Wild Camels Overrun Resources in Outback

Article excerpt


ADELAIDE, Australia -- It's being described as a plague. More than 1 million wild camels are wreaking havoc in huge parts of Australia, eating the vegetation, destroying property, fouling and consuming water sources, desecrating indigenous sites and causing road accidents.

About 170 years after being introduced to the continent as a pack animal to open its arid interior, Australia's feral camel population is the biggest in the world. The camels double their numbers every nine years and continually expand their domain.

Their hearty population gives no joy to Australians, and some have been exported to Asia and the Middle East.

A report by the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Center in Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory, estimates that feral camels roam an area of about 2 million square miles - more than a third of the continent.

We have to reduce numbers in a big way, said wildlife scientist Glenn Edwards, the report's chief author. A lot of camels are in remote areas, and for those there is probably no option but to cull them.

The scope of the proposed cull is huge: 400,000 camels would be destroyed in the next two years and 700,000 in the next four years, offering the nightmarish vision of sharpshooters in helicopters targeting animals that have achieved almost iconic status in Australia's history.

Between 1840 and 1920, an estimated 20,000 camels were brought to Australia to explore and develop the inhospitable Outback. They transported goods and helped build the railroad and the telegraph. Along with them came thousands of drivers, many, but not all, from Afghanistan.

The Ghan, Australia's legendary north-south transcontinental railroad, is named in honor of the cameleers.

With the advent of motorized vehicles and the railroad, the camel trains became less useful.

Many of the cameleers did not want to destroy their animals, so they let them loose into the wild and expected them to die off.

Instead, the camels thrived, feasting on saltbush and spinifex grasses. They have multiplied to the point at which they've become a huge nuisance, especially during droughts when herds of up to 400 thirsty camels go on rampages and trample everything in their way to find water.

To get the population under control, environmentalists are seeking $45 million in federal funds over the next four years while the areas with substantial camel populations - the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia - are working with the federal government on an action plan. …