The Australian camel landscape


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THE dromedary, or the single hump camel, constitutes 90% of the world’s camel population; the remaining 10% being the Bactrian or the two-hump camel found in China, Mongolia and Russia. The dromedary is found in North Africa, Middle East, India and Australia. Although the camel is not native to it, Australia is the only country in the world with wild dromedary camels.

During the mid-1800s exploration in Australia to locate natural resources, and find new places to settle, moved from the coastal areas to the more remote desert regions of central Australia. It soon became obvious that the horses and wagons traditionally used in expeditions were not suitable in these remote arid areas of the country. Exploration was the initial catalysis to bring camels to Australia and, as at the time, Australians had no experience with camels or knowledge on how to handle them, cameleers were also recruited. These cameleers proved to be indispensable in the exploration and development of the Australian interior.

Although the cameleers who came to Australia during this period were routinely referred to as ‘Afghans’, they were primarily from the Rajasthan region of India. Over the next few decades more camels and cameleers were brought to Australia and these ‘ships of the desert’ became the backbone of the transport industry of central Australia. They were used extensively in exploration and later as these outback regions were further developed they carted supplies, mail and even water to remote settlements.

Camels transported the supplies, tools and equipment needed for the surveying and construction of some of Australia’s earliest infrastructure projects, such as the Overland Telegraph and Trans-Australian Railway. It is estimated that from the 1860s to the 1920s, more than 2,000 cameleers and 20,000 camels came to Australia.1 The reliance on the camels at this time is illustrated by a letter to the Australian Attorney General in 1902: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that if it had not been for the Afghan and his camels, Wilcannia, White Cliffs, Tibooburra, Milperinka and other towns, each centres of considerable population, would have practically ceased to exist.’

With the increased use of motor vehicles and rail transport the need for camels, and their cameleers, slowly died out. By the 1930s the camel trains had became obsolete. Unable to care for the camels, and rather than see them starve or be shot, the camel owners released their animals into the deserts to fend for themselves. The camels were ideally suited to this environment and have flourished ever since in the remote deserts of central Australia.

1974 – the beginning.

Australia now has the only wild herds of dromedaries in the world: approximately one million were estimated to roam in the vast inland desert regions before the Australian Feral Camel Management Project was established in 2009 to reduce the population. While some people see them as a pest – a feral animal to be eradicated – others see them as a wonderful gift to this arid country; a resource that has the potential to provide a sustainable agricultural enterprise in what is, for other animals, a very hostile environment. Over 60% of all wild camels in Australia run on Aboriginal lands. These animals could, with proper planning and the support of government, be developed into an industry that is ideally suited to the arid landscape and the culture of the traditional landowners of this country.

Camels in the wild.


As no one breeds camels in any significant way in Australia, all of the stock that is currently commercially used comes from the wild herds. Catching camels from the wild is logistically very difficult due to their remote locations and the poor access roads. There are several methods that can be used, however, and there are no logical reasons why a successful wild harvest operation could not be successful in many parts of the country.

A few of the different capture techniques are: lassoing camels from horses, bikes or four wheel drive vehicles; running them with helicopters into mobile yard systems; or water trapping them with specially built spring loaded gates and yards set up around remote water holes in dry periods. Lassoing in most cases is just not practical for securing large numbers, so mustering in vehicles/bull catchers and motorbikes into stockyards is the method that is mainly used in Australia. Helicopters can be used to assist the vehicles, or they can be used on their own without vehicles and very little ground crew. A water trap, during dry times, is also a highly effective way to capture large numbers with very little stress on the animals. Whichever method is used depends on the time of the year, the location and the weather conditions. Sometimes it is easy and other days a lot of time and money is spent getting nowhere. Helicopters although expensive are a great help in finding the camels and herding them to move into an area where they can be yarded. Using an R22 chopper for one day can result in several hundred camels in the yard by sunset.

Camels training.

There are many possibilities for expanding the camel industry in Australia: tourism, milk, meat, live export, selective long-term breeding programmes, scientific research, hair and wool products, and racing events. With 70% of Australia’s land mass classified as arid, this industry would be well suited for Australia. Internationally the industry is worth billions of dollars across many different countries, but in Australia the resource is generally ignored and these opportunities squandered.


