Monday, October 06, 2008

Camels in the outback

When I first came to Australia, I had heard all about kangaroos and emus and platypuses and all these queer and wondrous organisms that inhabit this continent. But it wasn’t until I actually took my first road trip into the wide open spaces that I learned about Australian camels. We didn’t actually see any that trip, but they’re still out there- over a million of them, by some estimates- and this last trip I finally managed to spot a decent mob- a breeding group with a cantankerous old bull, as many cows as he can handle, and all sorts of little youngsters.
Camels, of course, are not native. As the Wikipedia article explains, they were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after a number of disastrous expeditions proved that the interior of the continent was inhospitable for other beasts of burden. By the 1930’s, the automobile had made camels obsolete as a mode of transport, so most of them were abandoned- left all alone in a continent whose arid conditions suited them perfectly. Their current range exceeds that shown in this Environment Australia fact sheet (pdf).
Australia has a long and dismal history of invasive species, but by the standard of the cane toad or the rabbit, camels are relatively benign. Conservation theory is further complicated by the fact that dromedary camels are extinct in their native range. All 14 million old world dromedaries are domesticated (There are a few wild Bactrian camels in east central Asia). If you want to see wild dromedaries, Australia is the only place where you can do so. As a result, all sorts of crazy research on their physiology and behavior is done here (e.g. During the rutting season, Bulls become hypothermic overnight so that the exertion of rutting the next day doesn’t overheat them).
One theory as to why they aren’t a disaster is that they fill the niche of browsing megafauna that was left vacant when Diprotodon and other large animals were exterminated when the continent was first inhabited. So all the creatures that would have been outcompeted by camels are already dead.

However, they have no natural predators (although cattlemen shoot them on sight), and the herd is growing at an estimated 10% each year, so aerial hunting and other control measures have recently been started. While some wild camels are recaptured to sell back to the old world, the economically viable take is not nearly enough to hold the population in check. Which is a bit of a waste, really, because camel meat is delicious. The low fat content makes it easy to cook badly, as it easily overcooks and dries out, but a well done camel curry is to die for.


ScienceWoman said...

I found camel meat a bit tough. But I bet it would be more tender in a curry.

C W Magee said...

It is tough if it's over cooked. But a well done shank, where the meat just falls off the bone, is also very tender without resorting to stewing. The ribs are also quite nice.

Arvind said...

Wow! I had no idea there were camels in Australia.

Got here via carnival of the arid.

Diane AZ said...

This article is an eyeopener for me as I didn't know about the feral camels in Australia. Interesting post!