Our unique Outback camels

Peter d’Plesse reckons if you gain the chance to hunt them, you should go for it!

Perception is an interesting thing. What our eyes detect is processed by the brain and often subject to the influence of a judgmental mind. On the open plains of South West Queensland I didn’t dare stalk closer. The pig was feeding on grassland under the watchful corvine eyes resting high in the scattered trees on sentry duty.

Along with a pair of brolgas gracing the landscape, further movement would be announced far and wide. Beyond the pig I spotted a shape among some scrub under a tree, a large goat I judged. It provided a useful guide to estimate range while finding a steady rest for the Winchester .270 on the branch of a fallen tree.

Gentle pressure on the trigger blasted a shot across the quiet landscape. The pig raised its head, looked around casually and nosed the ground tentatively before moving off behind some bushes. The ‘large goat’ took a few steps to reveal itself as a small camel. From behind other bushes, mother grabbed its attention with a snappy bellow. The wayward child answered the call and moved off after ruining my range estimation.

As there’s a bit of difference between a large goat and a small camel, my bullet buried itself into the red dirt well short of its target. What I perceived as a small to medium pig at extreme point-blank range was in fact a large pig a lot further away, all because of a camel.

Camels? They’re unexpected in this part of Queensland but not unusual in much of Outback Australia.

Camels aren’t native to Australia but adapted to a landscape with many similarities to their initial homelands. Camels are related to llamas and alpacas. They originated in the New World and crossed over the Bering land bridge to Asia. Australia’s camel population consists of two species. Dromedaries (Camelus dromedarius) are Arabian camels with one hump and are most common but there are also bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) from central and East Asia distinguished by two humps. They were imported from British India and Afghanistan during the 19th century for transport and construction in the central and western parts of Australia.

The first suggestion to import camels was made in 1822 by Danish-French geographer and journalist Conrad Malte-Brun. In 1839, Lieutenant Colonel George Gawler, second Governor of South Australia, also suggested that camels should be brought in to work in the semi-arid regions of Australia. The first camel duly arrived in 1840, ordered from the Canary Islands by the Phillips brothers, of Adelaide.

All but one of the camels died on the voyage. The surviving camel was named Harry. He was used for inland exploration by pastoralist and explorer John Ainsworth Horrocks on his ill-fated 1846 expedition into the arid South Australian interior near Lake Torrens in a search for new agricultural land.

Australia’s first major inland expedition to use camels as a main form of transport was the Burke and Wills expedition in 1860. The Victorian Government imported 24 camels for this trek. The first Muslim cameleers arrived on June 9, 1860 at Port Melbourne from Kurrachee to participate in the Burke and Wills expedition. As explained by the Victorian Exploration Expedition Committee, “camels would be comparatively useless unless accompanied by native drivers”.

The cameleers on the expedition included 45-year-old Dost Mahomed who was bitten by a bull camel, losing permanent use of his right arm and Esa (Hassan) Khan from Kalat, who fell ill near Swan Hill. They proved their worth by caring for the camels, loading and unloading equipment and provisions and locating water on the expedition.

From the 1860s onward small groups of cameleers were shipped in and out of Australia at three-year intervals to service South Australia’s inland pastoral industry. Carting goods and transporting wool bales by camel was a lucrative livelihood for the cameleers. As their knowledge of the Australian Outback and economy increased, Muslim cameleers began their own businesses, importing camels and running camel trains.

By 1890 the camel business was dominated by Muslim merchants and brokers, commonly referred to as ‘Afghans’ or ‘Ghans’, despite their origin often being British India. At least 15,000 camels and their handlers came to Australia between 1870 and 1900. Most of these camels were dromedaries from India, including the bikaneri war camel from Rajasthan as a riding camel, as well as lowland Indian camels for heavy work. Other dromedaries included the bishari riding camel of North Africa and Arabia.

A bull camel could be expected to carry up to 600kg (1300lb) and camel trains could cover more than 40km per day. They were ideally suited to the conditions of Outback Australia. This was demonstrated in 1895 when a prospector rode a camel to a world distance record without water for more than 900km.

Camel studs were set up in 1866 by Sir Thomas Elder and Samuel Stuckey at Beltana and Umberatana Stations in South Australia. There was also a government stud camel farm near Coolgardie in Western Australia, established in 1894. These studs operated for about 50 years and provided high-class breeding camels for the Australian camel trade.

Camels continued to be used for inland exploration by Peter Warburton in 1873, William Christie Gosse in 1873, Ernest Giles in 1875-76, David Lindsay in 1885-1886, Thomas Elder in 1891-1892, the Calvert Expedition in 1896-97 and by Cecil Madigan in 1939. Camels were also employed in the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line and carried pipe sections for the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme to Kalgoorlie. Eventually, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and the ‘unofficial’ White Australia policy made it more difficult for cameleers to enter Australia.

As Muslim cameleers increasingly travelled through the inland, they encountered various Aboriginal groups. An exchange of skills, knowledge and goods soon developed. Cameleers assisted Aboriginal people by carrying traditional trade cargos, including red ochre or the narcotic plant pituri along ancient trade routes such as the Birdsville Track. The cameleers also brought new commodities such as sugar, tea, tobacco, clothing and metal tools to remote Aboriginal groups. Aboriginal people incorporated camel hair into their traditional string artifacts and provided information on desert waters and plant resources. Some cameleers employed Aboriginal men and women to assist on their long desert treks.

