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From Australian outback to Saudi tables

A new program has been set up to cull the growing camel population – and raise revenues at the same time.

By Shawn DonnanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 28, 2002



ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA

In a sunny corner of an enclosure, behind a set of low office buildings on the outskirts of this central Australian desert town, 35 wild camels are gathered – and they're nervous.

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After years of roaming free, someone had the audacity to pen them in. On top of it, a group of human visitors are ogling from the gate. But there's another reason for these camels to be wary: They're destined for a dinner plate in the Middle East.

Once relied on by settlers for carting supplies across the treacherous outback, Australia's camels are increasingly viewed as pests, one-humped environmental disasters wreaking havoc on a fragile landscape.

Up to 500,000 camels roam the country's central desert plains – a small population considering Australia has almost 30 million cattle and 100 million sheep. But the camel numbers are big enough that conservationists are calling for action. In the rugged Northern Territory, for example, they've bred to the point that parks and wildlife officials are considering mass shootings to control the population.

As a result, a fledgling export industry is emerging, sending live camels to places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, and Malaysia – Muslim countries where Australia's disease-free wild camels are a culinary delicacy. The goal is to bring camels down to size and make a buck along the way, precluding the need for wasteful shootings.

Australia's camels were first imported from what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1850s as cargo carriers for explorers Robert Burke and William Wills. Phased out in the early 20th century – when cars and trucks replaced camels as transportation in the outback – they constitute the last truly wild herd of dromedary (one-humped) camels in the world.

'Because of that, Australian camels are prized," says Peter Seidel, chief executive of the Central Australian Camel Industry Association, the industry group that both organizes and oversees the export of camels.

For years, Australia's camels have been exported in small numbers as breeding stock for Arab camel-racing stables and for use in tourist venues in places like the US. Camel boots and beauty creams made from the oils in camels' humps hit the market long ago.

But only since last year have Australian camels been exported in large numbers for human consumption. This year, some 5,000 camels will be shipped off with a future target of 20,000 to 30,000 camels per year.

With current prices around $230 to $370 a head, however, camel exporting is never going to be a big business. Still, it's a sign of how Australians are increasingly choosing to target a larger feral-animal problem that has plagued their land ever since white colonization in 1788.

"[Feral animals] are probably the second greatest threat to our wildlife," says Charlie Sherwin, biodiversity campaign coordinator for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The only thing more worrisome, he says, is massive land clearing in parts of the country.

One nation, many pests

The continent's highest profile battle with wildlife has long been against rabbits. First imported as pets in the mid-19th century, rabbits bred to plague proportions before the introduction of diseases to control their population. So reviled are rabbits here that Australians even have their own alternative to the Easter Bunny: the Easter Bilby, a native animal driven close to extinction by imported predators.

The list of feral menaces also includes buffaloes, foxes, horses, goats, and the cane toad, a poisonous amphibian brought to northern Queensland by sugar cane farmers in the 1930s to fight off insects. There are feral cats and dogs. And across Australia's tropical north there are as many as 30 million wild pigs – whose ancestors reportedly escaped from Captain James Cook, tearing through rain forests and savannahs.

Almost all have been harvested commercially. Before fur became unfashionable, hunters spread out across the Australian countryside at night, snaring foxes for their pelts. Across Australia's "Top End," wild pigs are shipped to Germany for sale as wild boar. Even the cane toad ends up as kitschy coin purses sold to tourists.

Experts say Australia is unlikely ever to get rid of the pests altogether. The best that conservationists can hope for now, many say, is controlling their populations.

"Eradication means killing the last animal. That will never happen," says Tony English, a University of Sydney expert on feral animals. "The country's just too big, and there's too many of them."

Besides commercialization and shooting feral pests, wildlife officials have experimented with poisons and introduced diseases like myxomatosis, which helped bring the rabbit population under control. There have been programs to sterilize animals and even discussion of how genetic engineering might help.

Capitalism may be best tool

Many still argue, though, that the best way to control feral animal populations is to let the forces of commerce go to work. "If you make an animal worth something, then there's an incentive for people to go out and hunt them out," says Mr. English.

But some environmentalists see another side as well. "The risk is that there's an incentive to maintain the population rather than eradicate it," says Sherwin, of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Still, these days, it's hard to find a note of pessimism among central Australia's cameleers. Although some do offer one caveat: Catching camels is hard work.

"It's a lot harder than rounding up cattle," says Ian Conway, the owner of Kings Creek Station and, after 30 years of chasing, catching, and sending small groups of camels overseas, one of the camel industry's pioneers.

"Camels are clever animals," he says. "Even after 30 years, they still defy us."

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