Too many camels in Australia

The Northern Territory is planning a massive cull

Thirsty camels are causing chaos in Docker River, Australia. Years of drought are driving the wild animals into town, where they are knocking over fire hydrants and busting into homes looking for water. Local authorities say the unfortunate solution is a massive cull of the animals.

The 350 residents of the remote Northern Territory community have been living in fear since up to 6,000 feral camels starting moving in about two months ago. “They more or less come into houses and go right through,” one local told Australian public radio. To end the siege, the region’s Central Land Council has spent $47,000 organizing an aerial cull: last week, helicopters began herding the animals outside of town, and marksmen are aiming to kill some 3,000 from the air.

The cull, seen as a last resort by the local government and the mainly indigenous residents of Docker River, has drawn criticism from around the world. Authorities have received scores of letters calling the plan inhumane and demanding it be called off; one from Tokyo asked, “Why can’t the children lead the camels out of the community?” “That’s a bit on the bizarre side,” says Des Rogers, an executive on the local council, “but it reinforces the fact that people don’t really understand the circumstances.”

Locally, criticism has come from camel-meat processors. Authorities have turned down their requests to move the animals to their facilities or to make use of mobile abattoirs, saying there wasn’t time to organize such a coordinated program. There’s also concern that as the carcasses degrade in the desert, they will become a food source for scavengers such as foxes and wild dogs, possibly leading to a population explosion.

The cull will only temporarily relieve Docker River’s camel problem: over a million of the animals, introduced to Australia in the 1840s for use as pack animals, are thought to be roaming the outback. With their ability to survive for long periods without water, and few predators in the vicinity, populations continue to soar across central Australia. In July, the country’s federal government set aside $18 million to control the camels.

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