Australian feral camel

Australian feral camel

Refimprove|date=April 2008The ancestors of Australian feral camels were dromedary camels imported to provide transport through inland Australia, which their feral descendants have since made their domain. While they do not appear to be as destructive as other introduced herbivores, their increasing numbers may affect native vegetation, and feral camels have become minor agricultural pests.

Many different types and breeds of camels were brought into Australia, but most were from India. They included the large, fleece-bearing, two-humped Bactrian camel of China and Mongolia, the elite Bishari riding camel of North Africa and Arabia, the pedigreed Bikaneri war camel of Rajasthan in India, and the powerful, freight-carrying lowland Indian camel, capable of moving huge loads of up to 800 kilograms or 1760 pounds.

The feral dromedary camels found in Australia are a meld of these breeds but can be split into two types: a slender riding form and a heavier pack animal.

Thousands of camels were imported between 1840 and 1907 to open up the arid areas of central and western Australia. They were used for riding, and as draught and pack animals for exploration and construction of rail and telegraph lines; they were also used to supply goods to remote mines and settlements.


The Australian camels, roving in the only feral herds of their kind in the world and estimated to number between 500,000 and 700,000, are descendants of camels imported into Australia, beginning in the mid-1800s, to help lay the foundations of the nation. Shipments came largely from the Indian subcontinent, but animals were also landed from Muscat, Yemen, Iraq and the Canary Islands.

Arriving in a trickle that swelled to a flood by the early 20th century, the camels were often guided and cared for by Muslim cameleers known as 'Afghans'. Handlers came from lands as far away as Egypt, Turkey and Persia, though most - with their camels - hailed from northern India and what today is Pakistan. But the men were all, almost always incorrectly, called Afghans or simply "Ghans." The name stuck to a section of the 2,900-kilometre (1,800-mile) transcontinental Central Australia Railway linking Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north. Camels hauled material and supplies to the men building that line beginning in 1879, and the segment of track from Port Augusta to Alice Springs was called "The Ghan" until it was relaid about a decade ago.

It could be argued that the town of Alice Springs owes its existence to the hardy camel and the equally hardy cameleers. It was founded in the early 1870s as a repeater station for the Darwin-to-Adelaide Overland Telegraph Line - which was also built by men who depended on dromedaries for supplies and equipment. Plodding camels not only helped establish "The Alice," they brought it music: the first piano arrived in the 1880s, the story goes, strapped to the back of a camel. Aptly, the city holds a state legislative district, a primary school and a major thoroughfare all named after cameleer Saleh "Charlie" Sadadeen, who came to Alice Springs with his team in 1890. "Children were enthralled with his distinctive, flowing robes and intrigued with the long-stemmed pipe he smoked," reports the "Alice Springs Centralian Advocate".

Men like Sadadeen came to Australia on two- to three-year contracts but often lived out their lives in the country, writes American geographer Tom McKnight in "The Camel in Australia". While a handful became wealthy, deploying "thousands of camels organized into the backbone of corporate business," most toiled from dawn to well past dusk for low pay, and lived near outback towns in little communities distinguished by the "tin minarets of their hastily constructed mosques." Wherever the cameleers settled, writes McKnight, "they would soon construct a place of worship. In every case the mosque was a focal point of community life in Ghan Town."

The first camel

The first suggestion of bringing camels to Australia was made in 1837, just 49 years after Europeans arrived on the continent, when the governor of New South Wales received a report recommending the importation of camels from India to Sydney. The "Sydney Herald" took up the call, arguing that camels were "admirably adapted to the climate and soil" of the unexplored country. Though it was not until the 1860s that dromedaries were brought Down Under in any numbers, the first camel - named Harry - arrived in 1840, the sole survivor of a group of four loaded aboard ship at Tenerife in the Canary Islands. And though they would soon prove vital to the country's development, their first representative hardly set a good example.

On a surveying expedition to the Lake Torrens area of South Australia in 1846, Harry bit the tentkeeper, grabbed a goat by the back of the neck and "chewed a hole in a bag of flour, leaving a white trail along the route," according to an account of the journey. But the straw that broke Harry's back came when he bumped his owner, John Horrocks, just as Horrocks was loading his rifle. Horrocks lost two fingers and several teeth in the ensuing blast, and died a month later of gangrene. The camel was executed at his express wish.

In May 1841, between Harry's arrival and his premature death, two female camels acquired from the Imam of Muscat arrived in Sydney via India - the fourth and fifth dromedaries to reach Australia. (The second and third were landed in Hobart, Tasmania, from Tenerife, but there is no record of what happened to them.) A male companion from Muscat had died en route. Seeking buyers, the animals' importer shuttled the camels back and forth between Sydney and Melbourne several times, but, despite the "Herald"'s counsel, no one was interested. Finally, Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales, bought the animals, along with a replacement male, and ordered them pastured on the Sydney Domain - government property in the capital. Two were painted nibbling on the lawn there in 1845, and the painting hangs today in Sydney's Mitchell Library.

The camel as a "workhorse"

In 1860, the camel was first called on to do the work for which it was ideally suited: long-distance exploration in a continent of some 7,000,000 square kilometres (about 2,700,000 square miles). But here, too, first results were far from promising. Twenty-six camels, several originally imported from Aden in 1859 to perform in a show in Melbourne, were included in the 20-man, 23-horse Burke and Wills Expedition that set off from Melbourne in August 1860 in a bid to cross the unmapped continent from south to north. A picked team of four men, six camels and a single horse made the last 1,600-kilometre (1,000-mile) push from a base camp at Cooper's Creek, reaching the north coast in February 1861. But none of those camels - and only one man - made it back: two of the camels were eaten, two were abandoned and two were destroyed when they became too tired to continue.

