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Australia may now have the largest wild population of Arabian camels (Camelus dromedarius) in the world. They live in most of Australia’s desert country including the Great Sandy, Gibson, Great Victoria and Simpson deserts, as well as much of the semi-desert lands. Camels were first introduced into Australia in the 1840’s to assist in the exploration of inland Australia. Between 1840 and 1907, between 10,000 and 20,000 camels were imported from India with an estimated 50-65% landed in South Australia.
Camels are highly mobile and may forage over 70 km per day. They form bachelor groups, which young males join after their second year, or family groups containing up to 30 adult females along with their one and two year old offspring. Feral aggregations of up to 500 individuals have been recorded in Australia. Camels have a low potential rate of increase with females usually giving birth to one young every second year, but they are long lived, up to 50 years, and have few mortality factors, other than by human intervention.
Camels are selective feeders with a preference for shrubs and trees rather than grasses. They can go for long periods without needing to drink, but during the heat of summer they will drink every day if water is available.
As large herbivores, camels add to the total grazing impact with damage likely to be most severe during and coming out of drought. They also destroy fences and are a potential carrier of exotic diseases that may be a threat to livestock. Camels are of concern to indigenous communities because they can foul water holes and damage ceremonial art and other cultural sites that are often associated with water holes.
The primary forms of management are trapping at water points, muster and shooting. There is a rapidly expanding industry based on camels, primarily for game meat, although some are also taken for live export and for use in the tourist industry. Fences that exclude camels but allow free access of native wildlife have been used to reduce their damage to key waterholes.
Watch this Meet the Ferals episode on feral camels to learn more.