"The camel's lower jaw is unique"

Camel physician T K Gahlot heads the surgery department at the College of Veterinary & Animal Science in Bikaner, Rajasthan. He tells Sopan Joshi about the college's achievements and how the Indian scientific community ignores them

Published: Saturday 15 January 2005

On becoming a veterinarian
I was born and brought up in Bikaner, which is livestock country. Love for animals came naturally. I grew up watching animals and how people depend on them. My father's a physician, so there was a familiarity with the medical sciences. Bikaner had the only veterinary college. I joined in 1983.

On jaw fractures in camels
Although the camel is a very hardy animal, there is a peculiar anatomical problem that makes it vulnerable. The lower jaw is unique: it is too long and the space between teeth is too wide. The alveolar tooth creates a weak point in the lower jawbone. When in rut (during winters), the males bite powerfully at hard objects they wouldn't bite usually and several animals break their lower jaw. This, in turn, prevents the lips from meeting so that browsing for fodder becomes impossible. If the animal can't eat, death is inevitable.

On injured camels' fate
People are forced to abandon the animals to die a horribly painful death. Such incidents are quite common in the Thar during the winter. For the camel owners -- they use primarily males for draught -- this results in a loss of investment. Very often, people buy camels with borrowed money in the hope of earning a livelihood and repaying the loan. A jaw fracture sinks them completely. So treating jaw fractures is a priority.

On the struggle to develop a treatment
We started with techniques that were either too expensive or ineffective, or both. A plaster cast for the lower jaw would come unstuck after the animal drank water. That's when we thought of holding the fractured jaw together with a silver wire. It turned out to be as effective as the Jaipur Foot among humans. But silver is costly. It used to cost the camel owners Rs 80-100 for the silver wire. After the animal recovered, we would return the silver to the owner. Then, we started using copper wires that cost Rs 10-15.

On the treatment's reception
At the world's first international camel conference held in Libya in 1990, we learnt that we were pioneers in camel surgery. This technique was recognised and adapted universally for treating jawbone fractures. Our college has treated about 5,000 cases till now. One of our biggest clients is the Border Security Force, which maintains a camel fleet in the desert bordering Rajasthan.

On the world's first medical journal on camels
Very few countries have camels. So the scientific research on camels is extremely limited. In 1992, during a conference in Dubai, the organisers designated a horse expert as the chair in a clinical session on camel diseases. I protested, and was then appointed co-chair. I realised that camel research needed a peer-reviewed scientific publication. In 1994, we launched the Journal of Camel Practice and Research with some grants from friends. Camel scientists in Africa couldn't publish their papers in Europe or North America, as their English language skills were poor. I started soliciting these papers, improved the language and published the knowledge collected in them. Money was raised through pharma advertisements and subscriptions. In the past two years, we have published a book and a bibliography on camel research. Both have been well received internationally.

On recognition abroad
The journal's panel has the world's best camel scientists and all papers are thoroughly peer-reviewed. I know that papers published in our journal are a criterion for promotion in the camel research establishment in African and Arab countries. We often get requests for issuing acceptance of the manuscripts. But for wider acceptance in the international scientific community, we need to apply through an elaborate formal procedure. That requires time and money.

On recognition in India
Apart from people who thank us for treating their camels -- that's the biggest reward -- our work has gone unappreciated in India. We work under the aegis of the Rajasthan Agriculture University, which, in turn, is part of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research network. Although the institute is famous for the clinical research on camels, scientists working on camels are unsung heroes.

On the future of camel research
Right now, research funds come because of the camel races in West Asia, particularly Saudi Arabia. India needs to appreciate the commercial importance of the camel to thousands of people. Camel science will be around as long as the animal is around. And it is a very hardy, adaptive animal.

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