Friday, February 11, 2011

One Million Wild Camels Overrun Australian Outback

A wild camel stands on top of a sand dune in the Simpson Desert, Australia. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images. Photo courtesy: Discovery News

Australia boasts the only "wild" camel herds in the world. It started with a few camels being abandoned; and, due to their powers of reproduction the herds just kept growing and growing and growing. Nowhere else on earth do camels roam free - coming and going as they like - they are property of an owner; and, work for a living. Unfortunately, Australia now has more than 1 million feral camels thrashing the remote Australian desert, destroying water supplies and disturbing Aboriginal communities to the tune of $10,000,000 AUD ($10,650,000 US) a year.

Wandering around in the outback. Photo courtesy: Obliot, Flickr, CC

The single-humped dromedary camels were brought mainly from India in the second half of the 19th century to work in the scrubby, red-earthed arid parts of the Australian outback, transporting people; and, as pack animals. Once trains, roads and machinery made them obsolete as workers, the camels were let loose, creating the world's only population of wild camels.

Since then their population has doubled every eight or nine years. Camels are desert animals; and, are often referred to as "the ships of the desert" due to their ability to live, thrive and reproduce in the harsh desert climate. Australia's outback is very similar to the conditions they were brought from; so, the abandoned animals had no trouble adapting to their homeland.

"They are desert-adapted animals," explained Jan Ferguson, managing director of Ninti One Limited. "They adapt very well to our conditions." Ninti One Limited (NOL) is the organization that manages the Feral Camel Management Project, which launched CamelScan.

Ferguson explains more: "They can do enormous damage. They can eat up to very high heights in our trees. When water is short, they go for running water. They will take pipes and air conditioning units off of walls, and smash up toilet systems".

The damage is not just limited to the destruction of anything containing water. The ecosystem is taking a hit from the camels' search for potable water. The camels can chug more than 50 gallons of water in three minutes and their thirst often leads to problems. Sometimes when large numbers of feral camels converge on a small waterhole, the first animals get mired in the holes and die, fouling the water and destroying the waterhole completely. These waterholes are critical resources for humans and native birds and animals.

Camels can be a problem on the roadways as well. They tend to forage along the roadsides and many an unsuspecting motorist has rounded the corner only to hit a camel or left the roadway avoiding it.

Anyone who knows anything about camels, knows they have the disgusting habit of spitting. Check out those lips. Photo courtesy: Tambako, Flickr, CC

As part of plans to contain the camel's havoc and reduce the animals' numbers, managers have launched a website, CamelScan, where the public can report feral camel sightings and damages using a Google maps-based tool.

The program adds another species to the list of programs tracking other feral animals in Australia, including rabbits, foxes and myna birds. Since CamelScan launched earlier this month, the public has logged nearly 150 sightings.

"You need to count these animals. You need to know where they are and what they're doing," said Ferguson.

"There's no way you're ever going to eradicate them," said Murray McGregor of Curtin University in Perth, whose research estimated their numbers. "The key thing is to keep the number controlled to minimize the environmental and cultural damage."

The camels are spread over a 3.3 million square kilometer (nearly 1.3 million square mile) area. McGregor's work estimated that more than 40% of the camels are on Aboriginal lands. About 18 months ago, 3000 camels descended on one Aboriginal community during a period of drought, Ferguson said.

The Feral Camel Management Project aims to protect key areas of biodiversity and native habitat, Ferguson says, including 18 "priority environmental assets."

A mother camel patiently feeds her baby. Camels are excellent mothers. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia, CC

This includes the goal of reducing the camel density to one camel per 10 square kilometers around key locations. There are between five and 20 camels per square kilometer in some areas.

When feasible, the animals are rounded up and used for commercial consumption by people or pets. But the camels can be in extremely remote locations.

"Some are in a place where there is no economic use for them," Ferguson said. "There are camels in such remote areas that there is no option but to shoot to waste (leaving the carcasses)."

Ferguson notes that other methods to protect and manage the areas, such as putting up fences, are part of the group's strategy.

"Very important sites can be fenced or exclusion barrier put on them," McGregor said. "But these are very strong animals. You have to put something that's quite extensive to keep them out. If they're after water, they will use everything they've got to get at it."

Via TreeHugger and Discovery News

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To set the record straight, there are not 1 million feral camels in Australia. The Australian Feral Camel Management Committee has put out a report with their re-evaluation of camel numbers which is now estimated to be around 300,000 camels.

The camels roaming the Australian outback are feral, not in essence, wild. Dromedary (one-humped) camels are under law, a domesticated species and are not found naturally occurring anywhere in the world.

From an environmental perspective, perhaps all feral animals could be harnessed and managed using a Holistic Management approach to improve the environment (see the Savory Institute for further details). Courses in Holistic Management are conducted in many parts of the world.