More than 300,000 feral camels are wreaking havoc across the outback – with one farmer claiming he had to shoot as many as two every minute to protect cattle and save precious water.
The feral camels are reproducing so rapidly that culling efforts are failing to contain their devastation – so farmers are appealing for help getting camel meat to dinner tables at home and abroad.
Jack Carmody is on the front lines of the rising camel scourge.
More than 2500 have crossed his family’s station in Western Australia this year alone.
And they have left a trail of destruction in their wake.
“They’ve pushed in panels and crushed yards trying to get in. And I’ve seen them kick other animals to death to try to get water,” Mr Carmody told The New Daily.
“The station to our south, they had a windmill knocked over by camels trying to get a drink, and what that does is give your cattle no water, so you start losing cattle.”
Bordered by unmanaged land from where most of the camels originate, the Carmodys’ Prenti Downs Station is at the coalface of this issue.
But the challenges they face are shared by others.
Despite camels covering an area more than three million square kilometres, there hasn’t been a federal camel management program since 2013.
Mining giant BHP committed $2 million towards a four-year culling program in Central Australia in January.
But the total amount of money that’s put forward each year still falls well short of the $4 million annual contribution required to keep the camel population at its 2013 levels – meaning management of the invasive species has largely fallen on the shoulders of individual farmers.
“It’s getting worse every year,” said Jim Quadrio, who spends up to $10,000 a year replacing fences broken by camels on Granite Peak Station, roughly 880 kilometres north-east of Perth.
“The last aerial cull in November took out about 1100 camels in the area where I am, so that made a huge difference … but the benefit from that only lasts a short while, so it’s sort of a losing battle at the moment.”
Given camels are highly mobile and can cover more than 70 kilometres a day, aerial culling is widely regarded as the most effective means of managing the feral herbivores. But it’s expensive.
Ross Wood, chief financial officer of the Goldfields Nullarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association (GNRBA), said it costs $1200 an hour to run an aerial cull.
Which is why the current level of WA government funding was inadequate, he told The New Daily.
“It was just a gesture,” said Mr Wood, who helps plan and operate aerial culls, of the $150,000 given to three Western Australian biosecurity groups.
“We’ve got to have a much tidier program … because all these things are subject to getting a plan out, getting them accepted by everybody, and the government suddenly finding a bag of money.”
Describing feral camels in the outback as “rhinos in a china shop”, Mr Wood said governments needed to invest much more in culling if they wanted to see results.
But Mr Carmody and Mr Quadrio told The New Daily it wasn’t a question of money alone.
“When you’ve got something that, in a good year, is doing so well and is free range and organic, it’s madness to just be destroying it as a resource,” Mr Carmody said.
And Philip Gee, a SA government employee who has worked with camels for more than 30 years, agrees.
He told The New Daily that a sustainable meat industry could have been set up by now if the government used the $19 million it invested into the last federal culling program for that purpose instead.
“No doubt there’s a market. It’s just really hard to tap into,” Mr Gee said, in reference to demand from the Middle East and Africa.
“Sooner or later, someone will crack it.”
Now, though, there’s neither local demand nor established links to markets overseas.
Which means that Mr Carmody has little choice but to adopt the conventional ‘drop-and-rot’ approach for the time being – shooting camels with a bolt-action rifle and disposing of the corpses.
He sometimes manages to get the meat to friends who run pet food businesses. But it usually goes to waste.
And there’s often plenty to go around.
I have to crank on a feel-good playlist on Spotify to be able to keep up with the sheer amount of killing.’’
“Once, I shot around 155 camels in 75 minutes. You’re shooting the whole time, and you’re seeing animals in such poor condition that they’re drinking the blood of other animals just to get some sort of liquid.
“It’s kinda horrifying. I’m not going to call it PTSD, but it does rattle you.”
Mr Quadrio also believes commercialisation should play a role in the management of camels – so that the feral herd can boost, rather than curtail, Australia’s economic growth.
It’s an idea that crops up every time there’s a severe drought, as this is when camels are more likely to drift away from the desert towards farmers’ water stations.
But while it sounds like a good one, Mr Wood said it had little chance of success on a wide scale, as the size of camels and their remote location meant transportation costs were prohibitively expensive.
“People would have already set up a camel meat industry if there were a market for it,” Mr Wood said.
“And if the government offers subsidies, they will be rorted.”
As it stands, Samex is the only company in Australia currently exporting camel meat.
It operates a meat processing plant at Peterborough, in far-north South Australia, and works with indigenous communities who muster camels on Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia.
A multi-species abattoir is also in the pipeline for South Australia, and WA Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan told The New Daily the WA government was considering a proposal for a “commercial multi-species abattoir in Kalgoorlie that could process feral camels for meat export”.
But the limited market and current low price for camels means most farmers will be locked into the “drop-and-rot” approach for the time being – whether they like it or not.
“If you can’t get it to market, there is no market. And if there is no market, there’s no reason to keep the animal alive,” Mr Carmody said.
“You have to think about what products you do have that are commercial – and for us, that’s cattle.
“We need to keep the cattle alive, and unfortunately since we can’t do anything with the camel meat, we have to shoot the camels.”