Moving Through Landscapes - an interview with Ilse Köhler-Rollefson by Judith D. Schwartz

Did you know, 2024 is the year of the camelid?

Ilse Köhler-Rollefson fell in love with camels while doing fieldwork in Jordan. A veterinarian from Germany who had grown disenchanted with the commercial side of animal care, Ilse parlayed her ability to identify animal bones to volunteering at an archeological site in Pella. It was here she heard a Bedouin man singing harmoniously to his animals and encountered her first camel herd. Ten years later, after earning a Ph.D. and raising boy-girl twins, she decided she wanted to work directly with camels. Today she divides her time between Germany and Sadri, India, where she lives among camels and herders. To ensure that camel-keeping remains viable for the community, she co-founded Camel Charisma, which produces and markets camel products including milk, cheese, wool, soap, and “camel poo” paper.

Ilse is a tireless advocate for camels and the people who tend them. Concerned that factory farming, industrialization of livestock, and land appropriation were forcing pastoralists to abandon herding, in 1992 she initiated the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development to ensure that livestock keepers have a voice. She speaks on pastoralism in venues throughout the world and is the author of three well-regarded books, most recently Hoofprints on the Land, published in 2023. Soil Centric’s Judith D. Schwartz talked with Ilse about changing careers, taking risks, and her enduring love of animals.


JDS: You started as a veterinarian. Why did you leave the field?

Ilse: I had grown up with horses and dogs in a small village. Because I loved animals I chose to study veterinary medicine. But I quickly realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do. My first placement was as an assistant to a large animal vet in Northern Germany who boasted that he delivered three calves by cesarean sections in a night. Basically, farmers had forgotten that cows could give birth naturally. I met many good farm animal practitioners, but often animals were more of a vehicle for business. You earn from sick animals, so there’s no incentive for veterinarians to keep animals healthy in the first place. I worked at a small animal clinic and found that this work was mostly owner therapy. Often there’s nothing wrong with the pet, but you have to give an injection to show you’re doing something. 

Since I’ve always had an interest in horses I interned in the racehorse business in England and France and then at a thoroughbred breeding farm in Kentucky. There it was even more about money. Horses are often raced at two years old when they’re not really grown and can’t take the pressure on their tendons. They get put on painkillers and after two years they’re at the butcher. Veterinarians were colluding with this. I didn’t know what to do.

JDS: It can be painful to see the dodgier side of a profession you’ve held in esteem—something many can relate to. How did you make the pivot?

Ilse: I traveled to the west coast and to the ruins in Yucatan. I thought, archaeology. …that’s interesting! I saw there were fieldwork opportunities and got a job in Jordan as someone who identifies animal bones. I felt an immediate connection with the Bedouin in the area, and spent my time off with a camel-herding family. After receiving a Ph.D. in Germany, I got a fellowship to study camels and pastoralism in Jordan but was denied a research permit: the Jordanian government said camel herding was an anachronism. So I continued to work in ethno-archeology, assessing archeological remains. I met an American archeologist and he and I were married at the American Embassy in Amman. By the time I was 37 I was tired of working with the bones of dead animals—I wanted to work with living camels. Another research fellowship brought me to Rajasthan, India, where I spend most of my time today.

At first it was difficult to do research. No one wanted to talk to me. I couldn’t get near any camels or herders for months until my luck turned and I met a Raika veterinarian who introduced me to his community. Initially the Raika herders wanted medicines for their camels from me but then we developed real friendships. I soon realized the pressures they faced. For one, they were losing access to their customary grazing areas. Then a law limited herders’ ability to sell male camels for meat. Under such stressors the number of camels in the region was declining—and with that a source of livelihood. I felt it important to preserve this culture, so I helped launch a welfare organization for the local pastoralists and started the Camel Charisma dairy.


JDS: You say camel milk is not only super nutritious—that it’s also regenerative. Tell me about that.

Ilse: From observing the Raika, it struck me that what they and other pastoralists do is the most ecological way of food production. It involves no fossil fuels and no fertilizers, and it doesn’t destroy biodiversity. Camels are adapted to drylands and vast open spaces. Since they can walk long distances, nomadic herders can access areas far beyond what other domesticated animals can. They eat thorny and salty vegetation that we can’t eat and convert it to meat and milk. Rather than hooves, their feet are flat elastic pads that are gentle on the soil. They can bear long intervals without drinking. This is because they are parsimonious with water, minimizing what they excrete, and because they fluctuate in temperature so don’t need to spend much water to keep their bodies cool. Their humps store fat (not water!), which helps regulate temperature and allows them to endure long periods without food.

Plus, camels are what I call “desert gardeners”. Their favorite trees are acacias. Acacia seeds have a hard cover and need to go through an animal’s stomach in order to germinate. In Sadri we had a paddock with nothing growing. A few years later it’s a forest—all from the seeds that the camels have left in their manure. According to the traditional knowledge of the Raika, camels’ diets include 36 different plants, full of phytochemicals. That is why their milk is so healthy, even medicinal. All of this is kept going by the close animal-human relationship, the powerful bond the herders cultivate. 


JDS: What advice do you have for people seeking meaningful, regenerative work—in particular those who love animals?

Ilse: I’ve taken a lot of financial risks. I’ve never been employed except for a few months as a vet, and when I went back to Germany I didn’t fit into any slot. As a consultant it was always unpredictable when I would get the next paycheck. I don’t regret it one bit. I would never have fit into some hierarchy. My advice is to do what you want to do and not to put up with a job you don’t like because of security. One route is to develop a specialty in some field that few know about. In my case, I was the only archeozoologist in Jordan. 

There is a need for people who love animals—who look at animals as co-creatures rather than machines. I believe working as a shepherd or pastoralist is among the most valuable things you can do. You produce wonderful food and you take care of the environment. It’s possible to go to a foreign country and live with a herding family. You develop expertise, and will be in demand because not many have that knowledge. In Sadri we had a wonderful volunteer through the Workaway platform. Trevor Warmedahl, known as the “Milk Trekker”, came to Camel Charisma and wrote about us. He started out in industrial cheese, and now travels the world finding traditional cheesemakers. There are lots of opportunities but they’re not standardized, so you have to look for them. Find what fascinates you and really go for it.


Learn more about grazing by checking out Soil Centric's Grazing Guide!

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