Popular in zoos and as racing animals, particularly in Dubai, the camel in Australia is a different prospect entirely with its feral population estimated at anywhere between 1 and 1.5 million and the ability to almost double their numbers in fewer than 10 years.
And nowhere is the problem being felt more acutely than in the APY Lands of South Australia’s remote north-west where it’s thought the drought has seen as many as 7000 feral camels move in on their search for water, causing in excess of half a million dollars in damage to cattle stations and infrastructure in the process.
Camels were introduced to Australia in the mid-19th century, their ability to survive in the harshest conditions making them ideal as transportation and work beasts in searing heat. They came from Afghanistan and Arabia and it’s thought by the early 20th century as many as 20,000 had been brought from India alone, the vast majority of those landing in South Australia.
Michael Clinch is Pastoral Manager of the APY Lands and says as quickly as they can remove the feral pests their numbers are restored as more and more camels arrive in search of water. Said Mr Clinch: “The Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company rounds them up and takes them away by the truckload but the process is very time-consuming and there’s almost no profit there.”
In the 10 months from July 2018 to May 2019 more than 4000 feral camels were removed from the APY Lands to the Peterborough abattoir in SA’s mid-north but Mr Clinch says it’s very difficult to estimate how many of those are replaced by wandering camels who arrive in their wake in search of food and water.
The problem in identifying accurate numbers lies in the fact that camels are constantly on the move and can travel more than 70km a day in their quest for better conditions in which to thrive, in the process causing in excess of $10 million dollars in damage each year to private land and pastoral developments. And with no natural predators, their numbers just continue to rise.
An adult camel can drink up to 200 litres of water in a very short time so a herd of 50 or 60 will have a significant impact when they arrive at a pastoral water-hole. In drought conditions this has a disastrous effect on farmers, whose livestock pay the price of the marauding hordes.
Mention has been made of installing watering points in the APY Lands in an attempt to divert the animals away from established infrastructure, but the $150,000 cost for each project means this is unlikely to happen in the short term.
Feral camels also present a dilemma for Australia’s Indigenous population in affected areas, many Aboriginal people concerned at the animals’ impact on the country’s natural and cultural resources. They can wreak havoc on Aboriginal ‘bush tucker’ supplies, contaminate drinking water and disrupt native game animals which hamper hunting efforts.
Further to that, a herd of camels can have a devastating and irreversible impact on sacred Indigenous birth and burial sites, ceremonial lands and places of religious significance including locations which the spirits of the dead are believed to inhabit.
On the upside of the feral camel problem is the fact there’s money to be made from commercially harvesting the animals for meat as a realistic alternative to beef in Australia’s arid central regions, with several pastoralists already doing so.
Yet the camel in Australia has been immortalised thanks to The Ghan, the passenger train which runs from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. The 3000km railway line was built with substantial input from immigrant Afghan camel drivers, or Ghans, the ‘ship of the desert’ being ideally suited to arduous work in testing conditions which horses could not have endured.
Apart from the railway, the Afghan cameleers were instrumental in the construction of arguably this nation’s most important communication landmark, the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, completed in 1872 to connect Adelaide and Darwin and, from there, Australia with the rest of the developed world.
So while the present-day feral camel may be frowned upon in many quarters, its introduction to Australia almost 200 years ago played an integral part in building the infrastructure of the ‘new world’ Down Under and, for that, we owe it a debt of gratitude.