The plight of animals due to the raging bushfires in Australia has made headlines around the world. It’s estimated over a billion animals have perished directly and indirectly because of the fires. So when the local government authorities in South Australia announced a camel cull that could include up to 10,000 animals on January 6, there was an understandable backlash, but the issue is more complex than it first appears.
Camels were introduced to Australia from India and Afghanistan in the 19th century. Thanks to its arid landscape, they have thrived, so much so that they are considered feral pests and culling already takes place to keep their numbers down and prevent degradation of native environments and cultural sites. It has been estimated that if the numbers aren't controlled, camel populations will double every 8-10 years. There are currently around 1 million feral camels in Australia.
Australia is currently experiencing its worst drought ever and that has caused some large camel populations to approach towns and even enter communities in search of water. This, in turn, has caused significant damage to infrastructure, and is putting the communities, and especially children, of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands – home to 2,300 indigenous people – in danger, says the South Australian Department for Environment and Water (DEW).
According to APY Lands general manager Richard King, camels can smell water from up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, so any source – tap, tanks, and even air conditioning units – attract them, ABC News Australia reports.
"Some people, in this sort of weather, are unable to put their air conditioners on, for fear that the animals are going to attack their air conditioners for their moisture," King said.
That may not sound serious, but South Australia has just experienced its hottest year ever. In 2019, it beat its previous 1939-set heat record to reach 46.6°C (115.88°F). Some reports have put January 2020 temperatures at 48°C (118.4°F). It’s also experiencing a severe drop in rainfall, so humans and animals are competing for the same resources. In some cases, dead animals are contaminating already scarce water sources.
This is the first time Aboriginal leaders have asked for a cull of the animals in the state. The APY Executive Board of Management held an urgent meeting to discuss the control of the camels back in December, they said in a statement posted on the APY Lands Facebook page. They concluded that the large congregations of animals – an estimated 10,000 – was too great a threat to their communities, and agreed to an aerial cull.
“Traditional owners recognized the need to manage feral animals, despite a camel cull presenting a spiritual conflict for some indigenous groups, because of serious risks to community safety and damage to important economic, natural and cultural assets,” King said in the statement.
Talking to USA Today, King called the cull a "last resort".
“The number sounds big and the number is big. But, in the grand scheme of things, the number represents about 1% of the feral population,” he said. "We can’t sustain the level that we’ve got out there without doing something drastic to give us some breathing space.”
The animals "will be destroyed in accordance with the highest standards of animal welfare," a spokesperson from DEW said, ABC reported.
The culling, which is expected to take five days, started yesterday and is being carried out by marksmen in helicopters provided by DEW. The animals are being killed away from the communities so as to avoid any further contamination.
The federal government is facing renewed calls to create a carbon credit market for culling camels to cut greenhouse emissions as well. According to Tim Moore, chief executive of carbon farming specialist RegenCo, one camel produces an average methane equivalent of 1 tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year. One million camels are the equivalent of an additional 400,000 cars on the road, he said.
In 2009, the Australian government funded a AUS$19 million program to manage the feral populations, but no ongoing funds have been available since.