Wild camels from Australia's Outback may soon be giving you rides at US zoos

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

Move over, kangaroo. The camel, too, may yet become a symbol of Australia's wildlife - that is, if Australians get around to exporting them as successfully as they hope.

In future years those one-humped dromedaries that give you or your kids a ride at the animal show may be about as Middle Eastern as a koala bear.

Australia does not expect camel exports to even remotely rival items such as uranium, coal, cattle, and wool as earners of foreign exchange.

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But Australia is already exporting its energetic racing camels to Saudi Arabia. And vigorous strains of Aussie camels may also prove a welcome addition to American circuses, zoos, animal shows, and breeders.

The reason: Most of Australia's estimated 100,000 camels have been roaming wild in Australia's Outback.

That is one of the attractions for animal show owners like Peter Brewer of the Southwick Wild Animal Farm in Blackstone, Mass. He is one of a small but growing number of American animal owners and breeders who are inquiring into the feasibility of importing Australian camels. He hopes that Australian dromedaries , when bred with this country's domesticated and in-bred camels, will give the American camel population fresh energy.

According to Dr. Edward J. Humphries, veterinary attache at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., ''In the last five years the number of inquiries about buying our camels from overseas has risen. That has spurred Australian ranchers to round up wild camels for possible export.''

But for camel shoppers like Peter Brewer, prices can be high. With shipping and quarantine costs, he calculates that the final take-home price tag for a camel could run from $5,000 to $10,000.

Australian exporters seem undeterred. One sign, as reported on Radio Australia's shortwave transmission from Melbourne: With the assistance of an Australian government grant, rancher George Conaghan of Gracemere, Queensland, will soon be making a two-month visit to the United States, Canada, and Mexico to sound out possible camel markets.

''In the last six months, some 60 Australian camels have been transported to American purchasers, including circuses, zoos, animal shows, and breeders,'' according to Dr. Humphries.

He adds that there may well be two more such shipments by the end of the year.

That's still a relatively small business in Australia, Dr. Humphries says. He points out there are now only about 14 ranches or other animal handlers, with a total of no more than 50 persons, rounding up camels and putting them up for sale largely overseas.

In the early 19th century who would have guessed that descendents of those camels brought to Australia by Afghans under the auspices of Britain would eventually be for sale in North America. The hopeful theory of the time was that these water-conserving animals could carry large amounts of freight in the isolated and parched Australian Outback.

But the camel never caught on, partly because the colony's tough horses often were able to make it from one water hole to another.

Dr. Humphries adds there was relatively little need for the larger freight-carrying capacity of the camel.

So camels were left to run free in the wilds. But not before the Cooper's Creek expedition, one of Australia's most famous Outback exploration missions, saw camels pitted against horses in an inconclusive endurance race across much of the continent. The folklore surrounding the expedition, its camels, and its horses lives on.

In Australia today, however, camel roundups have little in common with the dangerous, water-short treks of a century ago. Helicopters and trucks converge on wandering camels in the often dry regions of Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Western Australia. After the camels are cornered , their legs are tied to facilitate the trip to the ranch grounds where the camels will be kept for health tests and eventual sale.

Despite the renewed interest in camels, Australia still remains far better known for its kangaroos - all 12 to 20 million of them in this country of just over 15 million people.

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