From 1928 to 1933, the missionary Ernest Kramer undertook camel safaris in Central Australia with the aim of spreading the gospel. The first of his trips was to the Musgrave Ranges and Mann Ranges. This was sponsored by the Aborigines Friends Association who sought a report on indigenous living conditions. According to Kramer’s biography, as the men travelled through the desert and encountered local people, they handed out boiled lollies, tea and sugar and played ‘Jesus Loves Me’ on the gramophone.

At night, Kramer used a magic lantern projector to show slides of Christmas and the life of Christ. This was their first experience of Christmas and established a link between camels, gifts and Christianity that was not merely symbolic but had material reality.

By the 1930s motor transport displaced the cameleers but an opportunity arose for Aboriginal people. They learnt camel handling skills and acquired animals to extend their mobility and independence in a rapidly changing frontier society. After motorised transport became more common camels were released into the wild, resulting in a healthy feral population. Well suited to the arid conditions of Central Australia, they became the source of today’s feral camel population. As a result, Australia has the largest population of feral camels and the only herd of dromedary (one-humped) camels exhibiting wild behaviour in the world.

Although their impact on the environment is not as severe as some other pests introduced into Australia, camels ingest more than 80 per cent of the plant species available. Research indicates that environmental degradation occurs when densities exceed two animals per square kilometre. Traditional food plants harvested by Aboriginal people in these areas can be seriously affected by camel browsing. While having soft-padded feet makes soil erosion less of an issue, they can still destabilise dune crests and contribute to erosion. They have a noticeable impact on salt lake ecosystems and have been found to foul waterholes.

By 2008 the camel population had grown to about one million and was projected to double every eight to 10 years. This had potential to become a serious conservation issue due to their effect on local environments and cultural sites. A management program was funded in 2009 and by 2013 the feral population was estimated to have been reduced to around 300,000.

The culling program faced criticism from the Australian camel industry who wanted to see the feral population harvested for meat processing, the pet meat market or live export. It was argued that it would reduce waste and create jobs. Poor animal condition, high freight costs, lack of infrastructure in remote locations and difficulty in gaining necessary permissions on Aboriginal land were some of the challenges faced by the camel industry.

Australia’s first commercial scale camel dairy, the Australian Wild Camel Corporation, was established in 2015 in Clarendon, Queensland. Additional small-scale camel dairies have been set up around Australia. Live camels are occasionally 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.

In early 2020 up to 10,000 camels were shot on Aboriginal land in Central Australia. This could be seen as a missed opportunity to develop a potentially valuable industry and a new way to manage the overabundant species. Early proactive management is far better than a short-term reactive response to the environmental problem posed by camels. Australia does have a camel problem, but management actions need to be ongoing or the population will breed up again.

A lesson in the management of wildlife can be learned from some African countries. Putting a dollar value on game species can generate employment, revenue and deliver long-term environmental benefits. Building a profitable camel hunting and meat industry would be a sustainable way of controlling the camel population with flow-on benefits to the environment and indigenous employment.

Australia is predominately an arid land and we should be taking full advantage of a parched animal. Camel meat is highly valued in the Middle East and North Africa. Within Australia it could find an increasing customer base through Halal butcher shops. Small abattoirs could be established at Kalgoorlie and Alice Springs to further develop the camel meat industry. Distance is a major factor in promoting any inland business in Australia so support infrastructure must be developed close to where the camel populations are. As the old saying goes: “If you build it, they will come.”

Camel hunting opportunities are offered by an array of outfitters in Australia. They provide a good opportunity to hunt a feral animal to deliver sustainable environmental benefits under ‘free range’ conditions.

This is a different proposition to some safari hunting in Africa that takes place on fenced tracts of land. The cost will depend on the length of the hunt, the number of hunters in a group, presence of non-hunting partners and whether any other species are nominated as part of the hunt. The hunting season for camels in Australia runs from the beginning of February to the end of August. The best time for hunting is from April/May through to September/October before the wet season and the onset of summer heat.

Experienced hunters will be familiar with the best aiming points for a clean cull. With a rear view, the poll position requires aiming at the back of the head at the intersection of the skull and the neck. From the side, the temporal position is a sideways shot so that the bullet enters the skull midway between the eye and the base of the ear. With a chest shot the aim point is slightly behind and below the shoulder immediately behind the elbow. This shot needs to be angled forward at about 45 degrees to the camel’s body to hit the heart.

Consideration of suitable rifles involves decisions about cartridges and bullets. Bullet choice is probably more important than the cartridge. In general terms, a calibre of .270 Winchester and above matched with a suitable bullet offering the best balance of expansion and penetration will allow a clean cull. Some 6.5mm calibres would potentially be suitable given their ability to deliver long, heavy carry for calibre projectiles offering deep penetration. It is always necessary to check any relevant state hunting regulations and as all hunters know, good bullet placement is more important than calibre.

The camel is an animal well suited to Australia’s environmental conditions. While they add a certain appeal to our landscape, numbers must be controlled to ensure this charm doesn’t cause excessive environmental damage. Controlled hunting can provide this management if done correctly. It would also allow the development of a sustainable industry fitting in well to Outback Australia. Its effectiveness and flow-on benefits is a political question subject to the competing agendas of all the stakeholders who would claim involvement.

If you gain the chance, enjoy the hunt.

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