Broadcast: 23/11/2014 12:06:52 PM
PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: Australia’s wild camel industry is struggling after an estimated 160,000 head was shot in a national culling program.
While reducing the number of feral camels has taken the pressure off sensitive environmental areas and farm infrastructure, critics say it wasted millions of dollars and raised questions about the welfare of animals shot from helicopters. With demand for camel meat rising, the question is being asked: should wild camels be seen as a pest or a resource?
And a warning: this report from Tahmina Ansari contains some distressing images.
TAHMINA ANSARI, REPORTER: In the rugged rangelands of Central Australia at Kings Creek Station, south-west of Alice Springs, they’re farming camels.
Ian Conway has spent all his life in the arid zone, mustering camels from the wild for more than 40 years.
It’s an opportunistic harvest, with about 200 camels sold each week as meat for domestic and export markets as well as a growing camel milk industry.
Live camels are the backbone of his business.
So where are these camels going?
IAN CONWAY, KINGS CREEK STATION: These have been taken out of the bush to be sort of slightly educated before they go. They’re not trained, but we have to yard them and run them in fence lines so that when they go from here, they’ll go into the milking farm in Victoria. And this is a small lot of the 500 that will go from here between now and 31st December.
TAHMINA ANSARI: The demand for camel meat is growing at a rapid rate in Australia and in Asia and the Middle East.
IAN CONWAY: Look, not only me, but all the other people that deal with camels get requests every day and I can put you onto a fellow who gets at least four or five requests a day for camels. A meat source that should be used as a viable industry within this part of the country because they survive much better than cattle, in fact, in the western desert regions of Central Australia.
TAHMINA ANSARI: I’m Tahmina Ansari and I’m an Afghan-born Australian. My parents migrated from Afghanistan in the early ’90s. When I learnt about the role of the Afghan cameleers and the camel trains and how they played a vital role in opening up the Outback, I was fascinated and it was this fascination with camels that’s led me to this story.
Camels opened up the vast expanses of Central Australia, first arriving in 1840. Camels were the road trains of the bush. The Afghan cameleers serviced the most remote corners of Australia, carrying building and railway materials, food, furniture, water, medicine and mail. The camel was the only animal that was able to survive the dry, hot climate. But once modern transport took off, the Afghans released the camels into the wild, and since then, they’ve thrived.
For cattle station owners like Ashley and Lyndee Severin, camels are a big problem.
LYNDEE SEVERIN, CURTIN SPRINGS STATION: 2007-’08, there was quite a lot of rain around Alice Springs and no rain out here and we had really big problems with the camels, significant issues where we lost hundreds of kilometres of fences in a very short period of time, a lot of damage to infrastructure. Which meant that we couldn’t run our normal beef management programs. So we couldn’t wean calves, we couldn’t keep bulls away from heifers, so we lost all of that ability to run our normal beef production.
TAHMINA ANSARI: The damage cost thousands of dollars and the Severins say it took more than three years to recover. New fences built to protect their precious water from camels cost them $2,000 a kilometre.
So how high are these fences?
LYNDEE SEVERIN: So this fence is, you know, almost – six foot, basically. So significantly taller than me and very different in structure to what we would normally do with a four-barbed wire fence. So we’ve got three heights of cable and they’re all tie-wired onto the mesh. Single piece of mesh. We’ve got the star pickets that are driven into the ground to give it some of the sideways stability and then the big pieces of steel that are concreted three feet into the ground as well to give it that really structural stability.
TAHMINA ANSARI: Motion cameras were set up on the fences to track the movements and patterns of the wild camels.
LYNDEE SEVERIN: We expected that we would have big numbers over the summer. There’d been some rain, there’d been a shower of rain – there’d been big fires and a shower of rain and we had a little bit of green pick. We were recording where we were seeing camel activity, where we were fixing fences, where we were shooting camels.
TAHMINA ANSARI: In 2012, overwhelmed by the large numbers, the Severins pushed hard for a national camel feral management program.
The feral management program was headed by Glenn Edwards from the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service.
Between 2009 and 2013, more than 160,000 camels were culled through the project. Government contractor Ninti One monitored the camels while each state and territory used aerial culling to reduce the numbers.
GLENN EDWARDS, DEPT. OF NATURAL RESOURCES NT: It was about a 10-year process, really, before we saw some large-scale management occurring on the ground. And so I said that back in 2001 we did a big aerial survey in the NT, became aware from that that there were some issues in terms of camel numbers and impacts.
We set out from then to try and raise the profile of the camel issue in terms of needing some sort of management to occur and realised pretty early on that camels did occur across a large swathe of Australia and there would have to be some sort of national co-ordination to the management.
TAHMINA ANSARI: The cull has been hailed a success, but there are still an estimated 300,000 feral camels left.
