Australia Exports Its Wild Camels to the Middle East

Neil Sands, Agence France Presse
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2004-02-09 03:00

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — Australian exporters have carved out an unlikely market niche selling wild camels from the Outback to Middle Eastern countries which were the original home of the “ships of the desert”.

Peter Seidel, executive officer of the Central Australian Camel Industry Association, said the camels were now regarded as a pest and would be culled if no industry could be built around them.

“No one wants to do that because it is very unpopular and expensive,” he said.

Camels were first brought to Australia in the 1840s by explorers needing a hardy form of transportation as they charted the country’s harsh interior.

Once finished, the pioneers simply set the animals free and more than 500,000 now roam the Australian bush.

Seidel said Australia had the only wild camel population in the world, as the dromedaries had been domesticated in their native lands.

He said about 10,000 camels a year, worth A$2 million (US$1.52 million), were being exported, mainly for their meat. The trade was likely to reach 25,000 in the next few years after the Middle East’s traditional markets in Africa had collapsed.

“Camels are there (in the Middle East) but they might be used in racing stables or owned by Bedouin tribes in the desert and so on, so they’ve traditionally sourced camels from Africa, places like Sudan and Somalia,” he said.

“In recent years the disease problem there has been so horrific that it has stopped that trade, there are very serious problems — foot and mouth, Rift Valley fever — that that have decimated herds and Australia is the only other supplier.”

Live exports began three years ago and Seidel said the market had huge potential, although many found the coals-to-Newcastle scenario of sending camels to the Middle East a surprise.

“It’s such a new thing which people don’t really expect, so it’s just increasing all the time as the awareness gets out there that we have this product,” he said.

Seidel said camels were one of the few animals that could digest the Australian Outback’s scrubby diet of saltbush and spinifex grasses.

“They have flourished and they’ve bred up to proportions now where something has to be done fairly quickly,” he said.

“Australia doesn’t have true sand deserts like the Gobi and Sahara, so it’s been an absolute bonus for them, probably their best habitat is here and that’s why we have such large healthy animals suitable for meat production.”

Seidel said the exporters originally experimented with camel products such as face cream and hair conditioners from hump fat but were now concentrating on exporting live animals and ready-packaged meat to Muslim countries.

“In some areas it’s the traditional meat along with goat,” he said. “In those areas where it’s not readily available they will most certainly seek out supplies of camel meat for festivals like Eid.”

He said camels’ reputation as cranky beasts was unwarranted.

“It’s a misconception, other cameloids like llama do spit and carry on but the dromedary (one-humped) camel doesn’t, if they treated well they won’t use their defensive mechanisms. We’ve found them very intelligent and well behaved.”

Australia first began exporting to Brunei and Malaysia but Middle East now dominates the market, with the potential for more to come.

“Egypt and Saudi Arabia and countries like that have the biggest potential,” Seidel said.

Seidel said his organization’s ultimate aim was to set up a halal butchery with an export license in the Northern Territory so camel products could be sent to Muslim markets all over the world.

“It’s a rapidly growing industry with huge potential but we need an abattoir so I’ll be canvassing around our markets and hoping to attract investment,” he said.

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