How Australia became home to the world’s largest population of wild camels, and how it is seeking to reduce their numbers by killing the animals with sharpshooters, is a textbook example of what can happen when non-native species are imported.
The English introduced camels from Pakistan and India to Australia between 1840 and 1907 as pack animals. Some 20,000 were imported to transport freight and people in the outback, only to be released into the wild by their Asian handlers who did not want to destroy them in the 1920s and 1930s once trains and roads appeared and the camels were no longer needed.
The camels who today roam in the Australian outback are great great grandchildren of the original ones. While their ancestors played a key role in creating modern Australia, the “feral camels” are considered a “plague,” says a 2011 article in Discovery. Camels can take in more than 50 gallons of water in three minutes from waterholes and have been known to pull pipes and air-conditioning units off walls and break plumbing systems. They are able to eat high up into trees and their feeding has resulted in some plant species becoming locally extinct; they have damaged sites of cultural significance to aboriginal people. As camels have no natural predators in Australia, they have a low mortality rate.
A 2011 study by the Australian government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, described camels as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions with each camel estimated to produce 100 pounds of methane a year. But camel experts have countered that these findings as “false and stupid… a scientific aberration.”
Drought reduced the number of camels to about 750,000 in 2009 but the Australian government wants to lower their numbers even further and has been monitoring the camels. Under its Australian Feral Camel Management Project (AFCMP), the government has sought to control its wild camel population of 1.2 million by an aggressive culling effort.
Private contractors have been shooting the camels from helicopters, with the carcasses left to rot in the desert. ”Eradication” of camels is ” not the goal, and it could never be achieved in any case,” the Australian government’s AFCMP website claims. Its purpose (couched in proper bureaucratese) is to “reduce the density of feral camels to a level where their negative impacts are within acceptable limits.”
It is not clear how many efforts the Australian government has made to find more humane solutions to a problem created, after all, by humans. The government says that it is considering “viable proposals to export camels to the Middle East” as a ”good solution for a relatively small reduction in camel densities.” From 1988 to 2007, it exported 4,761 camels but says that there is currently ”no incentive for companies and individual landholders to invest in infrastructure.”
Animal welfare advocates and many others have expressed outrage at the mass killing of wild camels. In particular, Qataris and other Arabs are, says Al Jazeera, “horrified at the Youtube videos and photographs of the camel cull” as “for the Arabs, camels occupy an important place in culture, history and economics.” A Qatari businessman, Ali Sultan Al Hajri, who grew up illiterate and and raising camels until he was 17 — he still maintains a herd of camels — has traveled to Australia and is exploring whether there is an alternative to Australia’s current policy of killing the wild camels, says Al Jazeera.
The many wild camels in Australia offer a very cautionary tale of the results of importing non-native species without regard for long-term consequences. In all due regard to the important role camels played in developing Australia, the government needs to expand its efforts to find humane alternatives to controlling its wild camel population rather than hiring hunters to pull the trigger on them.
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