Down under Dromedaries Take on the World: Among the Estimated 17m Camels of the World There Could Be as Many as Half a Million Feral Animals Living in Australia's Central Desert Plains. for a Number of Years They Have Been Posing a Growing Problem, but Now They May Be about to Take on the World

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FIRST INTRODUCED TO AUSTRALIA from the Canary Islands in 1840, and later from Afghanistan and Pakistan, camels proved well-suited to working in Australia as pack and riding animals for those attempting to explore and open up the vast interior of the country. In fact, the way Australia's interior was opened up to exploration in the 19th century owed less to European pioneers and more to the skills of Afghani 'cameleers'.

Europeans did not have the skills to deal with camels, often obstinate creatures, and neither horses nor bullocks could cope with the difficult terrain, so along with further shipments of camels to Australia came some 4,000 Afghani riders and handlers. Half a dozen of these Afghan camel handlers were able to organise camel trains of upward of 80 animals, carrying a total of perhaps 20 tons on their backs and travelling around 25 miles a day through the arid semi-deserts of Central and Western Australia.

Camels were used in the building of telegraph and railway lines and supplying cattle and sheep farms in remote regions. They also hauled wagons loaded with wool from the sheep stations to railheads and were used in heavy construction projects.

A camel stud farm was established by Sir Thomas Elder at Beltana Station in South Australia in 1866. By the early 1900s, Australia had a population of as many as 10,000 animals--but the age of the motor-vehicle meant that the purpose of these 'ships of the desert' soon became redundant, and many owners simply set them loose.

Unperturbed by the high temperatures of the semi-arid desert and famously able to survive for many days without water as they sought out vegetation, these liberated camels quickly adapted to their new home. With no natural predators they thrived and numbers grew until conservationists sounded a warning they were damaging the environment.

Camels are just one of the many animals that arrived in Australia as captives only to escape to the wild to become a problem. As well as feral cats and dogs, the long list of these 'problem' animals includes pigs--the descendants of animals that escaped from Captain James Cook's expedition--buffaloes, foxes, horses, goats, rats and the cane toad.

But the most famous animal escapees were rabbits, first introduced as pets in the 1850s. Some escaped to the wild and began to breed like, well, rabbits. Soon sheep farmers were complaining that a plague of these small furry animals was destroying grazing lands and they resorted to introducing the viral disease myxomatosis, deadly to rabbits, to control their numbers.

From the late 1960s, Australians once again began to recognise some of the camel's unique qualities. By 1970, two tourist businesses were using camels to ferry sightseers around at Alice Springs, and in 1971 the inaugural Lions Club Camel Cup race was run in the same town.

But it was only in the 1980s that entrepreneurs began to think of exploiting Australia's wild camel population as a tasty and healthy alternative to beef or lamb.

Australia's first camel-meat abattoir opened in 1988 and the product was marketed in much the same way as ostrich meat from South Africa--a low-cholesterol, high protein, meat. Perhaps surprisingly, considering Australians are famously conservative in their tastes, it managed to make some headway with the Australian consumer. …