Col Satish Singh Lalotra
‘The camel has a single hump; the dromedary, two; or else the other way around. I am never sure are you? —-
The planet of ours with its wide and far reaching flora and fauna never ceases to surprise us, in the way many species of plants and animals appear in all their unique finery. It really is not as confusing as ‘Nash’ would have us believe. The one humped camel /dromedary make up about 94% of the world’s camel population ,while the two humped ‘Bactrian camel’ the remaining 6%. The wild double humped camel, a highly endangered species found in the remote areas of NW China, Mongolia and in some parts of Ladakh is genetically different from the domesticated Bactrian camel .Our word camel, comes to us via the ‘Hebrew’ and Phoenician ‘gamal’,the Arabic ‘Jamala, the old French ‘Camayal’ or chameil and middle English ‘Kamel’. Dromedary is from the Greek ‘dromas kameilos’ meaning running camel. The Bactrian camel owes its name to the region -Bactria’ in ancient central Asia lying between the mountain range of ‘Hindu kush’ and the ‘Oxus’ river. Once regarded as a beast of burden and used exclusively as a means of local transportation to carry goods and loads /ration across the high mountain passes in the remote parts of Ladakh, the so called ‘Ship of mountain’ is now the main source of livelihood for scores of families in the region.
Though I had heard about these Bactrian camels before, but set my eyes on them for the first time when posted at ‘Siachen glacier’ in 1994/95. When going up and down from the base camp to Thoise all along the road one would pass by a place called as ‘Hundar’ which is famed for being a unique place in entire Ladakh region for its white sand dunes and the redoubtable ‘Bactrian camels which are found in abundance. Abutting the ‘Nubra tehsil’,Hundar village is located on the banks of R.Shyok. Once a capital of the former ‘Nubra kingdom’ it still has many ruins of the king’s palace the ‘Langchen Khar'(elephant palace). There is a fort at the top of the hill called as ‘Gula in Hundar. During the 1980s and even in 90s Hundar used to be a sleepy little hamlet with a very placid and laid back life style of its inhabitants. Somehow due to lack of information and a general sense of inertia, Hundar couldn’t cash on its very USP i.e double humped camels and the white sand dunes which were like unattended jewels to be chiseled for an avid tourist to gorge upon.
Once struggling to survive in the 1970s and very low on priority as compared to another beast of burden, i.e the ‘Yak’ which had proved its worth and USP in many ways to include his meat being edible during the frosty winters of Ladakh ; the population size of India’s Bactrian camel has witnessed an uptick off late. From about 40 odd camels a decade ago their numbers have swelled up to a respectable 298 as per the animal husbandry statistics available on the public domain and counting.
The ultimate ‘Game changer’ has been the proverbial ‘Mountain tourism’ in its new avatar to encapsulate ‘Bactrian camel safaris’ as one of its sine quo non, a hitherto unknown concept in this part of the country. With the opening up of the economy in the 1990s and rising aspirations of the people ,tourism industry of India which was earlier restricted to popular tourist circuits only has now fanned out to embrace new vistas aided well by international endevours like the ‘airbnb’ in Ladakh region. ‘Mountain tourism’ has emerged as an ‘Alchemy’ in this farthest most region of Indian village of ‘Hundar’ where locals who once used to treat these flocks of Bactrian camels with a sense of indifference have now suddenly found a new love for them for their generating a new source of income. The main problem of locals with regard to these double humped camels used to be finding available fodder during the harsh winter months from November till May every year when the frosty ground used to turn lifeless with hardly any greens in the sight.
Bactrian camels primarily survive on ‘Seabuckthorn’ a typical shrub found in abundance in the cold desert of Ladakh, the staple food of these animals. The problem is that this shrub is found in summers aplenty with the winters producing hardly anything tangible for these beasts. The locals in fact during the winters collect ‘alfaalfa hay ‘from the wild and feed them in lieu of ‘Seabuckthorn’. As per the camel keepers of Hundar village, during the peak tourist season each Bactrian camel yields about Rs 1500 to 2000 /- per day.
An avid tourist keen on camel Safari often goes on the beaten tracks around Hundar village and takes selfies with these beasts of burden. Later on he tries to combine these jaunts with that of bathing in the sulphur springs which are again plenty in number near Panamik . With international agencies like the ‘airbnb’ investing very heavily in this Ladakh region by bringing hordes of tourists who are attracted by the region’s tourism circuit getting a boost due to opening up of new homestays ,mountain biking, trekking ,and heritage tourist cultural exploration the camel safaris are the latest to add a sheen to the cold desert of India. There had been cases in the past when families of ‘Hundar village’ used to devise ways and means to dispose off their ‘Bactrian camels’ to their far off relatives for a pittance being unable to maintain them. Same families have gone on an overdrive to care for them with whatever means at their disposal.
It will be interesting for a reader to know that these Bactrian camels were the last vestiges of the famed ‘Silk route’ for lugging heavy loads, as also travellers to and from India to Tibet, china and Central Asia. But after the closure of trade route in the late 50s, these Bactrian camels became redundant, only to be revived now owing to ‘Mountain tourism’ which is fast catching up the fancy of one and all across the globe. Ladakh region, now a Centrally administered Union Territory has been on the front foot in acting as a beacon of hope for the rest of the country by showing its all USPs which were till now lying in hibernation. Need of the hour is to make it as a ‘Standard bearer’ of India’s reach in the remotest part of the sub -continent which is no doubt being done in an admirable fashion and told by Ogden Nash in the opening quote of mine that this dromedary -Bactrian camel is no doubt a double humped wonder.
(The writer is a retired army officer)
Bactrian Camel Heaving the economic burden of Ladakh
Col Satish Singh Lalotra