Australia is home to the only wild herds of dromedary camels in the world. Brought here against their will by colonists and later released into the wild, camels in Australia are now demonised and shot en mass, or abused and exploited for meat or entertainment. Read on to find out more about Australian camels and what you can do to help these gentle giants.
Camels: The basics
Camels are social animals, with the Australian population of wild camels characterised by non-territoriality and group formation. 'Core groups' are formed by the joining together of cows (female camels) with calves of the same age, and are herded by a bull (male camel). Camel groups will stay together for roughly 1.5 to 2 years, corresponding with the nursing of their calves. Younger bulls tend to live together in 'bachelor groups', while older bulls tend to live solitarily.
The Australian camel population
The presence of camels in Australia is shrouded in misinformation and mystery. The Australian Camel Industry Association seems to have no public data available, and their website has been discontinued.
The estimated Australian wild camel population varies significantly between sources. Wild camels are distributed over much of arid Australia, with the population covering most of the rangeland ecosystems of WA, SA, NT, and parts of QLD. While the NT government estimates upwards of 1 million wild camels in Australia, the WA government estimates 300,000. This is damningly indicative that even the Government is unable to properly ascertain the extent of the wild camel population in Australia, making decisions regarding their place within our ecosystem based on vastly imprecise numbers.
The introduction of camels into Australia
Camels were first imported to Australia in the 1840s, and were used by colonists for transportation and carrying heavy loads across the country. By the mid-1890s, more than 4500 had been introduced for use in the goldfields of outback Australia.
However, in the 1920s and 1930s, as motor vehicles began to gain popularity and become commonplace within society, domesticated camels who were no longer needed were released into the wild. According to the Australian government, camels who have reverted to a wild state are deemed 'feral'. As their population grew, with camels being highly mobile and remarkably well adapted to the desert environment, they were declared 'pests' of Australian agriculture.
The commercial camel industry
A commercial camel industry was established in Australia in the 1980s, but has remained relatively small and static. Considered an emerging industry, it relies on the harvesting of wild camels for meat and live export, and, to a lesser extent, farmed camels for tourism and milking. As is common amongst smaller scale industries, data regarding the commercial human use of camels is lacking. Camels are not specifically referenced in the Australian Bureau of Statistics' agricultural releases,
At present, it is believed that around 5000 camels are slaughtered and live exported each year. An Australian company called Samex - owner of Peterborough Abattoir in SA - has invested heavily in the industry, supplying camel meat to the United States, Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Meramist Abattoir in QLD also slaughters camels, selling their meat to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Meramist was recently charged for animal cruelty offences, after coming under investigation following multiple complaints of mistreatment. A small family-owned operation headed by Paddy McHugh exports live camels to the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, New Zealand, and Japan.
In addition to being slaughtered for sale, Australian camels are also used in racing. Marketed as 'the Melbourne Cup of Camel Races', QLD's 'Boulia Camel Races' is an annual event which runs in much the same way as horse racing. Camel racing is also seen in the NT, with the 'Uluru Camel Cup' and the 'Alice Springs Camel Cup'. Even NSW sees camel racing events, with 'Camel Racing Down Under' hosting races in Penrith, Gosford, Goulburn, Bathurst, and Bulli.
The welfare concerns regarding camel racing somewhat mirror those seen in horse racing, and the industry is more shrouded in mystery than the latter. According to the Code of Practice, camels can be 'broken in' for riding from 3 years of age. 'Breaking in' refers to the process of destroying a wild animal's natural instincts in order to be controlled by humans. The Code recommends the use of patience and positive reinforcement in training. The use of 'hobbling' overnight and for periods of up to 12 hours is also accepted, provided that the camels are trained. Hobbling is the process of immobilising an animal by taking away their ability to walk. There are different methods, but generally will involve either tying the camel's legs to one another, or tying one front leg in a bent position. When 'working' wild camels, the Code accepts the 'sparing' use of goads (spiked sticks) and electric jiggers. Electric jiggers (essentially a concentrated taser) are deemed to be so 'cruel' and 'medieval' that they are illegal in horse racing, with famed Australian horse trainer Darren Weir currently in court over their possession and potential use.
In perhaps the most disagreeable practice within the camel industry, nose pegging remains legal in Australia. Generally, a hole is punched, cut, or seared through a certain part in the nose, and a wooden peg is fed through the hole from the inside out. This peg then sits permanently in the nose, similar to a ring in a bull's nose. From this, a string or rope is attached to the outside of the peg, and used to control the camel's movement. It is said that if you need to use such an abrupt form of control, you are doing something wrong. The Code recognises that nose-pegged camels are more effectively controlled than haltered camels, yet acknowledges that it infringes on the camel's welfare. While haltering is 'preferable', nose-pegging remains legal and accepted, based on the 'nature of the animal'. Nose pegs have the potential to cause substantial pain and injury to a camel, with a 'light tug' expected to be enough to control them. Looking at Boulia Camel Races, the Uluru Camel Cup, and the Alice Springs Camel Cup past event photographs, every single camel has been nose pegged.
Where to from here?
While the commercial camel industry remains small, those on the inside are actively trying to grow it. Seeing camels as a 'valuable resource', they're pushing for more camel meat, milk, and targeted commercial slaughter (while condemning camel culling, given that it raises no profits). In a time where the human commercial use and consumption of cows, pigs, chickens, fish, horses, and countless other species is already considered a 'natural' commonplace within our society, we need not let another species be added to the list. While the numbers of camels currently being profited off in Australia remains relatively small, and their treatment remains vastly less horrific than the well-established dairy and horse racing industries, for example, this will only worsen as the industry grows larger. According to a 2020 ABC broadcast, even if domestic and international markets were secured, camels would probably need to be farmed, to ensure consistency of quality and supply. With an industry that is 'crying out to be developed', we are in the unique position of being able to stand up for these camels before their exploitation becomes normalised and accepted.
How you can help
Education and avoiding camel products and events is critical in helping shrink the Australian camel industry and the suffering of Australian camels. You can also be the voice for wild camels by letting your local MP know that you do not support lethal methods of population control, and by supporting the work of our MP Emma Hurst who is fighting for the use of immunocontraceptives as a scientifically backed, humane method of reducing wild animal populations.
Our Regional Groups continue to take action against camel racing and cruelty, holding vigils and protests outside racing events and abattoirs. You can join and support their work by becoming a member of the Animal Justice Party HERE. Your support and membership fee will also go toward helping us put demonised animals like camels on the political agenda, and let the NSW Government know we are unified in helping to end animal suffering.
Author: Emma C, Young Animal Justice Party