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Global Connections

Australia's wild camel conundrum

By Susannah Palk for CNN
  • There are now around 1.2 million wild or "feral" camels roaming the Australian outback
  • Introduced in the 19th century, camels were used as draught animals
  • The Australian government has invested $18.8 million to cull the troublesome animals
  • Some say investing in the country's commercial camel industry is a better way to tackle the problem

Australia is one of the countries we're featuring this week on Global Connections, a segment on CNN's Connect the World that takes different countries and asks you to connect them. Discover more on our site.

(CNN) -- It could be a scene from "Lawrence of Arabia" -- a herd of wild camels roaming vast desert plains under the scorching sun.

But the setting isn't the desert wilderness of the Middle East or the Sahara in North Africa. It's the Australian outback -- home to the world's largest wild camel population.

There are 1.2 million camels roaming virtually unchecked through vast tracks of desert and rangeland in central Australia, and debate is growing over how to control their rising numbers.

Camels are troublesome -- they cause millions of dollars of damage to farms and native wildlife -- and the Australian government has invested $18.8 million (AUD 19 million) to reduce their numbers, mainly through controlled shooting.

But some argue that supporting the fledgling commercial camel industry in Australia is not only a more sustainable alternative to culling, but one that makes more economic sense as well.

Some farmers are living happily with camels -- which were introduced to Australia in the 19th century and used originally as draught animals.

David Carter is a third-generation beef cattle producer who manages around 2,500 cattle on Wyangarie Station in Richmond in Australia's northern state of Queensland. He introduced camels to his ranch five years ago, and now owns 150 of them.

"The camels we brought back were captured ferals and we tamed them down," he told CNN. "They're quite easy to manage, there's no rocket science attached to it."

Carter said the camels are a cost effective way for him to manage the woody weed on his 48,000 acres of land, which is essential for growing the grass that his cattle feed on.

"Camels are cheaper than chemicals for weed control and better for the environment without question," he said. "If you can get a camel to do what a chemical otherwise would, it's a win-win."

It's a ridiculous situation and an immoral one -- to shoot an animal where there is a huge market for its meat around the world.
--Lauren Brisbane, chair of the Australian Camel Industry Association

But there's a limit to how many camels are needed to control weeds and for now, there's little incentive for rearing camels for commercial purposes, such as export to the Middle East, he said.

Queensland's only camel abattoir is 1,800 kilometers away from his ranch, Carter said, and at a cost of $250 a head to get the camels to slaughter, profit margins are slim.

"If there was more of a commercial market, then there would be a monetary incentive to increase the camel numbers," he said. "But at the present time, there's a very, very small commercial market for camels."

That's something Lauren Brisbane, chair of the Australian Camel Industry Association, wants to change. She says growing the domesticated camel industry in Australia is key to tackling the problem.

"Once there's a price put on camels they become a stock animal and managed," Brisbane told CNN. "Without industry, camels will never be controlled in Australia."

She says supporting the country's camel industry is also a more economic and humane way to handle the situation.

At present camel numbers are being reduced via controlled aerial shooting from helicopters -- where carcasses are then left to rot. Camels are also shot on the ground, with their meat used for personal consumption, although the domestic market for camel products is still in its early stages.

"It's a ridiculous situation and an immoral one -- to shoot an animal where there is a huge market for its meat around the world. People in the Middle East find it culturally offensive to cull camels when they can be utilized as a valuable commodity," Brisbane said.

But most of the country's camels don't roam the pastoral lands of Queensland, where farmers like Carter have been able to domesticate the animals. Instead, they are mainly concentrated in central Australia's desert and wild scrubland.

This area, which covers three million square kilometers, is unfarmed and inaccessible, and many of the country's camels roam here uninhibited, says Jan Ferguson, managing director of the group which runs the government-funded Australian Feral Camel Management Project.

Locating and gathering camels under these conditions is an expensive and labor-intensive undertaking -- one that isn't pragmatic, she said. All the while, the problem is growing, with the camel population rising by about 80,000 a year.

"Australia in this point in time is not set up to deal with the scale of numbers that exist at present. To suggest they can all be put behind fences and farmed is unrealistic," she told CNN.

Furthermore, the camels not only cause damage to pastoral lands -- ruining fences, yards and water troughs -- but also have a huge environmental impact, competing with native species for water and resources.

According to the Australian Feral Camel Management Project, camels cause $9.9 million (AUD 10 million) of damage a year.

"We understand culling is unattractive, we're not attracted to it either, but we don't want to lose some of our rare and specialized species," Ferguson said.

She said the government has invested in camel farming. The Australian Feral Camel Management Project has given $19,800 (AUD 20,000) to support the bourgeoning camel industry -- out of its $18.8 million budget.

"We agree the ultimate answer is a farmed and managed animal behind wire, but at the moment we have significant feral animals in the outback making a hell of a mess."