Long-term effects of a short-sighted move

Proposed Camel and Ostrich farming - Point of view
By Champa Fernando

Deputy Minister of Livestock H.R. Mithrapala is interested in importing camels and ostriches to be farmed here for their milk and eggs, mainly to diversify the diet of Sri Lankans, particularly Muslims.
He says there is “no food scarcity here in Sri Lanka” and what we now need is to try “varieties, different different types of things we’ve seen in the world … so especially the Muslim people in the country” and “tourists can enjoy it.” (Camel Milk and Ostrich Eggs could Fill Sri Lankan Food Gap; Sunday, January 9, 2011 11:56 Sajithra Nithi Radio Australia).

The Deputy Minister says that the two dry zones of Sri Lanka could be used for camel breeding and is of the view that since ostrich eggs “compared to other eggs” . . . “are bigger and weight-wise . . . higher . . . we can feed a family with one egg.” Should not it be considered how much an ostrich would eat to grow and produce eggs as against the costs involved for same with regard to a hen? With overheads, one ostrich egg may be the price of one or two dozen chicken eggs.

He is also not too worried about introducing foreign species to the country. He believes we must “experiment with these things.” The two new animal species will most certainly multiply and have an impact on our ecology and environment. What then is going to happen to the surplus or the economically unproductive animals? Cull them, create fresh abattoirs to kill them for their meat and induce Sri Lankans to eat camel meat or keep the animals in sanctuaries till they die a natural death?
Camel milk production requires the killing of calves, especially the males considered unsuitable for mating.

In order to produce milk, the female must be successfully mated and a calf must be born alive. The young calves can be a source of meat, especially those young males which are considered unsuitable for breeding. (FAO, 1982)

In making this proposal, whether the industry is socially, religiously, culturally, politically, environmentally, ecologically and economically acceptable in Sri Lanka and whether it conflicts with the government’s drive to give a boost to the local cow milk industry and whether it would jeopardize the egg industry seem to have not been considered, let alone taking into account the fresh animal welfare concerns associated with the breeding of two foreign animal species in our country.

I read up about camel husbandry and camel milk production to find out how feasible it is to rear camels in our small country and how humane it is. A book titled Camels and Camel Milk belonging to an FAO Animal Production and Health Paper Series published in 1982 says the following about the camel’s feeding habits and milk production:

The camel covers large areas while browsing and grazing, and is continually on the move, even if food is plentiful. Distance of 50–70 kilometres a day can be covered (Newman, 1979).

The main forage is obtained from trees and shrubs. The diet is made up of species of Acacia, Indigofera, Dispera, and Tribulus. The Acacia, Salsola and Atriplex plants which contain the highest content of moisture, electrolytes and oxalates are preferred (Newman, 1979).

The fodder that is available can also affect the composition and taste of the milk. When camels subsist mainly on Atriplex, the milk acquires a salty taste, while feeding on Schowia purpurea gives the milk an odour similar to that of cabbage (Gast, et al., 1969).

Fodder composition also directly affects the fat and protein content of the milk.
When camel milk is not consumed fresh it must be processed as soon as possible both because its keeping quality seems to be poor and as it is further adversely affected by the climate it soon goes bad if not treated.
Under warm conditions raw milk does not keep for long. . . .
Most camel milk is drunk fresh.

Apart from milk processing plants and other resources such as trained manpower, infrastructure, transportation and funding, we would need large extents of land carved out for camel husbandry and have to establish new species of fodder trees/shrubs before the camels are imported.

What will be the environmental/ecological impact of introducing to Sri Lanka’s dry zones new plant species that thrive in arid conditions? Do we have the technological and other resources for this industry to make camel milk production an economically viable enterprise? Do we have the expertise for camel husbandry? How much will it cost to obtain expert and current knowledge on camel and ostrich farming?

A recent study by I.F.M Marai1 et al (2009) has found that certain environmental conditions affect camels’ reproductive and physiological performance traits. So how will this factor affect the milk production of imported camels? Camels are not endemic to Sri Lanka.

Besides, each camel will cost us Rs.600,000 or so. Since female camels give birth for the first time when they are six years old and calve once every two years, building up a herd sufficient to make the camel milk industry economically viable would indeed be a challenge, and it will be a very costly long term activity too.

It might be cheaper to import camel milk to satiate the palates of those who are assumed to enjoy drinking camel milk or simply suggest they try the multitude of other food varieties to diversify their diet and make it enjoyable.

The FAO recommended camel husbandry as a solution to “improving human nutrition in the arid zones of the world, where hunger is endemic, and strikes millions of people every year” and not as a means of diversifying diets.

And what I read about camel milk production is utterly inhumane and to make the venture economically viable it would require us to start off a camel meat industry to deal with culled calves and male animals or old and unproductive animals, establishing fresh abattoirs to slaughter these big animals and create a market for camel meat.

The FAO book says that “camel meat is not universally eaten. In the pastoral communities camel meat is only eaten on special occasions.”

The brutality of camel husbandry for milk purposes is highlighted in another study titled “Camel Husbandry and Management by Ceeldheer Pastoralists in Central Somalia 1” by Ahmed A Elmi of Somali National University (1989): “astute management techniques towards both male and female camels need to be maintained” to achieve desirable yields of milk.

“These include increasing the proportion of females in the herd through culling male calves, castrating males which have undesirable characteristics, and keeping adult female camels in milk even though their calves might have died or have been culled.”The Deputy Minister could not have found a more inappropriate time to suggest that this inhumane industry be established here. Currently, there is an unprecedented public outcry against inhumane methods of slaughter and transportation of cattle and other livestock, with an ongoing debate on banning cattle slaughter altogether.

Many issues on animal welfare such as animal sacrificing and the plight of captive animals are being addressed by animal welfare groups and the public and there is a growing demand for the passage of the new Animal Welfare Bill. Compassion to animals is entrenched in the President’s manifesto for the development of Sri Lanka. And, right now the government is making elaborate plans to celebrate the 2600th Buddha Jayanthi. Camel milk and ostrich eggs would be prohibitively expensive given the kind of overheads this venture may incur, if it is allowed to be established.

Are we going to start off these inhumane practices of animal husbandry in Sri Lanka in order to diversify the diet of an affluent few at the expense of our social, cultural and religious values, jeopardizing our environment and ecological system and brutalizing our society, while giving rise to a multitude of fresh animal welfare issues?

(The writer is Secretary, KACPAW-Kandy Association for Community Protection through Animal Welfare)

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