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  • Bec Sloan

Hoofprints on the Land

Reviewed by Bec Sloane

Written by Ilse Köhler-Rollefson


“Documenting traditional knowledge does not really preserve it - it needs to be lived, applied, revised, adapted.” - I.K.R.


Hoofprints on the Land is a smartly bundled parcel from which to sample polyculture (and polyspecies) wisdom, decolonized science and actionable solutions. Without any hyperbolic narrative, her observations from among the Raika camel herders of northern India - and her research into transhumanism worldwide - paint a sprawling scroll conveying the historic, present and future relevance of pastoralism.


Köhler-Rollefson specializes in ethnoveterinary medicine, the integration of traditional knowledge, animal science and anthropology. Throughout her book, she cites the legitimacy and urgency of this knowledge gleaned from a myriad of cultures amidst our crises of climate variability, a vulnerable food system and increasing proximity to disease. She honors the fact that this insight and relationship with animals coalesce only after generations of knowledge sharing and, importantly, evolve alongside interactions with our changing world. Reading Hoofprints, one gains a solid understanding that such expertise is grounded in knowing how ecological systems - soils, plants, animals, people, weather - “articulate and influence” each other.


At the book’s core are interactions among the Raika and their camels in the Thar Desert, but the author makes time to bring us to follow herds from California to Ohio, and to go to Mongolia, Switzerland, Burkina Faso, the Andes, Portuguese oak forests and Arctic tundra. Through chapters broken down into foundational values which themselves convey universality - Bonding, Communication, Nourishment - we accompany the author and the activist researchers she credits with “bursting our confined horizons of what constitutes animal husbandry.” Seamlessly weaving historical context throughout the book, she makes plain these ways are tried and true, and mutually beneficial for herd and herder alike. Illuminating the reverence toward animals within these societies, Köhler-Rollefson notes how the herd’s guide, unfamiliar with the territory, deferred to the camels and “came to understand the area through their eyes.” She writes of sleigh drivers who observe their reindeer’s behavior and who invite them to map out the best route. Collaboration, above all, is the message this book carries:


“It’s a dance with the unpredictability that is the core characteristic of the system.”

Powerful takeaways in Hoofprints stem from placing value on animal autonomy and on rural livelihoods. Camels, the author’s creature of choice, feed and medicate themselves, locate forage where no edible plants abound for humans, and produce highly nutritious milk. The proteins and micronutrients they conjure from harsh environments are more wholesome to malnourished human populations than carb-based foods. Köhler-Rollefson frequently touts this something-from-nothing phenomenon. She cites herders producing hundreds of thousands of pounds of protein from sparse vegetation, on land unsuitable for cultivation and without non-renewable resources like chemicals, tractor fuel or transportation.


Köhler-Rollefson insists upon reframing the widespread perception of herders as poor, backward and uneducated in all realms - social, scientific, and economic - as it remains a professional disincentive. Pastoralism, she stresses, combines biodiversity conservation with food production; it ought to be framed as a desirable career path with high status and a decent income. The book does cite initiatives around the world that are making moves to instill this desire at both grassroots and national policy levels to preserve pastoralism, stimulate rural development and integrate cultural heritage. One of the ways to support these livelihoods is by elevating the status of rural career paths. Among the Raika, if a man returns discontented from city life, community members each gift him a sheep so that he may reconstitute a flock and carry on as a herder. The author notes this was of major significance amid the pandemic; as young Raika lost city jobs and resumed herding, many found they thrived being their own master rather than a menial worker.


“Our problems with livestock started when we began to treat animals as if they are plants.”


Readers of Hoofprints may also appreciate a well-done debunking of cattle shaming in regard to their CO2 emissions, among other basic yet profound paradigm shifts. Exercising her breadth of understanding and experience, Köhler-Rollefson invites us to challenge - yet not abandon - academic approaches to science and welcome true systems thinking already upheld by the practitioners she spotlights. Often glossed over are disconnects between Indigenous nations and environmental groups who, in respective efforts to vie for the public’s support, fall into conflict. Likewise, animal scientists are led astray by a tangle of disjointed hyperspecializations lacking an underlying value system at their core. In Hoofprints, Köhler-Rollefson steps into the ring to stand between herders and well-intentioned stakeholders and lays down facts to speak for themselves. Pastoralists are pushed off land to make way for sanctuaries - land which they are best equipped to sustain.


“Biodiversity thrives,” in these places where humans and animals work harmoniously with nature, and such millennia-old ethics “form an antithesis to the dominant concept of land as an asset.”


Köhler-Rollefson links the rapport among herders and their animals to that of any relationship - romantic, familial, professional - as something to be shaped over time and nurtured in order to thrive. And accepting approaches such as cryoconservation - a process where biological material (cells, tissues, or organs) are frozen to preserve the material for an extended period of time - as a backup, she asks whether it wouldn’t make more sense to apply resources and support the living systems already raising resilient breeds who we may come to depend on. Gene banks require immense amounts of energy, infrastructure and expenditure over an indefinite stretch of time, and, as the author points out, once genetic material is frozen, it is frozen in time. As new diseases and weather patterns take hold, reconstituted species will not have been present to evolve alongside them or glean essential knowledge from their elders. Species are, after all, “never static, but always a work in progress.” Hoofprints in the Land reminds us of the value in pastoralists’ knowledge, of the growing efforts to revitalize it, and of our role in sustaining it.


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