Is it time for the camel business?

"Australia has the largest population of feral camels and the only herd of dromedary (one-humped) camels exhibiting wild behaviour in the world." Wikipedia

Some time ago now I started a 'series' on Australia's feral animals. So when I saw a link to an article in Good Food in the latest newsletter from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival I thought that I would pick up on my long ago idea. I don't think I have done camels. The link was to an article about the Camel Milk Company which is Victorian. Now you don't think of camels and Victoria in the same breath do you, so that was an additional little bit of intrigue.


(I have just noticed that through this article I say 'camels' when technically virtually all the 'camels' we have in Australia are dromedaries - one hump. Apologies)


But I will start back in the beginning - 1822 in fact - when the idea of camels and Australia was first floated. However it was not until 1840 that some half a dozen camels were imported although only one, subsequently called Harry survived the trip. He was bought by one John Ainsworth Horrocks who became famous for being shot by his camel in 1846:


"On 1 September Horrocks was preparing to shoot a bird on the shores of Lake Dutton. His kneeling camel moved while Horrocks was reloading his gun, causing the gun to fire and injuring the middle fingers of his right hand and a row of teeth. Horrocks died of his wounds on 23 September in Penwortham after requesting that the camel be shot." Wikipedia


Which just goes to show that truth can be so much stranger than fiction. Such an odd story I had to include it.


We all know that subsequently - the 1860s I think - camels were used for expeditions into the interior - most famously the doomed Burke and Wills expedition of 1860 which had 24 camels. The imported camels were accompanied by the men who knew how to manage them. They are not that easy to manage. Nowadays we know them as Afghans - with the North to South cross country train being called The Ghan. But they weren't just Afghans - they also came from British India and Egypt - mostly Pashtuns, Baluchis, Punjabis and Sindhis. By the 1890s these men and the Muslim merchants and bankers who 'ran' them dominated the carting industry across Australia and continued to do so until the 1920s and 30s, when motorised transport took over.


It was at this point that Australia's feral camel problem began because the now redundant camels were just released into the wild where they became a bigger and bigger problem and reached a population of 1 million or more by 2008. At this point the federal government stepped in with The National Feral Camel Action Plan:


"The National Feral Camel Action Plan cited the following environmental impacts: "broad landscape damage including damage to vegetation through foraging behaviour and trampling, suppression of recruitment of some plant species, selective browsing on rare and threatened flora, damage to wetlands through fouling, trampling and sedimentation, competition with native animals for food and shelter and loss of sequestered carbon in vegetation"

They also invaded Aboriginal settlements doing much structural damage to property - also the properties of outback farms when they searched for water in times of drought. There was also damage to rock paintings and other heritage sites. And, of course, they emitted methane into the atmosphere. So a real problem.


Incidentally I assume that a whole lot of businesses went bust and a whole lot of cameleers were out of work. What happened to them is another story that I just do not know.


It should also be noted that in those years between the 1930s, and 2009 the Aboriginals had learnt from the 'Afghans' how to manage the camels and this had enabled them to increase their mobility and independence. It is notable that several of the now existing camel businesses are basically managed by the Aboriginal community - well I am guessing they are, from the names of some of the companies involved.


Under that National Feral Camel Action Plan, from 2009 to 2013 there was a major culling program which reduced the feral population to around 300,000 but there was, of course, much controversy about the program not just from an ethical point of view, but also from an environmental one in that the camels were just left to rot.


I assume that the culling continues on an occasional basis. Indeed in South Australia there was a culling program as recently as January this year in which 4-5000 camels were shot from helicopters by professional shooters. However the growing camel industry, does make use of feral animals that are rounded up and transported to the farms.


For simultaneously there has been an increase in the farming of camels - both for their milk and for their meat and also on a much smaller scale for tourism - rides along the beach and through the desert.


Interestingly it is mostly Muslim countries that consume camel meat - which I guess is not that surprising as camels are indigenous to the areas in which Islam began. However, not all Muslims eat it on a regular basis. It seems to be a delicacy in the Middle East, eaten only at festivals and other such special occasions - with the hump, which is fatty, being the most prized part of the animal. In sub Saharan African countries such as Sudan and Somalia it is eaten on a more regular basis, and since Australia has been receiving more immigrants from these countries there has been an increase in demand for halal camel meat. So Australia now has a growing domestic market as well as an enlarging export market - both live exports and processed meat. Australian camel meat is widely respected:


"because the meat is fully traceable and sustainable,"


Both China and the United States have ventured into the area but so far with not a great deal of success.


Problems here have been the difficulties of rounding up the feral animals and transporting them and also to insufficient abattoirs - the largest being in Alice Springs. I think the largest companies involved in the meat market are in the north and in South Australia.


It has also been used for pet meat although there seems to be a bit of a controversy over whether this is causing significant liver disease, even death, in dogs, because of the toxicity of some of the plants the camels eat. As I say, it's a controversy and they are working on it.


And what does it taste like anyway? Well I couldn't find a definitive explanation - halfway between beef and lamb? A bit like veal - if it's young. Because apparently camel meat can be tough and young meat is preferable. Generally speaking it responds to long slow cooking rather than the steak approach. If you live in the right area though you can buy halal camel hamburger mince in your local Coles - and it's pretty cheap.


As for the milk. Well there are lots of arguments for camel milk. It has less fat than cow's milk, and has more vitamins B and C plus more calcium, iron and potassium. It is suitable for those with lactose intolerance and is said to be good for the immune system and the gut, and all sorts of other things, including Alzheimers and autism which I think they are still investigating. But it's very expensive. The Camel Milk Co. charges $15.00 for a litre of lightly pasteurised camel milk and a whopping $57.95 for 200g of milk powder! Why so expensive? Well camels produce a mere 5 to 6 litres of milk per day as opposed to 28 for a cow. They are not easy to milk - they like to have their babies nearby and don't react well to strangers. I don't think they like milking machines either.


The Camel Milk Company which started all of this was founded in 2014 by Megan and Chris Williams who had met in Alice Springs in 2008. They returned to Megan's parents' dairy farm in Kyabram in Victoria but when their first child was diagnosed as lactose intolerance they decided to launch into camel farming. They now have 350 camels and 40 new babies on their own larger property. This year because of the COVID19 crisis they will be relying on their own stock to expand as importing feral animals from elsewhere in Australia is not possible. The bulk of their production is freeze-dried in Tasmania and exported to South East Asia - mostly Singapore and Thailand. But they also make various health and beauty products, such as soap and body cream. People are more likely to hand out money for these sorts of things I would have thought.


Anyway good luck to them. There doesn't seem to have been a trendy uptake of meat either so far. But there is that increasing middle-eastern and sub Saharan Africa community to boost that market. Not that the Williams' are into meat - that's perhaps up to the Aboriginals.


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