x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Australia to cull its camels

Australia draws up plans to cull hundreds of thousands of wild camels amid concerns that herds are tearing up the environment and depleting valuable supplies of water.

There are an estimated one million wild camels roaming the Australian outback.
There are an estimated one million wild camels roaming the Australian outback.

SYDNEY // Australia has begun drawing up plans to cull hundreds of thousands of wild camels amid concerns that marauding herds are tearing up the environment and depleting valuable supplies of water. One-humped dromedaries were imported into Australia after 1840 to help colonial settlers conquer the arid continent's inhospitable interior. A century later, the robust pack animals were no longer needed, superseded by trucks and trains. While some were slaughtered, many others were released into the desert where they have thrived. Apart from wild dogs, Australia's camels have had little to fear until now.

Deploying marksmen in helicopters is part of an A$19 million (Dh57m) government plan to kill two-thirds of a million-strong feral population. The cull would last four years, though no start date has been set. "This is what the scientists judge to be the minimum necessary to really knock down the detrimental effects the camels are having," said Tony Peacock, chief executive of the Invasive Animals Co-operative Research Centre at the University of Canberra.

"They are a big problem and it has been growing for many years; from simple things like going through fences and damaging water holes on properties to the big issue of competing with our native wildlife and knocking down our native vegetation." Camels are Australia's largest feral animals. Growing up to 2.1 metres tall and weighing in excess of 900kg, they are one of the country's most imposing and unusual sights. Like other introduced species, including foxes, rabbits and cane toads, the camels have become a virulent pest in the eyes of farmers and land owners, as rampaging herds have been known to harass remote communities in their search for water and food.

"They can do considerable damage to a settlement, ripping pipes off walls and going into a billabong [small pool] and taking all the water," said Mr Peacock, who detailed how camel numbers were doubling every decade. "We'd like to see about 650,000 of them culled. To do that efficiently the only real way is by shooting them. Obviously this is controversial. No one likes to kill animals but we have to think of our native animals and vegetation and the fact that they are under siege."

The proposed cull has incensed welfare groups, which have insisted there is no way of knowing just how many camels are roaming across the Outback and believe that official estimates may have wildly exaggerated the scale of the problem. "The perennial question with feral populations is are they, in fact, in plague proportions? The government has failed to provide any substantial scientific evidence that proves that these animals are in such numbers that they need to be culled," said Cynthia Burnett, a spokeswoman for Animal Liberation Queensland.

"Part of the problem is when you have these feral animals which have the opportunity to range over vast distances, it may be a matter of perception that they are in plague proportions." Plans to shoot so many camels have horrified some campaigners who say the mass extermination programme would be barbaric. "Aerial culling seems to be the flavour of the day for governments. They [the marksmen] are not going to be able to make a clean kill on every animal that they target and there are going to be wounded animals left behind," Mrs Burnett said. "There will be those that are wounded in the crossfire and terrified by a barrage of bullets descending upon a large number of these animals."

At a place called Little Egypt, a haven for camels has been built in the seaside town of Yeppoon, north of Brisbane. It is the work of John Richardson, who has erected a giant plastic dromedary and fake pyramids to encourage tourists to visit his herd of 50 racing camels, which compete in events across Australia. "A cull would be a sin because they are majestic and very intelligent animals," said Mr Richardson, who believes the camels, although undoubtedly a nuisance in some parts of the continent, should be revered for their part in Australia's colonial history.

"In those harsh conditions it took an animal like the camel, which doesn't need a lot of water, to carry railway sleepers, wool bales and they did a marvellous job in opening up the Outback." Rather than simply sanctioning a wholesale slaughter, Mr Richardson believes, the authorities should think instead of ways to reduce numbers by establishing a viable meat industry for both domestic consumption and export.

"It tastes great and is low in cholesterol. So, why just go and shoot them and let them rot in the paddock when there are things you can do with them? There are a lot of people out there starving. I think it is a crying shame." Australian government officials have said harvesting wild camel meat on a commercial scale would be problematic given the enormous distances involved. The planned cull would be a monumental undertaking and involve hunting the animals over 3.3 million square kilometres of barren terrain.

pmercer@thenational.ae