Getting the hump – Australia’s problem with feral camels

Posted by Paul Davies on 25/09/20 15:12

Australia’s historical problem with rabbits is well known. From their importation in 1859 by a British settler simply wanting something to hunt on his land in Victoria, their spread across the entire continent was remarkable for its speed.

The story is well known and is often cited as a cautionary tale against tinkering with the evolutionary process. With no natural predators, rabbits were able to carry out massive destruction of crops across the entire continent.

Widespread hunting, poisoning and rabbit-proof fences have all had little success in controlling the devastation, and it was only a biological solution that had the necessary impact in controlling the rabbit population.

These days, myxomatosis is just the punchline to the joke rolled out every four years or so - ‘What do English batsmen most fear when they tour Australia?’ - but, for a long time after its release, it was the toast of farmers across the country.

The rabbit problem is now relatively controlled, although ongoing issues sometimes flare-up which require the need for a second biological weapon called ‘RHDV’ – much to the relief of schoolchildren in spelling lessons everywhere!

Less well known, but equally severe in impact, is the current problem of feral camels.

Camels in Australia

The timescales for camels arriving in Australia are the same as rabbits. In the middle of the 19th century, the British imported them to Australia for the quite valid reason that they wanted to explore the vast, inhospitable outback areas.

With their origin in Africa – ‘the ships of the desert’ - the camel was seen as a better mode of transport than the horse and much better suited to life in the outback given its ability to go long periods without water.

Immediately before World War One, it was estimated that there were 20,000 camels in Australia – all domestic, in terms of being owned and looked after, and therefore they were not a problem.

With the arrival of motorised transport in the 1920s, however, things took a turn for the worse. Motor transport was far quicker and more efficient, so the use of camels declined and eventually stopped entirely. The result was that all the domestic camels were released into the wild – and this is when the problems started.

Once released, these camels became feral and started multiplying rapidly. This happened to such an extent that, by the turn of the millennium, it was estimated that more than three million camels were living in the wild, spread over more than a third of the Australian continent.

Growth in the camel population has been rapid. Obviously, they don’t breed as quickly as rabbits but, similar to the rabbit, there are no natural predators in the Australian ecosystem. So, once again, the natural order of things has been subverted.

The other factor that has caused the explosion in the camel population is that they are uniquely designed to survive in the outback. As well as being able to sustain for long periods without water, they are very resistant to diseases and parasites, and the outback is inhospitable to any possible predators.

The feral camel problem

Camels have caused particular problems for people living in the areas where they are most prevalent. Camels are drinking much of the already limited water supply, damaging vegetation and crops, breaking down fences, and causing an estimated $10 million worth of damage each year.

More emotively, they are also damaging culturally significant sites – burial grounds and ceremonial trees that are said to contain the spirits of the deceased.

The problem increased with the water shortages from the drought of 2019. Camels have been forced to travel further for water, thus widening the devastation they cause. There are reports that they have been roaming the streets of outback towns looking for water – threatening children and forcing residents to stay indoors for fear of attack. There have even been reports of feral camels trying to get water out of air conditioning units.

Thus, they are now officially a ‘pest’ and steps are being taken to control the numbers.

Solving the problem

The Australian government launched a National Feral Camel Action Plan in 2008, with a budget of $19 million to help reduce the feral camel population. That used various culling methods to successfully reduce the total number of feral camels to 500,000.

Some of the methods used, including snipers in helicopters, came in for strong criticism. Other, less contentious and controversial ways of controlling the feral camel population were also deployed with varied results.

As well as culling, other methods have been tried to bring the problem under control.

Farmers have had some success rearing camels on farms and exporting the meat. The lack of disease makes this a viable and potentially effective option and enhances their suitability for commercial use.

Other interventions include domestication and making use of products such as camel milk and hair. There have even been steps to set up theme parks offering camel rides to tourists.

However, not all the methods have enjoyed success, and some have been found to be uneconomic and have failed to gain any traction. The National Feral Camel Action Plan found that, although these industries have potential, their size is so small that they aren't geared to handle the large camel population.

The situation today

Australian still has a problem with feral camels.

The problems caused by camels in the wake of the 2019 drought and bushfires, as they increasingly moved into inhabited areas, has prompted further action to reduce their number, particularly in South Australia.

The official line is that culling feral camels is practically the best and most ‘humane’ way to check their numbers to protect the interests of both local communities and native species.