for human caretakers. They can sustain themselves foraging on wild shrubs, such as seabuckthorn. The tourist-riding camels of Nubra Valley make it through the severe winters in this way only to work again for their owners during the summers.
Bactrian camels feed on wild shrubs. They can eat snow, close their nose during harsh weather, and withstand temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celcius, making them adept at surviving in high altitude, arid lands.
Bactrian camels are of interest to the Indian army as well who want to take advantage of their physical attributes, which includes withstanding temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius. The army’s research wing in Ladakh called the Defence Institute of High-Altitude Research (DIHAR) conducted performance tests on Bactrian camels and found them capable of bearing 200-250 kgs of load and travelling up to 50 km/day at an altitude of 12,000-15,550 feet above sea level (Lamo, 2023). Based on this extraordinary finding, the military intends to deploy Bactrian camels for patrolling near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and carrying ammunition, rations and other supplies (Vyas and Bissa, 2019). The camels will be forced into doing work that is too strenuous and too dangerous for humans. Even though Bactrian camels are amazingly tough animals, they are not meant for physically demanding work in inhospitable terrain and extreme altitudes and temperatures. Using Bactrian camels in the military may also lead to their artificial breeding, which forebodes more suffering from the animals.
A tired camel resting between rides.
Currently, the Army uses mules and ponies whose load-bearing capacity is 40 kg (Vyas and Bissa, 2019). Straining under the burden of heavy loads, enduring excessive working hours, trekking on uneven and hard surfaces, and feeding and drinking water infrequently or insufficiently, working animals develop a variety of ailments such as stress, exhaustion, dehydration, malnutrition, fatigue, sores, lesions, lameness, injuries, metabolic and other disorders (Mota-Rojas et al., 2021), which can prove fatal. It is a common practice worldwide that when working animals become injured or too sick to work, they are killed and replaced with younger and healthier ones. In sum, working animals work to death or work till death. In any case, their life is cut short drastically because of the gruelling work. In the natural world, animals would never do such hazardous things that they are forced into.
View of the vast sand dunes in Nubra Valley, the natural habitat of the Bactrian camels.
The use of Bactrian camels in tourism is presented in the light of a method to conserve the endangered species, a means of sustenance for local families and a novel tourist attraction of Ladakh. Supporting their commercial use, camel experts Vyas and Bissa (2019) write: “The Bactrian Camels of Ladakh have the real capability of changing the economics of Nubra Valley making the stakeholders prosperous and rich. It is high time policy intervention should be done and a roadmap is prepared so that it can be beneficial to the local population as well as the army”. Sadly, this view resonates with most people, which is why Bactrian camels are not left alone in their natural habitat despite being critically endangered. Perceiving them as an under-utilised resource, new initiatives to utilise them are being sought.
Tourists to Nubra Valley rarely miss the camelback ride on the sand dunes. Their delight at the chance to ride an animal unique to Ladakh is reflected in incessant photography and cuddling of the quiet and dignified beings. Meanwhile, routinely deprived of their freedom and natural behaviours, subjected to hard work, not understanding the objective of their labour, the camels obey as there is no way out. If one stays longer around the camels, their natural call or an occasional cry can be heard, which is drowned in the noise of the tourists and the shouts of the camel handlers. Speaking out against the use of Bactrian camels in the tourism trade when they should rather be protected in the wild can get criticised because profit is involved. However, it is important to document the plight of these innocent creatures forced to work for human benefit so that locals and tourists both realise the cruelty perpetrated and do not patronise the camel ride industry.
Tourists turn a blind eye to the forced labour of the animals. For them, the Bactrian camel safari is an adventure.
Even if powerful by constitution, no animal is born to bear loads. Animals have to be tamed, trained and forced to work for human enterprises.
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