Camels played an important role in the development of Central Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The advent of motorised transport resulted in most of the domesticated camels being released into the wild and a feral population emerged. Feral camels have been able to breed unchecked as they have no natural predators, and they inhabit large tracts of sparsely populated, semi-arid and arid areas and are therefore largely ‘invisible.’
Feral camels have a low mortality rate, generally only dying from ‘old age’ or in prolonged drought events.
Why are camels a problem?
Feral camels roam across an area of 3.3 million square kilometres of rangeland that incorporates many different tenures: Aboriginal Lands, pastoral and mining leases, conservation lands and other Crown Land. They cause damage to infrastructure, sites of biological and cultural significance and communities. Feral camels eat almost anything, although they do have preferences.
Being herd animals, camels move around in groups. A herd of females and young can number in the tens to the hundreds. There are smaller herds of young males, and adult males tend to be solitary. Group size is very dependent on the breeding season and conditions; in dry seasons they congregate in large numbers, sometimes into the thousands, around watering points. This causes huge stress on available water sources, upon which native animals also rely.
Damage caused by camels to infrastructure, property and people has been estimated at around $5.5 million a year. Physical damage includes fences, yards, water troughs, tanks, bores, buildings, air conditioning units and windmills; while vehicle accidents caused by camels have resulted in deaths and serious injury.
Feral camels’ impact on livestock production through competition for food and water resources at an estimated cost of around $3.5 million per year.
Direct control and management costs are estimated at over $2.5 million per year.
Damage to the environment includes:
- to vegetation through feeding behaviour (browsing on trees) and trampling, resulting in erosion
- local extinction of populations of preferred species such as the quandong (Santalum acuminatum), bean tree (Erythrina vespertillo) and curly pod wattle (Acacia sessiliceps)
- to wetlands through fouling, trampling and subsequent sedimentation
- competition with native animals for food, water and shelter
- contribution to greenhouse gas emissions
Damage to social/cultural values include:
- damage to sites of cultural significance for Aboriginal people, such as water places (water holes, rock holes, soaks, springs, etc.). Many of these sites are sacred, and damage to them constitutes damage to the social and cultural life of Aboriginal people
- destruction of sources of bush tucker
- reduction in enjoyment of natural areas
- general nuisance and causing hazards for drivers
What is the 10 Deserts Project doing?
The 10 Deserts Project has brought together government agencies, Indigenous organisations across jurisdictions (Northern Territory/South Australia and Western Australia) to collaborate and coordinate feral camel control work. This has not occurred since the national project finished in 2013.
We are committed to supporting Indigenous organisations that want to manage feral camels on remote country and we have allocated nearly $2 million over the coming four years for control work.
Implementing control work is complex with the areas to be accessed very remote and harsh. Consents are needed from Traditional Owners and cooperation is required from neighbouring land managers and government.
With the extreme heat what is the current situation?
Across the desert we are seeing extreme heat that is quickly drying out the landscape. What we know from the past is that it will concentrate the feral camels around any areas that still have some feed or water. This can include feral camels coming into communities, onto pastoral properties and onto sacred sites across Aboriginal land. It means a lot of damage at those sites. Weak and sick feral camels can die in waterholes meaning that even in the future when there is rain the sites are still filled with carcasses. Feral camels can also cause extreme damage to fences, water infrastructure such as tanks and troughs, and in and around communities.
We will also see increased congregations of feral camels around dwindling supplies of water and more movement of feral camels into remote communities similar to what happened about ten years ago.
Distressing images of dying camels in waterholes reinforces that horses and camels are not native to Australia and it is essential that appropriate controls are implemented to manage their numbers in the desert.
How many feral camels are there?
Feral camels range across about half of Australia so getting an accurate number is difficult. From the last major aerial survey in 2013 we are estimating that there is probably between 350,00–500,000. Regardless of the number, feral camels cause huge amounts of damage to vegetation, waterholes and infrastructure as the wander across the desert. Every day they are out there its more damage and that is why it is so important to manage the numbers.
Isn’t it cruel to kill feral camels?
The highest standards of animal welfare and humaneness are followed as set out in various state and national legislation and regulations.
The Australian Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – The Camel has been adopted under state legislation and contains information, guidelines and standards to assist people to meet their duty of care in respect of the capture, handling and transport of camels.
In addition, a national set of codes of practice and standard operating procedures have been developed specifically in relation to the humane management of feral camels through activities such as culling. Audits are performed under the project to ensure humane removal.
In drought conditions camels die from starvation and dehydration, generally around any remaining water sources. They trample each other to get to water which results in animals drowning in water holes and rock holes and being further trampled. Controlling the numbers decreases the pressure on the landscape in dry conditions and will hopefully result in fewer camels dying very cruelly due to starvation, dehydration and trampling.
Are you trying to kill all the feral camels?
No. Eradication is not the goal, and it could never be achieved in any case. The immediate goal is to reduce the density of feral camels to a level where their negative impacts are within acceptable limits. In the longer term, the goal is to maintain low densities of feral camels through ongoing management consistent with pastoral land management, conservation and cultural heritage values, including removing and domesticating feral camels for introduction to pastoral management programs.