Instead, the relief mission that departed from Adelaide under John McKinlay in 1862 first proved the value of camels in rough terrain - for a novel reason. McKinlay never found Burke and Wills but did return with valuable reconnaissance, and he praised his camels for their ability to move over stones and through muddy, flooded country. "The camels acted famously," he wrote, "...from their great height they were as good [in protecting the expedition's stores] as if we had been supplied with boats." Further camel-mounted expeditions helped unlock the secrets of the vast, arid interior in the 1870s, pushing through South and Western Australia and what from 1909 became the Northern Territory. Indeed, the first Europeans to set eyes on magnificent Uluru, the 350-metre (1,140 ft) sandstone monolith on the central Australian plain, were the members of the camel-borne 1872 Ernest Giles Expedition. The Horn Expedition to the MacDonnell Ranges of 1894 used camels for transport of people and equipment.

Australia's first large-scale camel importer was Scottish-born Sir Thomas Elder, whose interest in dromedaries can probably be traced to his own experience in the Middle East. Nine years after an 1857 camel journey from Cairo to Jerusalem, Elder started a stud farm about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Port Augusta, with 121 camels shipped in from Karachi. That first shipment, chosen with care to meet a variety of outback needs, included light camels for riding, medium-weight pack animals and heavy Kandahar dromedaries able to carry loads up to 650 kilograms (1,440 pounds). Elder's enterprise wasn't trouble-free, either: His herd was immediately struck by mange and reduced by almost half. But with the animals that remained, supplemented by additional imports, he produced carefully bred beasts that consistently brought higher prices than any others, home-grown or imported.

The firm Elder founded continues today, and even though it long ago phased out its camel trade, it has retained an interest in the animals. For example, the company supplied ten camels for a 3,426-kilometre (2,124-mile), 117-day walk from Darwin to Adelaide by the Northern Territory and South Australia police forces. The expedition's arrival on January 1 1988 was timed to kick off Australia's bicentennial celebrations. In 1986, Elder also aided a central Australian Aboriginal community trying to sell several thousand camels to the Moroccan government. With Elder leading the way, Australian camel importers began to buy in earnest as the 19th century drew to a close. Between 1894 and 1897 alone, says McKnight, 6,000 camels were shipped from India directly to Western Australia, mainly to serve the booming gold camps. In 1910, there were more than 8,400 camels in the country. Numbers peaked around 1920 with some 20,000 in harness.

The "Sydney Herald" was vindicated. Camels, able to carry heavy loads over long distances and go for days without a drink, proved better adapted than horses or bullocks to working in a continent half of which is arid or semi-arid, where summertime temperatures often soar beyond 35°C (95°F).

Camels did a variety of important jobs. They hauled the casings that lined the wells that tapped underground water, which opened wide areas to the livestock industry vital to the Australian economy to this day. They carried the fencing - and later the fence riders - that held back rabbits from the newly opened ranges; they lugged supplies to sheep stations and mines and returned with bales of wool and wagonloads of ore; they dragged scoops to carve out lake basins; they pulled passenger coaches between towns where there was barely a road; and they transported policemen and postmen on their appointed rounds far from cities or towns. Outback journeymen even found that the trails pounded smooth by the padded feet of hundreds of dromedaries made excellent routes for bicycling hundreds of kilometres between jobs.

The early camels weren't dawdlers, either. In a famous race, the mount of a cameleer named 'Abd al-Wadi was beaten by a horse in a 176-kilometre (109-mile) run between Bourke and Wanaaring in New South Wales, completed between sunrise and sunset. But the horse died the next day, while 'Abd al-Wadi proudly rode his camel back to the starting point.

Decline in use and rise as a pest

At their zenith, dromedaries were in use in some three-quarters of the continent. What is more, in a bit of irony that Sir Thomas Elder might have relished, the Australian Camel Corps even served in Egypt and Palestine in World War I as part of Great Britain's Imperial Camel Corps. The force consisted of three companies of Australian Camel Corps to one British, and a company of Hong Kong artillery. But by the middle of the 1920s the future was looking cloudy for Australian cameleers and camel ranchers - clouded by the choking waves of red dust sent up by automobiles and trucks, the new wave of imports into the outback. From the 1930s on, in all but a few long-distance, off-road cases, the camel was a museum piece.

Camel men watched the value of their stock plummet. Many abandoned their beasts to the wild. But the feral camel thrived in the bush: recent surveys show wide camel ranges extending from the Northern Territory and South Australia in the centre of the continent well into Western Australia, with animals also reported in the northeastern state of Queensland. The Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission estimated a population up to 700,000 in 2005, expected to double in eight years, jeopardising cattle pastures. [ [ National plan sought to manage camel population. 13/04/2005. ABC News Online ] ]

Australia boasts the largest population of feral camels and the only herd of dromedary (one-humped) camels exhibiting wild behaviour in the world. Live camels are exported to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Malaysia, where disease-free wild camels are prized as a delicacy. Australia's camels are also exported as breeding stock for Arab camel racing stables and for use in tourist venues in places such as the United States. [ [ From Australian outback to Saudi tables | ] ]

Effect on the environment

Their impact on the environment is not as severe as other introduced pests in Australia. They prefer to eat trees and plants that local wildlife dislike; only 2% of their diet is grass; and having soft-padded feet, causing soil erosion is unlikely. It has been suggested that the camel is an ecological replacement for the now-extinct Diprotodon, as the dingo was to the Thylacine (commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger), in Australia.


External links

* [ Camels Down Under] Arthur Clark. pages 16-23 of the January/February 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
* [ Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage]
* [ Camels Australia Export] Camel Industry Association website.
* [ Agriculture Western Australia]

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