The remote Aboriginal village of Kaltukatjara (“Docker River”) in Australia’s Northern Territory is currently under siege – from camels. Severe drought has driven some 6,000 dromedaries into the community, where they wreak havoc by knocking over fire hydrants and busting into houses – right through the walls in some cases – in search of water. The community’s 350 residents have been reportedly living in fear of the feral animals for the past two months. The situation recently became critical after the animals blocked the town’s airstrip, effectively preventing medical evacuations.
Wild dromedary camels are extinct in their native homeland of Arabia, but they have thrived as an introduced species in the arid Australian outback. Up to a million wild camels now inhabit Australia, their population reportedly expanding at a rate of 18 percent a year. They are so numerous in many areas that they are degrading the vegetation, threatening indigenous animal species, and contributing to dust storms that span much of the continent. The Australian government has recently dedicated A $19 million to a culling program. In the Kaltukatjara area, the Central Land Council has brought in helicopters to herd the animals out of town. According to current plans, 3,000 will then be shot. Animal rights activists in urban Australia and abroad are incensed at the proposed cull; locals are more upset by the fact that the carcasses will simply be allowed to rot rather than being processed for meat.
Much of Australia has been in the grips of an extreme drought for the past decade. This year, however, prolonged rains fell in many areas. Rainfall was so heavy in parts of Queensland and New South Wales that normally dry basins were flooded, including the massive saltpan known as Lake Eyre. But in central Australia – prime camel habitat – drought conditions unfortunately persist.
Camels are not the only problematic feral species in Australia. Wild goats, cattle, horses, hogs, and even water buffalo are numerous in many areas. Ranchers in Western Australia have for some time rounded up wild goats from helicopters so that they can be exported live to the Persian Gulf states, where they are especially valued for the feasts that mark the end of Ramadan. Some people would like to do something similar with camels, as the Camels Australia Export website (http://www.camelsaust.com.au/) shows. According to the website, camel oil is a particularly valuable commodity, “lower in cholesterol than other animal cooking fats, [and] also suitable for manufacture of soaps and cosmetics. Camel oil based products have unique properties with baby dermatology creams being one specialist product.”