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Feral camels could boost outback economy

World demand rises for animals viewed as pests

By Juliette Hopkins
International Herald Tribune / September 5, 2010

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ADELAIDE, Australia — The world’s largest feral camel population is not to be found roaming the Sahara. It is munching its way, virtually unchecked, through the land of the kangaroo.

Interfering with native species, destroying bush tucker resources, and causing millions of dollars in damage to farming infrastructure, the estimated herd of 1.2 million camels could double in the next 8 to 10 years, according to wildlife experts.

The Australian government is proposing urgent action to limit their numbers.

But not everyone sees the animals as pests. Some see the invasive species as a potential economic resource that can be harvested to provide much-needed income and employment to Australia’s rural communities.

Camelus dromedarius, the one-humped dromedary, first made its way down under in 1840, to assist in the exploration of the arid interior. Many more were imported from Rajasthan, India, in subsequent years to be used as draft animals.

Camels made possible the construction of the 2,000-mile, overland telegraph line between Adelaide in South Australia, and Darwin in the north, completed in 1872; and the transcontinental railroad from Port Augusta in the south to Kalgoorlie in the west, completed in 1917.

But automobiles and trucks made camel trains obsolete. By the 1920s, some 20,000 working camels had been abandoned in the desert. Their descendants took their revenge, multiplying exponentially.

Today, Australia has the only single-hump feral camel population in the world, spread over an estimated 1.2 million square miles — an area close to one-third the land mass of the United States.

Paddy McHugh, an outback entrepreneur, describes himself as “a one-man band’’ when it comes to the camel industry in Australia. For the past 30 years, he has built a business around the lumbering animals, capturing them from the wild and selling them for meat and live export, as well as tourism and racing. He calls the federal government’s plan to cull 670,000 feral camels over the next four years, at an estimated cost of $17 million, “just ridiculous.’’

Shooting the camels, McHugh says, “won’t fix the problem because they’ll still come back in 10 years’ time. The only way to fix this is through a commercial outcome.’’

“If the government spent that money on developing the industry it would be worth a fortune.’’

While the domestic market for camel products is limited in Australia, McHugh says the international demand is huge. “In the last 18 months I’ve had 37 countries and just under 1,000 separate e-mails looking for anything from camel meat, milk, and live export,’’ he said.

Lauren Brisbane, a researcher at the Australian Camel Industry Association, agrees with McHugh that world market demand is increasing. “We can’t fill the markets that we have,’’ she said. “We’re turning people away on a weekly basis.’’

The biggest market is in the Middle East, where camels are highly valued as stock animals and their meat has traditionally been considered a delicacy. But now, she says, the market is poised for wider growth: high in protein and low in cholesterol, camel is “a very healthy meat.’’

“It’s not just the meat,’’ Brisbane added, “but the milk, the wool; there’s even a market for urine.’’

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world market for camel milk could be worth as much as $10 billion. And interest is growing: Emirates Industry for Camel Milk & Products, based in Dubai, is already selling its Camelicious brand milk widely in the Arab market and was approved in July by EU health regulators as the first major supplier to Europe.

If Australia is to tap into this burgeoning market, however, and turn camels into a serious export revenue earner, Brisbane says, “We have to move from being based on a feral harvest to a domesticated camel industry.’’

“They’re far more suited to our climate than cattle, because they are an arid animal,’’ she added. “A pastoral camel industry is a really environmentally responsible way of changing how we manage our land.’’

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