Australia gets the hump ? and reaches for the gun to settle its camel question

Author: By Roger Maynard in Sydney

They munch their way through desert vegetation, further denuding this arid
nation’s heartland and threatening its sensitive ecosystem. They damage
Aboriginal communities in their search for water, fracturing pipes and
knocking air conditioning units off walls. And their population is more than
doubling every eight to nine years.

The camel ? which was introduced to Australia in 1840 to help transport heavy
goods to the remote interior of the country ? has now become one of its
greatest pests. Dealing with the alarming population growth of one-humped
Camelus dromedarius has been vexing governments, conservation bodies and
scientists for years.

Now the federal government is to set aside nearly £10m to address the problem,
which will almost certainly be solved at the barrel of a gun.

One option being considered is a mass aerial shoot ? which experts regard as
the most effective and humane method of culling the animals.

But killing camels is not quick or cheap, with costs of a cull estimated at
around £50 an animal. And even if a cull removed 80,000 camels a year, it
would do no more than match their birth rate.

The Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre at Alice Springs, in the
centre of the country, is masterminding how the federal funding will be
spent. Its research general manager, Professor Murray McGregor, says
previous efforts to deal with camel numbers have been hindered by the
enormous scale of the problem.

In the outback, the animals leave a trail of destruction which costs property
owners and Aboriginal communities nearly £7m a year, and much more in
unmeasured social and environmental costs. “They’ll eat anything up to
80 per cent of the plants available,” Mr McGregor told The Sydney
Morning Herald. This deprives indigenous desert animals of a food source,
and indigenous people of a source of plants for traditional medicine and
bush food.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett describes the government’s latest
move as “the most significant commitment to tackle feral camels since
they were introduced”.

The landmark initiative will be spread over four years, with the money divided
between Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern
Territory, where the camel population occupies a massive 3.3 million square
kilometres of land.

But the federal government’s strategy may not be the only answer.

On the sidelines of the great dromedary debate are those with commercial
interests ? the shooters and butchers who are also keen to get their hands
on Australia’s expanding camel population.

Some claim the market could be worth as much as £500m a year, but its success
would depend on Aboriginal authorities allowing access to their sacred
lands. With the use of mobile abattoirs, the processing of camel meat could
create hundreds of jobs for indigenous people in areas where there is little
or no work.

But while live camel exports have been successful on a small scale in the
past, the industry has enjoyed only modest success in selling camel meat to
domestic and overseas markets.

Pet food companies and leather makers have been good customers. However camel
meat has never been a hit as a source of food for people ? though it is not
for lack of trying. Senior public servants in Canberra were served camel
burgers at a barbecue last year, as part of a campaign to promote camel meat
to consumers.

While Australians have developed a taste for kangaroo, emu and crocodile meat,
camel has never made it onto the menu. Yet for the health conscious, it
meets all the right criteria ? lean, low in fat and with little cholesterol.

Specialist restaurants describe it as gamey in flavour, and a little tougher
than beef. Despite the best efforts of the bushtucker industry, camel meat
is rarely found on supermarket shelves or the nation’s dinner plates. As a
foodstuff, the ship of the desert has been cast adrift.

Counting the cost of camels

Camels were first imported to Australia in 1840 from the Canary Islands, and
over the next half-century some 12,000 followed.

Most of them came from India and Palestine and were used as pack and riding
animals by early outback pioneers. Under the care of Afghans, Camelus
made a major contribution to the early development of
Australia’s dry interior.

They helped with the construction of roads and railways and the Afghans, who
were nicknamed “pilots of the desert”, acted as guides for several
major expeditions.

Twenty- four camels were hired for the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition
across the country’s arid interior in l861.

While camels were still being worked as recently as the 1950s, they were
largely replaced by trains and motor vehicles by the 1920s.

Redundant and allowed to run wild, they thrived and multiplied in their desert
habitat and half a century later, Australia is counting the cost.

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