As the bush dries up, migrating camels in search of water are leaving a trail of destruction across the state.
Farmers in Western Australia are facing large numbers of feral camels invading their property and destroying water infrastructure in search of a drink. Patrick Hill, landowner and Shire President of Laverton in WA, told VICE how a 500-strong herd of extremely thirsty animals recently strayed onto his land.
"They smash all the water structures and let all the water out and it doesn't fill their demand," he said. "They panic, start climbing over each other in a frenzy for the last drop of water—trampling each other to death."
Australia's feral camel plague can be traced a long way back—they were first shipped over as transportation in the 19th century from Arabia, Afghanistan, and India. But with the arrival of the combustion engine, the need for camels evaporated—resulting in hundreds of camels released into the outback. Since then, their numbers have multiplied to over 300,000, warranting their current label as a "shoot-on-sight" pest.
But why kill them? As lakes and creeks dry up in warmer seasons, the camels migrate in search of water—leaving a trail of destruction behind them.
To help alleviate the problem, the Federal Government ran the Australian Feral Camel Management Program from 2009 to 2013. As part of the program, $19 million dollars was contracted to an organisation called Ninti One—a research group that assists remote communities. With the funding, Ninti One conducted the largest camel cull in Australian history— reportedly destroying over 160,000.
"The job wasn't finished," says Ross Wood. He's a representative of Goldfields Nullabor Rangelands Biosecurity Alliance—a group responsible for small-scale culls of camels encroaching onto pastoral land in WA. "The camel shoot wasn't really successful, it was never properly completed," Ross told VICE. "They still build up into enormous numbers, trashing inland waterways, indigenous waterholes, eating native plants—you name it."
As you might imagine, shooting the camels and leaving piles of rotting carcasses across the Australian outback isn't the best possible solution to the camel plague. According to Patrick Hill, the rotting bodies can cause real dangers to managed cattle. "They like to chew on the bones," he said. This can poison them.
Instead, some are arguing landowners should educate themselves on how to better integrate the animal into their business. Chris O'Hara, owner of Calamunnda Camels and representative of the Australian Camel Industry Association, told VICE how utilising the animals could turn great profits.
"We've got large amounts of protein being shot and left to waste in large piles," Chris told VICE. "Camel blood, the urine, the milk, the meat, the hide—it's all superior to other farmed and managed animals. It's had to adapt to Australia's harshest environments, so its body has learned how to protect itself for millennia."
Camel milk in particular is one byproduct going to waste, despite fetching up to $40 in America for just one liter. Being extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, it was referred to as "pure nectar" by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. But landowners are beginning to catch on, with one milking farm now operating in Perth Hills in WA, and another opening last year on a Sunshine Coast farm in Queensland.
However, as Patrick Hill pointed out to VICE, if it was as easy as some people say to cultivate camel byproducts, than pastoralists would do it. "It's easier said than done, there's a lot of work involved," he said. "The camels drive most cattle away, they always take precedence over them—and basically it's just not economic."
But the domestication of camels alongside cattle may still be a possibility. "We have a biosecurity issue that has to be managed," Chris O'Hora said to VICE. "The best way to manage it is to shoot the camels. But if you shoot a hole, something else will fill it. You're removing the problem, but not solving it."
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jack_callil