Tourism remains the main use of camels in Australia with a variety of camel rides being offered. A number of people offer short 5 or 10 minute rides at shows and fairs. At Uluru and Cable Beach the hour-long sunset rides are very popular, and for the more adventurous there are treks ranging from a 5-day trip around the Flinders Ranges to a four-week adventure across the Simpson desert.

Camel milk has the potential to be a multimillion dollar export earner for Australia; demand for the product is extensive and it is now being touted as a possible super food as it is high in vitamin C and low in lactose. There is also growing anecdotal evidence of positive results in the treatment of diabetes and autism, but to date there have been no scientific trials to support these claims. At present the cost of camel milk in Australia fluctuates anywhere between $7 and $25 per litre. The price is high at the moment because it is a relatively new product receiving good health reviews. The price is likely to eventually settle on the lower side of this current price range as production increases and reliable supplies are established.


Production of milk from the camel varies from 5 litres a day, to some reports of 35 litres per day. It would appear that around 10 litres per day is common in the larger dairies in the UAE. Products such as cheese, ice cream and chocolate are also currently made from it and the price the milk commands is quite high compared to cow’s milk. As demand continues to grow for the product, one option is to capture feral females and hope that they produce a good return of milk, but how to identify which will be good milkers needs to be determined.

Cable Beach.

Meat is the other obvious product with demand currently extremely high, but at the time of writing there are only two abattoirs that will process camels in Australia, and if wild harvesting was the only source in Australia there would also not be enough camels to supply the demand for long. The current stock of wild camels could, however, be the basis of a stable export commodity if ‘behind the wire’ breeding programmes were established. At present all supply is coming from ad hoc wild harvest operations and the lack of a reliable chain of supply is a major factor in preventing the industry from moving forward.


Live camels are occasionally exported to the Middle East, where there is some demand for Australian camels, but the tyranny of distance, logistics and costs make exports generally prohibitive. Ships are not designed to take camels: the deck heights are too low as they are designed for smaller animals such as cattle and sheep. And airfreight is far too expensive for large numbers. Due to the recent negative publicity surrounding the culling programme, and the impression that camels are seen by the rural sector as a pest, many people assume they would be cheap to buy, but this is certainly not the case in comparison to camel prices in other parts of the world. The Australian government’s strict export regulations to guarantee animal welfare, together with the catching and transport costs, make it virtually impossible to sell live camels for slaughter in other countries, particularly those using halal slaughter procedures.

Cameleers with a camel wearing traditional decorative harness, c.1890. (Source: State Library of South Australia).


Camel racing has been around since camels first arrived in Australia: even in the old days when the camel men were working their trade through the outback, it was prestigious to have a better and faster camel. In the 1970s the first annual race day was established with the Camel Cup in Alice Springs. This was designed to be a tourism event and charity fund raiser, which became highly successful thanks to the hard work of charismatic Noel Fullerton, a local camel ride operator. It is still running strong today. Camel racing also saw some serious attempts to make it professional, but it remains more of an unusual weekend event, usually in an iconic outback town with not a lot of camels taking part, but generally a lot of fun and attracting large crowds. The Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane agricultural shows have all had camel races at one time or another as part of the entertainment.

Transporting equipment in central Australia, c.1900. (Source: State Library of South Australia).

In 1988 Australia hosted the longest endurance race using camels ever attempted in the world. The race went from Uluru in the centre of the country to the Gold Coast on the eastern seaboard, 3300 kilometres over some very harsh terrain. The race took three months and required the distance to be travelled by one person on one camel, with no interchanging. Many people did not complete the race even if the camels took it all in their stride.

Cameleers from Rajasthan were vital in the early exploration of inland Australia. (Source: State Library of South Australia).


In 1997 the Boulia Desert Sands event was the first real attempt at serious camel racing, with good prize money. Drug testing was introduced and the camels were required to be microchipped. For the first time in Australia people spent time and money training their animals to run. The owners used lightweight jockeys, who were mostly female, and it seemed all was in place to try to match the times in the Middle East with the hope of selling quality Australian racing camels into this huge market. But the reality is that this has not happened: Australia does not have elite racing camels and lacks the breeding programmes and the money required to compete with the camel race industry in the Gulf. In Australia, camel racing remains for the moment a novelty, a sideline for camel owners engaged in tourism.



1. Philip G. Jones and A. Kenny, Australia’s Muslim Cameleers: Pioneers of the Inland 1860s-1930s. South Australian Museum and Wakefield Press, 2007.