Camels in the land of kangaroos? Yes, you got that right.
The Australian desert covers around 1.3 million square kilometres, spanning across the continent’s interior. Even more of the land is so dry, it could be considered a “mild” desert.
It is hot, with very little rainfall, and usually uninhabitable. Yet it is a beautiful land, filled with amazing landscapes, rugged vegetation and mysterious wonders. It is unique in its appearance, grand in its size, and a great place to visit and observe.
If you take a car, preferably a sturdy four-wheel-drive, and ride straight through the desert, you will notice a great variety of animals. There all sorts of lizards, the dragons of the sand. The famous yellow dingo, hunting in packs amongst brown bushes. There are kangaroos, the kings of the Australian wilds. If you are lucky enough you can even spot an emu or two, the largest land bird in the world.
And then there are camels.
Yes, you read it right. Camels live all over the Australian heartland, running wild in great herds, penetrating even the most hot and inhospitable places on the continent.
At the beginning of the 1800s, the Australian desert was an unexplored frontier, calling to brave men and women to take a chance and learn it secrets. But was also a harsh place, where many would perish among the red sand.
If you wanted to make it out alive, you needed supplies, and a lot of supplies. Of course you could use horses, but how well would they do amongst the high dunes? You needed a pack animal that could go without water or food for a long time and could take the heat of a hot sun.
You needed camels, the ships of the desert.
And it was Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler, in good year of 1839, who came up with the idea to bring some of those beasts over for use in exploration and general transportation.
Sadly, the first camels on the Australian shores were an unlucky bunch. Out of the whole group of camels coming from the Canary Islands only a single male survived. He arrived on 12 October 1940 and was named simply Harry.
In 1846, Harry joined a chap called John Ainsworth Horrock in his expedition through South Australia to Lake Torenes, and, sort of, shot his master.
Horrock was cleaning his gun when Harry clumsily bumped into him, forcing the discharge of the weapon. Horrock lost a couple of fingers and a whole row of teeth. He died just a few weeks later, but not before he demanded the poor camel to be put down.
Today, the Australian desert is home to the large population of feral camels: camels who are no longer under the charge of a human master.
Camels gone wild.
At its peak, in 2008, Australia contained over one million camels, and the population could double in size every eight to ten years. That is a lot of camels even for a whole continent. And they cause their share of damage. Camels can eat anything that grows and can strip land of any vegetation in no time, leaving a dusty wasteland behind them.
Camels are massive animals and can weigh up to 600 kg so it is quite easy for them to intentionally and unintentionally damage fences, pipes, tanks, pumps and other equipment. For Aboriginal communities and outback farmers, that can cause major setbacks — not to mention the cost of fixing anything in such remote locations.
Any water source in a hot scorching desert can be easily emptied by a passing pack of camels as these magnificent animals can drink more than 200 litres in only three minutes. During droughts, their thirst can force them to invade farms and vital water holes, causing substantial damage to all of the communities around them.
By 1860, camels were used as the main form of transportation through the Australian interior. But without an experienced handler a camel can be an unruly companion. And who knows these beasts better than people who domesticated them in the first place?
The first Muslim cameleers arrived shortly after to help with expeditions and lend a hand to the inland pastoral industry.
These men were experienced desert dwellers and found a lot of opportunities in the new frontier. They became valuable members of remote communities and opened their own lucrative businesses, transporting goods all over the Australian inland. They exchanged knowledge and skills with Aboriginal tribes, forging long lasting partnerships, and even marriages were not unheard of.
Muslim cameleers often went by the names of “Afgans” or “Ghans”, even though majority of them were from British India. But there was no disrespect in those nicknames and even today a luxury train line that runs through the Australian outback is called The Ghan in the honour of those brave men.
In 2009 the Australian Government launched the Feral Camel Management Project, that consisted of culling feral camel population to manageable capacity. Sadly, it was a harsh campaign: only a small number of animals were collected, while the majority were simply shot from helicopters or armoured vehicles and then left to rot under the desert sun.
This project finished in 2013, bringing the camel population down to 300,000 heads. It was heavily criticised by animal-rights activists, as well as by the growing Australian camel industry, since they believed feral camels could be rounded up and harvested for their meat, fur and even be exported to foreign markets.
Around 15,000 dromedary camels were brought to Australia by 1900. Local breeders were established in South Australia and Western Australia, proving home bred camels for the local market. For many decades they became a common sight in the outback, driving its economy and enriching its communities.
But time was moving on and automobiles were slowly sipping from the cities and into the rough Australian interior. By the late 1930’s the camel industry was abandoned and forgotten. A new beast took their place, made out of metal and run on black oil. Many of the unwanted herds were released into the wild, where they thrived and breed, slowly claiming the desert as their own.
Camels are still around, slowly making their way through the deathly heat.
And there is still an industry built around these animals. Camel meat is harvested and sold to markets in Europe, Japan and the United States. Domestically camel meat is used for pet-food. There are camel farms operational around Alice Spring and Uluru. Live export supplies camels to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Malaysia.
Camels are now part of the Australian landscape, and its history, and maybe in the future they will become its well-recognisable mascot. For now, they roam the vast desert: the majestic beasts that call this beautiful continent their home.
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