Feral Camels in Australia What are Feral Camels?
Australian wild camels are referred to as feral camels. There were no camels whatsoever in Australia prior to their importation into the country by European settlers starting in 1840. Escaping or being released into the wild, their numbers increased exponentially, causing significant ecological damage to the Australian Outback.
In 2008 it was estimated that approximately 1.2 million feral camels lived in the deserts of central Australia. (That's more than in Arabia or India the traditional homelands of these animals). An extensive government culling (killing) operation was undertaken to reduce their numbers. Today, the feral camel population is estimated to be around 300,000 animals.
The dromedary camels are the prevalent feral camels in Australia. They have one hump, are predominately brown in colour, with short fur (usually referred to as 'camel hair') and tufts of longer hair on their throat, shoulders, and hump. They are 1.8-2m tall at the shoulder and weigh approximately 400- 600kg.
Camels have many adaptations that make them very resilient in the harsh Australian Outback.
• Camels can endure temperatures from -29°C to over 49°C.
• Their long legs keep their bodies elevated further away from the hot ground to reduce overheating.
• They can adjust their body temperature in a range of 34-40°C. By doing this, the animal can minimise sweating and therefore conserve body fluids.
• To conserve water, camels only sweat when their body temperature reaches 41-42°C. Until that temperature threshold is reached, they allow their body temperature to rise with that of their environment.
• The camel's red blood cells are oval, which allows them to flow better even when the animal is in a dehydrated state.
• It can tolerate a loss of water equal to over 30% of body weight (a human can only survive a 15% loss)
• Its urine is highly concentrated and is its dung is dry to save water.
Feral Camel - Habitat & Distribution Where Do Camels Live in Australia?
The largest population of wild camels in the world live in the semi-arid and arid areas of central Australia. This included the Great Sandy, Gibson, Great Victoria, and Simpson deserts in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, western Queensland, and northern South Australia – an area of 3.3 million sq km. Their natural habitats, however, are in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, and Central Asia.
Camels thrive in arid and semi-arid areas. They are non-territorial and wander widely, travelling as much as 70 km a day depending on the availability food, water, and summer shade. During winter, camels prefer open plains, salt marshes, and lakes. In summer they prefer dense bush country with trees for shade.
Camels are herbivores. They eat almost any available plant. They graze on grasses and forbs and browse on shrubs and trees to a height of about 3.5 m. Camels have an interesting foraging characteristic where they tend to eat only a few leaves from each plant. This feeding behaviour is definitely beneficial to the plant, as it reduces the stress on the plant and leaves sufficient sustenance other herbivores.
A camel can survive a week or so without water. It can drink as much as 145 litres of water in one drinking session at a rate of about 10 litres per minute. It can live for several months without food.
Camels feed for 6-8 hours each day. Being ruminants, like cows, they then spend another 6-8 hours each day ruminating (chewing the cud). They do this by regurgitating food from their stomachs to chew it again. Where the food they consume is high in water content, camels don’t need to drink water.
It is claimed that a starving camel will eat almost anything, including ropes, leather products, and even canvas tents. When food and water become scarce, the camel extracts energy and water from fat stored in its hump. The longer a camel goes without eating or drinking, the more visibly deflated its hump becomes.
A camel gives birth to a single calf about 12-14 months after mating. The newborn calf has no hump when born and can walk within half an hour of birth. The calf is nursed for about 10-18 months, after which it becomes independent of its mother.
The infant mortality rate amongst baby camels is about 30%. It is claimed that nearly half is caused by aggressive male camels that forcefully separate females from their calves to mate with them.
A camel reaches adulthood in about seven years. The average life expectancy of a camel is 40 to 50 years.
In the early 1800s, no European had ventured into the vast interior of the Australian continent. Many explorers had tried, but all of their attempts had failed.
One of the main reasons for their failure was the lack of a suitable pack animal capable of handling the dry, rough, and often sandy terrain of the Australian Outback. In 1822 a Danish-French geographer named Malthe Conrad Bruun suggested that the camel may solve this problem. He pointed out that the camel was ideally suited for the dessert. It could survive for long periods without food or water and could carry a hefty 170 to 270 kilograms of provisions on its back.
The first camel was purchased from the Spanish on the Canary Islands and arrived in Australia in 1840 and was part of an expedition into the interior lead by John Horrocks. Unfortunately, this animal was instrumental in Hancocks's accidental death and was shot.
In 1860, 24 camels and 3 camel-drivers (cameleers) were imported from India to join the Burke and Wills expedition into Australia's interior. The expedition was a disaster, with both Burke and Wills losing their lives, but the camels proved their usefulness. Some camels in this expiation escaped and may have formed the first contingent of Australia's feral camel population.
Having proven their usefulness, large numbers of camels were imported into Australia. In the period 1870 to 1900 alone, more than 15,000 camels and 3,000 cameleers arrived in Australia. These animals and their drivers provided a vital service in the exploration of the interior of Australia. They were used to carry supplies in the setting up of the first telegraph line through the desert from Adelaide to Darwin and in the construction of the railroad between Port Augusta and Alice Springs. This railroad is known today as the Ghan, in honour of the cameleers who lead the camel teams in its construction. (Note: "Ghan" is derived from the word Afghan, as most of the cameleers originated from Afghanistan whose people are called Afghans).
With the advent of motor vehicles and railroads, camels were no longer needed, and by the 1930s, most were slaughtered or set free.
Discarded by their owners, these animals had to fend for themselves in the Australian Outback and became feral. The hardy camel was ideally suited for the dry Australian deserts. It could handle the heat, had no predators, and could eat almost any vegetation found there. Wild camel numbers increased rapidly. In 1966 it was estimated that there were 20,000 feral camels. By 2008 this number was estimated to be 500,000. Their numbers have increased so much that they are now considered a serious threat to native habitat. An extensive culling was undertaken between 2008 and 2013. The present population is currently estimated at 350,000 animals. Today there are more wild camels in Australia than anywhere else in the world.
While feral camels are classified as pests, their overall impact on the Australian environment is not as severe as that of some other animals introduced into Australia. Significant ecological damage occurs when their population numbers increase to a point where they overstress available resources.
According to the definition used by the IUCN, camels in Australia are not classified as truly "wild". This is because they are descended from domesticated animals that escaped or were released by humans in the past and are now living in the wild.
Feral camels impact the Australian environment by:
• Consuming native vegetation and striping these plants of their leaves. While an individual camel may not denude a plant, because they move in herds of up to 1,000 animals, collectively camels severely deplete and stress local vegetation and deprive native animals of their food and shelter.
• Exhausting and polluting waterholes which cause native animals to die of thirst.
• Damaging pastoral properties by destroying windmills, fences, water pipes, and even water taps and eating vegetation and drinking water meant for livestock. The cost of repairing such infrastructure in the Australian Outback is exorbitantly expensive.
• Sometimes causing serious traffic hazards on roads, rail lines, and even airplane runways.
The annual Apex Camel Cup event in Alice Springs is a fun event with hilarious antics by riders wielding equally enthusiastic camels all vying for a coveted troupe at the end of the race.
Feral camels have no natural predators in Australia. Deaths are primarily caused by old age or prolonged drought where the animals starve to death. There are also reports of infanticide, where bulls during mating season are openly hostile towards newborn calves, forcing the cow away from the calf after birth, leading to the death of the calf.
From time to time, various local and state governments initiate culling campaigns to reduce feral camel numbers. Camels are also harvested for their meat, which is used in pet food or exported overseas. Some camels are occasionally exported to the Middle East.
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