Who would have thought that ice cream made from camel milk would become a tool to revive the poor animal’s declining population? Then again, who would have thought that the most iconic animal of the desert would face such rapid wipeout from its home? The numbers have fallen so drastically in the past 30 years that it has prompted the Rajasthan government to declare it as their state animal, hoping to increase protection for the animal.

The decline of the camel is symptomatic of a larger change in desert ecology and the way of life of the famed camel herders—the Raikas. A pastoral community, the Raikas were once the traditional caretakers of camel herds belonging to the maharajahs. Vanishing grazing land, proliferation of disease and a fall in male camel population are just some of the reasons the Raikas, who once kept camels in their hundreds, are now finding it difficult to manage even a few.

Over 70% of the 1.5 million one-humped camels, bred primarily in western India, are in Rajasthan. The rest are found in Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab. In some pockets, there has been a 60% decline in camel numbers. As per the census figures from Rajasthan, from about 500,000 in 2003, there are fewer than 300,000 today.

Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a German veterinarian who arrived in Rajasthan in 1990 for her PhD, has dedicated her life to the camels and the camel people of Rajasthan. In her book Camel Karma, she chronicles her life’s passion, and how her research subject changed the course of her life. Köhler-Rollefson experimented with several ideas to revive the camel culture. She set up an NGO called the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan in Pali, Rajasthan that serves as an advocacy group for the Raikas and their camels.

She organized camel yatras to spread awareness among local communities across Rajasthan about what’s happening to their iconic animal. Along with the community she helped set up a social enterprise Camel Charisma that makes products such as soap (from camel milk), scarves and durries (from camel hair) and handmade paper (from camel poo). Her efforts have yielded results. The government of Rajasthan has announced a string of measures to protect the camel. However, until the grazing fields are restored, the fundamental problem would not be addressed.

That’s where the clash with wildlife conservationists and the forest department comes in. In 2004, a Supreme Court judgement made it difficult for the Raikas to take their camels into Kumbhalgarh sanctuary for grazing. If the Raikas went into the sanctuary, as they had for generations, they risked being fined or arrested by the forest department. According to the department, overgrazing was causing degradation in the sanctuary as well as impacting wild ungulates that compete for the same food resources with the Raikas’ camels.

However, this stand of the forest department has been challenged by experts. Camel grazing in Kumbhalgarh sanctuary can hardly cause harm to the forest, says Anil K. Chhangani, a scientist who has studied the problem closely. “Camels are primarily browsers and not grazers. They play an important role in the regeneration of a number of trees. Further, they are soft-hooved and gentle to the soil surface," he says. His research goes against the holy grail of conservation, the belief that grazing is harmful, and has a deleterious impact on the forest and wild ungulates.

The fight, as Chhangani says, is not between “pastoralists and wildlife but between pastoralists and so-called wildlife conservationists". He says he believes this needs to be countered scientifically with facts and figures. His study with an American researcher, Paul Robbins of the University of Arizona, confirms that human-induced activity, including grazing, helps floral diversity flourish in Kumbhalgarh.

The three-year study used satellite images of the sanctuary between 1986 and 1999 to establish that human interference in the forest led to greater diversity in floral coverage in Kumbhalgarh where the Raikas used to take their cattle for grazing.

As conservationists battle it out, the fate of the camel hangs in the balance. One way to resolve this conflict could be to revive the traditional grazing lands of the Raikas through better protection of village commons, as Chhangani suggests. These include the gauchars (village pastures), orans (village forests), parats (wastelands), and agoris (catchment areas of ponds and rainwater harvesting structures), which not only feed livestock, but are excellent repositories of biodiversity. The problem is that those village commons have been taken away and diverted either to industry or for putting up solar and wind energy farms. The desert is no longer deserted; there are several contenders now for space. The loser is the gentle giant of this ecosystem—the camel.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars—Dispatches from a Vanishing World.