15 March 2011

Secret eco-powers of Australia's doomed feral camels ripe for the picking

We instantly think of kangaroos as being the main inhabitants of Australia’s rugged outback, but they actually rub elbows with feral herds of war, freight-carrying, riding and one/two-humped camels that presently number well beyond 1,000,000. How the Camelus dromedarius landed smack dab in the middle of bush is, not surprisingly, the work of humans who presumed quite correctly that they would make the gargantuan task of building a nation a lot easier to achieve.

Between 1840 and 1907, a metaphorical red carpet was rolled out for long-lived and quite hearty dromedaries imported from the Canary Islands as well as Pakistan and India. They were solely relied on for their ability to haul water pipes and pull supply-filled wagons and construction materials for dams, mining camps, the sheep industry, etc. with relative ease. However, once modern forms of transportation began to catch on, the creatures were rendered unnecessary and either killed or allowed to roam free in the open wilderness (where it was presumed that they would perish). Way to go, mankind. Always considerate.

Camels have been able to thrive in Australia because they’ve adapted quite successfully to the arid and often harsh climate, plus they can quite easily navigate rough terrain and they lack any known natural predators. Furthermore, they fancy munching on traditionally “undesirable” plant species that other creatures won’t touch. That’s certainly good for their rate of survival but bad for their reputation since they are now blamed for consuming well over 80% of the vegetation that grows in the Outback and endangering some types of greenery to the point of no return. Since the majority of plants in Australia require bushfire to propagate successfully, they aren’t given the opportunity to fulfill their “destiny” due to hungry camel foragers who will eat just about anything with a speck of green on it.

With a steadily growing population of 10% annually, the even-toed ungulates aren't exactly viewed in the most favorable light and the $12+ million in damage that they cause to Australian property hasn't exactly helped their case. The government regards them with such disdain -- referring to them as 'a plague' -- that they've actually taken the time to calculate their carbon footprint (0.97 tons of CO2 per camel per year) in an effort to justify thinning the ranks via the Draft National Feral Camel Action Plan. In other words, they feel that the only way to address such an 'invasive species' is to assemble a camel hit squad.

This is nothing new. Aerial culls sanctioned by the government have been carried out before, but for some reason the resilient creatures just keep reproducing. In response, 2000 camels were snuffed out just last year in the Northern Territory, with another 60,000 targeted via "aerial culling, mustering and slaughtering" through June of 2011. All told, the complete culling of 350,000 camels is anticipated to take roughly 4 years, and despite what you might think, their bodies aren't even used in any practical manner but rather allowed to rot in the open country.

Saudi Arabia -- a country which fancies the creatures as much for their milk as for their racing prowess -- is waiting for the thumbs-up from the Australian government to import some of the ill-fated camels, but the issue of what to do with the tens of thousands of other animals that aren't nearly as lucky still remains. Some have suggested that in addition to utilizing their hides, tallow 'hump fat' can be processed into various types of cosmetic products and members of the Muslim community have even expressed an interest in consuming their meat. Of course, they might just have to compete with the 60,000 ravenous residents of a major crocodile farm that make a habit of gobbling up 40 tons of fleshy animal bits and pieces each week -- there's a bid to bring culled camel right to their plate, too.

The gentle giants have proven through their adaptation to the harsh conditions of the Outback that they are born survivors, which is why I believe that they can and should be better valued while they're alive and kicking. Why hasn't anyone recognized their potential as a natural, eco-friendly weed management solution (along the lines of what goats are currently being employed to do all over America and other global regions)?!?! Remember folks, camels love to graze -- on the yucky noxious stuff, no less! -- and Lord knows we've got all sorts of out-of-control weeds creeping into places that we deem unacceptable. We've also got a wicked addiction to pesticides, which are inarguably poisoning our eco-systems and bodies. Imagine kicking chemicals to the curb in favor of pimping out the naturally munchable powers of feral camels?! If it gives them a permanent stay of execution while also helping the planet, then hell-to-the-yeah, let's get the ball rolling :)

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/phil_p