Sunday, July 12, 2009

ADELAIDE, Australia | It’s being described as a plague. More than 1 million wild camels are wreaking havoc in huge parts of Australia, eating the vegetation, destroying property, fouling and consuming water sources, desecrating indigenous sites and causing road accidents.

About 170 years after being introduced to the continent as a pack animal to open its arid interior, Australia’s feral camel population is the biggest in the world. The camels double their numbers every nine years and continually expand their domain.

Their hearty population gives no joy to Australians, and some have been exported to Asia and the Middle East.

A report by the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Center in Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory, estimates that feral camels roam an area of about 2 million square miles - more than a third of the continent.

“We have to reduce numbers in a big way,” said wildlife scientist Glenn Edwards, the report’s chief author. “A lot of camels are in remote areas, and for those there is probably no option but to cull them.”

The scope of the proposed cull is huge: 400,000 camels would be destroyed in the next two years and 700,000 in the next four years, offering the nightmarish vision of sharpshooters in helicopters targeting animals that have achieved almost iconic status in Australia’s history.

Between 1840 and 1920, an estimated 20,000 camels were brought to Australia to explore and develop the inhospitable Outback. They transported goods and helped build the railroad and the telegraph. Along with them came thousands of drivers, many, but not all, from Afghanistan.

The Ghan, Australia’s legendary north-south transcontinental railroad, is named in honor of the cameleers.

With the advent of motorized vehicles and the railroad, the camel trains became less useful.

Many of the cameleers did not want to destroy their animals, so they let them loose into the wild and expected them to die off.

Instead, the camels thrived, feasting on saltbush and spinifex grasses. They have multiplied to the point at which they’ve become a huge nuisance, especially during droughts when herds of up to 400 thirsty camels go on rampages and trample everything in their way to find water.

To get the population under control, environmentalists are seeking $45 million in federal funds over the next four years while the areas with substantial camel populations - the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia - are working with the federal government on an action plan.

It won’t be easy. Camels can travel more than 40 miles a day, are mostly in inaccessible areas, and breed for 30 years of their 50-year life spans.

The government action plan will include proposals for commercial exploitation of the camels, but culling is seen as the major solution. That is likely to meet with resistance.

Neil Burrows, director of the Science Department of Environment and Conservation of Western Australia - the state with the largest number of wild camels - said some people don’t want the camels killed either because “they see them as more resource than pest or because of religious beliefs.”

Camels, which drink several gallons of water at a time, have caused massive damage to traditional aboriginal watering holes, property and sacred sites, but a number of indigenous communities believe that because they are animals mentioned in the Bible, killing them will bring drought.

Efforts to exploit the camels commercially have been hindered by the cost of reaching and harvesting them. Live camels were exported for several years, but that market dried up in 2005 because of shipping difficulties.

There are proposals to build a halal abattoir in Australia and send packaged camel meat to Muslim countries. Another proposal is to turn camel meat into pet food. Although most people who have tried the meat pronounce it as tasty, similar to beef but leaner, attempts to get the Aussies to add camel to their precious “barbie” have gone nowhere.

“Australians are pretty conservative in their choice of meat,” Mr. Edwards said. “Kangaroo meat hasn’t penetrated the market; camel meat is in the same basket.”

Everyone agrees that the solution should be as humane as possible.

“In their natural habitat they are wonderful,” Mr. Burrows said. “But they don’t belong here and they are causing great damage. We want to reduce their number, not eradicate them.”

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