A treat for tourists in the Outback town of Alice Springs is an early morning camel ride with top cameleer Marcus Williams.
In the business for 20 years, he takes some visitors out riding overnight and even lines up camel transport for wedding parties. There are dozens of businesses like Pyndan Camel Tracks across a continent that has around 1 million camels on the loose.
The first camels were imported in the 1840s. Over the next 60 years around 10,000 arrived in Australia to work as beasts of burden. The coming of motor vehicles in the 1920s rendered them obsolete and they were simply set free to roam the red center.
Alison Anderson, who also calls the Northern Territory home, is at the other side of the equation from Williams. To her, camels are feral animals, pests.
“They go into houses and they smash the taps, and anywhere where they can smell water they will absolutely destroy the pipes and the taps and the toilet bowls, and they are just destructive,” Anderson said.
But what to do about them is proving to be problematic.
The continent is so big and its infrastructure so spread out that plans for turning camels into pet food have foundered. Camels are more intelligent that cattle and sheep — and that makes them harder to manage.
As with kangaroos, Australians seem loathe to make a meal of camels.
“That’s the key to the whole problem,” said Central Australian Camel Industry Association spokesman Peter Siedel.
“Consumption in Australia will never amount to enough demand to make an impact on the numbers that are there now, so we really need to develop the overseas market,” he said.
Despite the huge numbers — and a population doubling every nine years — annual shipments are around 25,000 animals. They go mostly to the Middle East.
In some jurisdictions, camels are shot from the air, and simply left where they fall. It’s hard work. They are hard to spot from a helicopter because their brown fur blends in with the hues of the sandy deserts. They don’t stay in herds, either.
An abattoir has been set up in Alice Springs, but mustering camels is hard work too.
“Industry and government can join to create an economically and environmentally viable industry employing indigenous people to help resolve the feral camel problem,” said camel expert Phil Gee.
But what’s most likely to happen is what happens now: a mish-mash of culling and animal husbandry, each jurisdiction going its own way, everyone talking about the need for a concerted approach but nothing much being done to achieve that.