GLENN EDWARDS: In terms of achieving a quick reduction in camel numbers and impacts around those environmental asset sites, it was probably the only tool that could be used. The removal of camels for commercial purposes is a relatively slow process and it probably alone could not have achieved the density of reductions that had to be achieved in that 4.5-year timeframe.
TAHMINA ANSARI: The feral management program also included wild horses and donkeys and questions have been raised about the welfare of the animals killed.
These distressing pictures show horses wounded and left to die. Ian Conway says the same thing happened to countless camels.
IAN CONWAY: I’ve been out into areas where camels have been shot and you can obviously see that they haven’t died on the first shot or haven’t died at that point in time, but died perhaps hours later or perhaps days later. We were guaranteed that these animals would be killed and die instantaneously.
But a lot of these are lung shots, they’re wither shots, which is in the top of that thing, they’re head shots where it hasn’t penetrated the brain. And so these camels drop. And to be able to get down on the ground and inspect every one of these animals to make sure they were dead is an impossibility, especially with the numbers that they said they were shooting.
TAHMINA ANSARI: The Government insists that the right procedures were followed during the cull.
GLENN EDWARDS: All the aerial culling was performed or undertaken by highly-experienced aerial shooters. They were all government shooters. So there was a high-level of quality control. And also, the project conducted audits of two things: adherence to the standard operating procedures, but also the project looked at the humaneness of the aerial culling and a vet was used to do that and a number of autopsies were undertaken and observations were made of actual culling operations. So, there was a lot of checks and balances.
TAHMINA ANSARI: But it’s not just the way the camels were killed that’s causing a concern. A drastic drop in numbers has had a devastating effect on Australia’s camel exports.
This multi-species abattoir at Aileron Station near Alice Springs was killing about 125 camels a day as well as cattle.
Owner Gary Dann says the cull has cut his camels to about 80 a day and he’s now struggling to meet demand.
GARY DANN, CAMEL MEAT EXPORTER: And the demand’s certainly there and it’ll take a while now to get a domestic herd going, but built up with killing also cattle. A multi-species abattoir in my opinion was the way to go to get an industry going in Central Australia as far as helping an abattoirs for beef. Whereas that was our trouble before: with the cattle industry, you know, if it’s got dry, we sold our young steers because it was dry, so we had nothing heavier for the following years and that was always a problem. I thought that with the camel, combined, multi-species, it would be, you know, viable.
TAHMINA ANSARI: Gary Dann believes the money spent on shooting camels could be put to better use.
GARY DANN: All we want is a little bit of help. It’s costing thousands, millions of dollars going out and shoot them. If we were to get a bit of freight subsidy to go out, we’ll trap them, we’ll do the work, but get half of what they’ve spent on, or not even that, on going out and shooting these camels and they could be viable, well and truly.
TAHMINA ANSARI: Most of Aileron Station’s camel meat is sold overseas, but there’s an emerging domestic market.
Camel meat is processed in abattoirs like this one, but on the East Coast of Australia, demand is growing and the industry says it’s struggling to keep up.
Fettayleh Wholesale Meats in western Sydney is Australia’s largest halal meat company. It supplies two to three tonnes of camel meat a month to about 200 stores, including Coles supermarkets, but supply is an issue.
AHMAD FETTAYLEH, MEAT WHOLESALER: It’s a growing industry, no doubt. We all have difficulties getting supply. There’ll be a greater, a bigger market overseas to export camels to around the world, but a lot of exporters currently just can’t get enough supply.
TAHMINA ANSARI: Australia’s Muslim community has an appetite for camel meat, particularly for religious festivals such as Ramadan. But suppliers say the wider Australian community is catching on, adding camel meat to a range of game now widely available.
AHMAD FETTAYLEH: It’s all about game products, so they sell kangaroo, they sell buffalo, they sell duck and there was just another product to add to the range. I believe that they don’t see the growth of it. I believe it’s a very big growing industry. I think they should probably start thinking how to farm the camels – I don’t know if it’s possible – and probably have a better eating-quality camel.
TAHMINA ANSARI: Farming camels may have a future and could be a huge export industry, but people like Ian Conway say that’s a long way off and the current wild camel harvest is on its knees.
IAN CONWAY: We were well on the way at one stage that this was going to happen, but then the Government – the Northern Territory Government of a few years ago cut the small amount of funding that they put into the camel industry, and bearing in mind at that time we were only just starting off and we were shipping out something like 5,400 camels a year out of the area.
Now I know that that’s not going to sustain the numbers in the area. We’re looking at more like 30,000. So, it is a sustainable industry. It just needs to have somebody that’s got the brainpower beyond being a bureaucrat sitting in an office saying, “Let’s do this because this is the easy way out.”