It used to be the great legend of the Australian outback: a million feral camels – the only wild camels in the world – roaming across the desert. But no more.
In a report to be released today, the Australian Feral Camel Management Project will announce that after four years it has reduced the wild animals to about 300,000, and has devised a way to keep those numbers low to protect the landscapes they’ve trampled for almost 200 years.
Introduced in the 1840s, camels were used as pack animals, but with the rise of cars they were set free in the outback, with numbers estimated to have reached about 600,000 in 2008 and possibly once as high as one million.
Pinpointing an exact number of feral camels is very difficult, says Jan Ferguson, the managing director of the organisation behind the project, Ninti One.
“We’ve taken out 160,000 in this project,” she told AAP.
“We also believe that potentially 100,000 camels died in the Simpson Desert as a result of a lack of feed and drought.”
Overgrazing, fouling water supplies and damaging traditional lands have taken their toll, and the project focused on camel impacts on the land as well as the impact on Aboriginal cultural sites, on farm infrastructure such as fences and water points, and human safety, with camels frequently wandering onto roads and airstrips and into remote communities.
Run in collaboration with 20 organisations, including the RSPCA and the Australian Camel Industry Association, the project covered more than three million square kilometres, with traditional landowners and pastoralists having three options: ground control, aerial culling or trucking the camels to abattoirs for commercial use.
“Most people would prefer these animals went to some kind of productive use,” Ms Ferguson said.
“However, when they are in significant numbers, doing damage to communities or environmental assets, people want them removed and that’s where aerial culling comes in.”
Almost half the estimated feral camel population was on land managed by Aboriginal people, who “expressed a desire to be engaged in control methods to protect their cultural assets, pass on knowledge and provide employment for young people”, the report found.
The land over which feral camels roam contains some of the most significant cultural assets for Aboriginal people, which they have maintained for thousands of years, it says.
“Monitoring has shown that reducing the density of feral camels on key environmental assets has improved the condition of those assets, with flow-on cultural and economic benefits to Aboriginal people, the pastoral industry, the commercial camel industry and the Australian people,” it reads.
The program will be used as a template for managing other similar feral animal populations across the country, such as horses and donkeys.
“We’d hope the ground control training we’ve done and work with commercial industries means camel densities can be kept low,” Ms Ferguson said.
“You can only ever manage a feral. You can’t eradicate it.”