Feral Camels Wreak Havoc on the Australian Outback

Australian landscape

The Australian Outback is an arid landscape home to a number of plant and animal species, including non-native species such as feral camels. (Photo credit: Image Source Pink/Alamy)

Kangaroos, koala bears, and wallabies are all animals that are easily associated with Australia. But there are many non-native animals that are wreaking havoc across the Australian countryside. 

The Outback is a humungous, dry, and remote area of Australia. It is home to a number of native species adapted to this arid environment, including red kangaroos, emus, and dingos. A number of non-native species also inhabit the Outback, including feral pigs, horses, cats, foxes, and rabbits. One feral species that has done quite well in the desert conditions of the Australian Outback is the camel.

Though perhaps most-associated with the Sahara Desert, the camel population that lives in Australia today actually originates from India, China, Mongolia, and the Arabian peninsula. Camels were first introduced to Australia in the 1840s to help with the exploration and development of the country’s vast lands. These animals were used as draft and pack animals and for riding. They were an integral part of the construction of rail and telegraph lines across Australia.

By the 1920s, the population of camels in Australia numbered around 20,000. However, by the 1930s, the introduction of rail and motor travel made the use of camels for travel or the transport of materials obsolete. Most of the animals were let loose into the Australian bush. Left to their own devices, the camels reproduced rather successfully, and their populations expanded across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and parts of Queensland. Given that the camels have no natural predators in the Australian Outback, individuals can live up to the age of 50 years old.

Camels are a mobile species and forage across 70 kilometers per day. Though camels typically get all the water they need from the food they eat, they will drink water when it is available. (The idea that a camel’s hump stores water is a myth; a camel’s hump is mostly made of fat.) In fact, a camel can drink up to 200 liters of water in just three minutes. Much of the environmental damage caused by camels is by their search for water sources during drought periods. In the Australian bush, water holes are not only sources of water for many native animal species, but they are also important sources of water for human populations. In addition, water holes also serve as an important ceremonial and cultural site for indigenous populations. Camels can degrade water holes to the point where they are no longer usable by native species. In their insatiable search for water, camels have been known to destroy the infrastructure around water holes, including tanks, pipelines, laundries, and bathrooms.

Other problems caused by feral camels include the destruction of fences, windmills, and water troughs on many of the Outback’s large stock farms. Camels, which are known to harbor diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis, have the potential to spread these diseases to livestock populations. Additionally, feral camels are increasingly becoming a danger on Australia’s roadways, railway tracks, and airport runways. In all, it is estimated that feral camels are responsible for $10 million (Australian) worth of damage annually.

Until the late 1960s, the Australian government did not actively monitor the country’s feral camel population. By the mid 2000s, it was estimated that the camel population exceeded 500,000 individuals. As of 2010, Australian officials estimated that the camel population neared 1,000,000. The current feral camel management program includes a combination of trapping, mustering, and culling the animals. Some captured animals are domesticated and used in the tourist industry (both in Australia and abroad); others are slaughtered and used in the pet food industry or exported abroad as  meat for human consumption (camel meat is considered a delicacy in areas such as the Middle East). Other control methods include installing fencing around waterholes to keep the camels out. The capture and slaughter of feral camels is a controversial topic in Australia, with many animals-rights activities denouncing the practice. However, with such a large and potentially destructive population of camels, finding a solution that pleases everyone is not easy. The Australian government is currently working with a number of different constituencies, including conservation groups, livestock ranchers, local governments, research organizations, and indigenous organizations to come up with a viable solution.

More to Explore
Australia’s Feral-Camel Problem Has No Easy Solution
Feral Camels Plague Australian Outback
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Country: Australia
Location: Australia is located on the Oceania continent, which is found between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean.
Area: 7,741,220 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous United States)
Climate: Arid to semi-arid; temperate in the southern and eastern portions of the country and tropical in the northern portions of the country
Terrain: Mainly low desert plateaus; fertile plains in the southeast
Natural Resources: bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, nickel, silver, tungsten, uranium, petroleum Economics: $960.7 billion (est.2012)
Environmental Issues: Soil erosion, urbanization, desertification, habitat destruction (land and marine)
CIA – The World Factbook

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