Australia’s Feral Camels
In the 19th century, camels were taken to Australia to carry freight in the outback during the exploration of the interior. They were also used as pack animals during the building of the transcontinental railway.
The combination of the completed railway and the introduction of the internal-combustion engine put the camels out of work. Several thousand of the animals were simply turned loose into the bush and the result has been a lot of negative impacts on the environment and ranches. They are mostly dromedaries (one hump), but a few are bactrian camels.
The Outback and Camels
The Australian outback is big, enormously big. It covers 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square kilometres) and is home to about 60,000 people. For comparison, it’s about twice the size of India, which has 1.3 billion inhabitants. The dry land of this vast interior is a place where camels are almost uniquely equipped to survive.
Camels are, of course, not native to Australia and so have no natural predators in the continent.
They have thrived on the local vegetation and bred to an estimated one million animals in 2008. Biologists estimated they would number two million by 2020.
Governments decided that two million of the critters wandering about was not tolerable so they embarked on a cull. A few animals have been captured and exported to the Middle East and India, but most are shot and served up as pet food or just left to rot where they die.
Added impetus for the Australian Federal Camel Management Project came from the small town of Docker River
Introducing [camels] was short-term genius and long-term disaster.”
British television presenter Simon Reeve
The Invasion of Docker River
About 350 people live in Docker River, which is 370 miles west of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. Its Aboriginal name is Kaltukatjara.
In November 2009, a herd of about 6,000 feral camels arrived in town in search of water.
Local Government Minister Rob Knight is quoted as saying “They have smashed down roads and invaded the local air strip. They’ve come right into the community, smashing infrastructure and it’s now critical.”
In so large a herd some weaker animals got trampled to death and were lying in the broiling sun causing a health hazard.
Another health concern is that camels do bite when they are feeling grumpy. There was a case in Rajasthan in 2016 in which a man left his camel out in scorching heat all day. When he returned to free the animal it bit him in the head and killed him.
That’s why the guns were brought in to Kaltukatjara as the only effective way of dealing with the invading animals.
Ranchers in Australia’s interior say the camels are a menace. They destroy fences and smash water tanks, pumps, and pipes.
Outback Australia notes that “In the worst affected areas cattle station owners spend 80 percent of their maintenance budget on fixing camel damage, some up to A$60,000 (U.S.$43,000) a year. Some properties have over 2,000 camels on their land. The owners are at their wits end and are talking about giving up and just handing the pasture over to the camels.”
They trample crops and also out-compete indigenous wildlife for food. They denude the landscape of plants such as grasses and even trees. That means a loss of habitat for kangaroos, reptiles, small birds, emus, and other animals.
There are an estimated 350 plant species growing in Australia’s outback. Of these, camels eat 325. They are seriously damaging the fragile desert ecosystem.
Some people campaign against the killing of the animals in the bush; not every shot from a truck or helicopter is fatal and there are bound to be some wounded camels dying a slow and painful death.
Opponents of the cull say a more humane approach would be to develop a camel meat industry.
Ian Conway is a rancher in the Northern Territory. He rounds up herds into pens and sells them for their meat mostly to the Middle East. He told the BBC “There’s no difference to camel and beef, in fact to a lot of people who live on camel like we do, prefer it to beef.”
Camels make way more sense as a food source than cattle or sheep, which struggle in Australia’s hot, dry climate.
One farm, Summerland Camels, grazes a herd of more than 500 animals and sells camel milk, cheese, even skin-care products made from camel’s milk.
A couple of Australian state governments combined in 2016 to produce a report recommending setting up a camel industry that would be “both profitable and viable for a few years.” Patched onto this is a proposal to deal with the feral horses and donkeys whose ancestors were discarded decades ago.
But, and it’s a big but, if Australians are reluctant to eat camel meat, and they are, it seems unlikely they’ll relish horse and donkey steaks and burgers.
The Ghan is a luxury train that travels across the Australian interior from Adelaide in the south the Darwin in the north. It covers almost 3,000 km and its name honours the 2,000 cameleers who were brought to Australia to handle the animals in the 19th century. They were known generically as Afghans, shortened to Ghans.
In the mid-19th century, The United States Camel Corps was formed to test camels as pack animals in the southwest. The animals performed well, but the Civil War disrupted the trials and the plan was shelved. The animals were auctioned off but some were set free in the wild. But, they did not thrive as in Australia and eventually died out.
A camel can shed 30 percent of its body weight in water and still function. A human who loses five percent of their body weight in water is going to be in serious trouble.
- “Australia, Home to the World’s Largest Camel Herd.” Sarah Bell, BBC News, May 19, 2013.
- “Panic as 6,000 Thirsty Wild Camels Invade Australian Outback Town, Smashing Roads and Houses.” Richard Shears, Mail Online, November 25, 2009.
- “Why Are There so Many Camels in the Australian Desert?” James W. Cornett, Desert Sun, January 26, 2017.
- “The Strange Story of Australia’s Wild Camel.” Ben Lerwill, BBC News, April 11, 2018.
- “Camels in Australia.” Birgit Bradtke, Outback Australia, undated.
- “Australian Feral Camel Population Estimated to Be at 1.2 Million and Growing Fast.” Ben Graham, News.co.au, August 28, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor