Nestled in the Ajmer Desert in the northwest of India, Pushkar is a beautiful holy Hindu town. Being a desert town, it does make sense that camels have become an integral part of the locals’ culture in this area.
The use of camels, however, have now become common tourist attractions in Pushkar. The volunteer program to India that I went on in 2015 included a weekend camel safari, something I was originally extremely excited about. It wasn’t until too late that I realized that maybe this was a mistake.
A Pushkar camel safari will take tourists through local villages and ultimately to a desert campsite, where the guides will cook dinner and everyone will sleep in tents under the stars.
Yes, the idea of it does sound quite romantic.
And at first, it did seem like the camels were being decently taken care of. We stopped to let them have water before heading out, and they even got a break halfway through our walk. Everyone was told to hop off their camels to let them have a 15 minute rest.
It was at this point that I started thinking something seemed off.
I’d grown up horseback riding, and I knew that horses were controlled with a metal bit placed in their mouth. I assumed this was also the case with camels. Boy was I wrong.
I hopped off my camel and took a picture with him. I realized that the reins were not attached to a removable metal bit in his mouth, but by what appeared to be a permanent barbell-like piercing through his nose.
By this point I thought it was too late for me to decide to boycott the camel safari. So eventually I climbed back onto the camel’s back and we headed to the campsite. I figured once we got there, the camels would be able to just chill and be camels.
For the most part I was right. The guides took the saddles off the camels’ backs and left them alone.
That is, until one of the guides suggested showing our group the camel dance.
We all tried to tell him no, that we didn’t want to see it.
“It’s okay,” said the guide, “The camels like it.”
The camel dance was so horrifying I won’t even find a video link to put here. Our entire group was trying to ask the guide to stop making the camel dance. I had to look away until he was done.
Based on my own experience, I highly discourage anyone from taking a camel safari in Pushkar (and probably anywhere else in the world for that matter). Through my research after the fact, I’ve found many other anecdotes describing a similar horror feeling when seeing the treatment of the camels not only on safari, but also at the annual Pushkar Camel Fair.
Bottom line is that, while I love immersing myself in different cultures, my Western understanding of and compassion for animals will not allow me to turn a blind eye to animal suffering.
I regret taking the camel safari in Pushkar. I did get the sense that the guides genuinely believed their camels were well cared for, but I also felt that maybe these people has good intentions while actually having a bad effect on the animals. Perhaps I’ll chalk it up to different cultural norms and different education, but I felt as though I was participating in animal exploitation and contributing to possible mistreatment.
I can’t say the experience was for nothing, though, because it really did open my eyes to the exploitation of animals for tourism and entertainment purposes. My experience on the Pushkar camel safari has made it important to me to now make sure I do thorough research on any future animal-related endeavors, especially in less-developed countries.