Why Are There Camels in Australia?
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Why Are There Camels in Australia?

Why Are There Camels in Australia?

Camels were brought to Australia in 1840 to work in the arid regions of Australia.

> If you are interested in camel rides or travel to Australia, contact Rustic Pathways.

It’s easy to picture a camel walking through a land like the Sahara Desert in northern Africa. Camels are made for such elements. Among the more dashing features that make desert living possible for these magical creatures include:

  • Luxurious eyelashes and eyelids – Camels have three sets of eyelids with two of them having lashes. These protect them from desert elements like blowing sand and brutal sunlight.

  • Talented nostrils – Camels can close their nostrils also because of sand.
  • Hump storage – Camels store fat in their hump, allowing them to go long periods of time without food. Concentrating fat in their humps also helps them regulate their body temperature – absorbing heat during the day that can be distributed at night.
  • Oval-shaped cells – Camels can go nearly a week without water because they have oval-shaped cells that are elastic and allow them to drink large quantities of water when it is available.
  • Thick pads of skin – The skin on their chest and knees allow camels to sit comfortably on very hot sand.

So it seems that animals that designed for the African desert would thrive in a rough and tumble place like the Australian Outback – and they have. But that is only because of the misdirection of men.

Why are there camels in Australia? Because men brought them there – and that has led to a sad tale of what can go wrong in the environment when people make mistakes.

The Fate of Harry

In the mid-1800s British explorer John Ainsworth Horrocks came up with a plan to trek into the interior of Australia. A shipment of camels was brought to the island since it was known they could survive the arid conditions.

Harry the camel was the only one that survived the voyage, so Horrocks took him on the journey. Everything was going well until Horrocks decided to shoot a bird. There are various versions of what happened next. Either his gun got caught on a camel backpack or Harry moved or knelt in a way that made the gun off unexpectedly.

Regardless, Horrocks was shot and badly injured. In the days afterwards, Horrocks’ health declined from the injury. Before he died, he ordered that Harry the camel be killed. This was an omen of things to come for many camels in Australia.

An Influx of Feral Camels in the Australian Outback

Despite the ill-fated outcome of Harry, the British imported as many as 20,000 camels to Australia from the Arabian Peninsula, India and Afghanistan.

Most of the camels were dromedaries or Arabian camels that have a single hump. About 94% of the camels in the world are dromedaries.

The camels carried wool and telegraph poles. They help with an effort to build a railway across central Australia and run communication lines across the Australian outback.

But the heyday for these animals was short lived. When new transportation options were available, the camels were no longer needed, and they were let go to live in the wild. The camels were so well suited to survive and multiply in the outback that soon Australia had another problem – an exploding camel population.

Feral Camels Everywhere

Camels don’t breed like rabbits (another problem in Australia), but they don’t have a lot of natural predators either. The feral camels wander across 43% of Australia.

Region Estimated Area (km²)
Western Australia 1,534,000
Northern Territory 875,000
South Australia 589,000
Queensland 331,000
Australia 3,329,000

The total area occupied by feral camels: 3,329,000 km²

Other feral camel stats

  • Annual mortality rate of camels: 6-9%
  • Average lifespan of camels: 25-40 years
  • Female camels give birth every 2 or 3 years.
  • The chance of a camel giving birth to twins is around 0.4%.
  • Projected population doubling time without any intervention: 8-10 years.
Estimated Number of Camels in Australia Over Time

Impact Of Wild Camels Today

Now the population spans South Australia, Northern Territory, and Western Australia and feral camels roam the Australian Outback — doing what camels do — impacting fragile salt lake ecosystems.

Camels damage stock fences and water points, disrupting cattle watering points and native wildlife habitats. Their grazing harms native plants and vegetation, destabilizing dune crests in arid regions.

Even grosser, feral camels foul waterholes, critical for native animals, plant species and cultural sites. Translation: They poop in clean water holes. Yuck. 🤮

Mitigation Measures for Dromedary Mammals

These efforts aim to mitigate the damage to grazing lands and fences caused by highly mobile camels. If you’re based in Sydney there isn’t much risk of camel knocking down your door, but for aboriginal people in rural areas or cultural sites, a feral camel is an existential risk. 23.5% of land still held by aboriginal people is within range of a feral camel (783,000 km²)

The Australian government uses several methods to cull camel populations and protect native vegetation and salt lake ecosystems.

  • Aerial culling. In South Australia, the government reduced the feral camel population using aerial culling, targeting tens of thousands of wild camels. Arial culling is process of shooting feral camels from a helicopter.
  • Camel agriculture. Camel farms offer delicious options like camel meat, camel milk, and camel hair used for fashion. Camel oil from the hump fat can be used in cooking or cosmetics.
  • Camel export. Camels, once imported for transport, are now exported for commerce. Simba, it’s the circle of life! The camel industry connects Australia to India, the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East, with export of camels. A healthy breeding camel might fetch from between US$1,000 and US$1,500 per animal. The market is small but growing. Fewer than 400 camels are removed annually for live export.

Still the fate of the camels is unknown as the conflict between endemic and invasive species remains. Regardless of how it plays out, hopefully the sad story of Harry and his fellow camels will inspire young people to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Certainly, we now know it is not wise to mess too much with nature.

Rustic Pathways offers travel touring programs and educational travel programs in Australia. Our itineraries include sunrise camel rides through the desert, cultural tours of Uluru with local guides and community service with aboriginal communities.

If you’re interested in ecological and historical impact of camels in Australia or looking for immersive travel experiences with or without camels, contact us.

About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.