The previous Australian Feral Camel Management Project spent $19m yet there are still problems with feral camels. Why?
The Australian Feral Camel Management Project was the first major pest animal project of its kind that was a collaboration between governments, landholders and industry. It removed over 162,000 feral camels. In addition, it built strong collaborations and put the systems in place to deal with feral camels including aerial culling and monitoring damage. Now those processes are all established we can use them to tackle the current feral camel problem.
Why don’t they export camels?
In order to export live camels to any country there must be a bilateral trade agreement in place, between the Australian Government (represented by the Department of Agriculture) and the government of the potential importing country. The bilateral agreement covers all aspects of the management of live animals from mustering, holding, feed-lotting, shipment conditions, then how they are treated, including slaughtering conditions once they have been off-loaded in the receiving country.
All viable proposals to export camels to the Middle East will be carefully considered. Where there is a market and this is possible, it may be a good solution for a relatively small reduction in camel densities. The total number of camels exported live from 1988 to 2007 was 4,761, an average of approximately 250 head annually. In 2007 this figure was 363 head. The majority (77%) were exported to South-East Asia, with most going to Malaysia; the rest were exported to the Middle East and America (Zeng & McGregor 2008 p. 239). The numbers exported have remained small; there are no long-term supply agreements in place, and sales occur on an ad hoc basis. There is therefore no incentive for companies and individual landholders to invest in infrastructure (p. 240).
There have been numerous attempts to develop both a live-export trade and a meat industry based on feral camels, but these have failed to generate enough capital to make the industry sustainable in the long-term.
Why aren’t the feral camels being sold for their meat rather than left to rot?
The idea of a feral camel industry across the deserts has been around for over 30 years but has never really taken off in a way that has reduced numbers. If it was lucrative, we would not have the problem with feral camels that we are facing. Aerial culling of feral camels across the deserts has proven to be the most effective and efficient way of reducing the numbers and more importantly, reducing the damage that the feral camels cause.
There are a number of issues with harvesting feral animals as a part of an economic strategy including:
- difficulties with regular supply
- the costs of removal, holding and transport
- the impact and distress to animals being transported long distances
- the lack of abattoirs (particularly that can deal with camels) for human consumption
- the disincentive to manage numbers to reduce the impact on cultural and natural values in the hope obtaining a financial return
However, some remote communities have opted to muster and harvest feral camels for human consumption. Those communities are considerably closer to abattoirs but nevertheless the costs of mustering and transport are significant. Mustering is not viable for a lot of other communities.
Why don’t we eat more camel meat in Australia?
Human consumption of camel meat in Australia is limited. The situation is the same for pet food. The main reason for this is that people are not used to camel meat products. In order to increase human consumption, a major marketing strategy would be needed to demonstrate the benefits of camel meat and encourage Australians to try it.
An additional consideration is financial viability: the distances involved are great, costs of transport for camels are very high because camels are large animals and cannot be transported in tiers as cattle can, and there are subsequent storage costs.
Governments don’t seem to have much money at the moment, why would they spend it on feral camels?
Feral camels do not care about state/territory borders, fences or boundaries – the problem is truly a national issue. Because of the cross-jurisdictional nature of the problem the most effective way to deal with it will be to collaborate. 10 Deserts Project and Aboriginal land holders have funds to invest in feral camel management and we are looking to partner with government agencies. The aim is to remove as many feral camels from the landscape as quickly as possible.
Why can’t we just sterilise the camels and stop them breeding?
Fertility control is the holy grail when it comes to pest animal management. It potentially offers a means to reduce populations of pest animals, particularly those with high reproductive rates, and the impacts they have without killing individuals. However, despite a large degree of research effort having been expended in this area over the past 20 years in Australia and overseas, there are very few practical management outcomes as a result. Research to manage both rabbits and foxes in Australia using fertility control have not been successful (McLeod et al. 2010).
Nevertheless, research is continuing in this area. Four new technologies are being developed that hold prospects for effective fertility management in a range of species in some situations, including camels (Lapidge et al. 2008 and 2010). Their advantages include being target specific (no or low risk to other animals in the same environment, such as cattle and sheep), and the potential to sterilise or provide long-term contraception (>5 years).
However, because camels are a long-lived species with a low reproductive rate and occur in remote areas, fertility control is likely to be a highly inefficient form of population control (Pople and McLeod 2010). Adult survival has the greatest influence on population growth in feral camels (Pople and McLeod 2010).
The implication of this is that management to reduce impacts at landscape scales through population reduction should focus on reducing adult survival and this cannot be achieved with fertility control. There are also other things which would limit the effectiveness of fertility control at the landscape scale, including the need for >50% of female camels to be sterilised and the need for repeated administration, consumption, or exposure where synthetic hormones or contraceptive vaccines are used.
Fertility control methods will not help us to deal with the immediate problem of reducing the current overabundance of feral camels. It is unlikely that the substantial technological hurdles will be overcome in the near future (Pople and McLeod 2010). However, they may have application in the longer term in small-scale situations.
Background information reproduced and updated from Ninti One, Frequently asked questions about camels, feral camels in Australia and the Australian Feral Camel Management Project.
This document is an archive of content that was held on the Australian Feral Camel Management website, 2010–2013. The site is now closed.