Where Camels and Brumbies Run Wild
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
OUTBACK Australia—what images come to your mind when you hear of this place? A land filled with bouncing kangaroos and flightless emus, dusty red deserts and blistering hot days? To some extent you are right—but it is also a land of surprises.
Did you know that Australia hosts the last untamed camel herds left on earth, the largest mob of wild horses in the world, and a plague of donkeys unparalleled on the planet? The arrival and survival of these hardy animals is a little-known story of resilience and conflict and is a living reminder of times gone by.
Built on the Camel’s Back
For the past four decades, some outback cattlemen have echoed the complaint that a cowboy made in the book The Camel in Australia: “I have seen evidence here where 5 camels practically tore down 7 miles [10 km] of boundary fencing . . . One place they not only broke the wires but took posts and all.”
Expensive fence lines are no match for the long legs and bulk of a determined camel. Yet, these same sturdy legs made it possible to build the lifelines that cross the parched interior of this continent.
Imported from India in 1860, camels accompanied explorers Burke and Wills on their epic crossing of Australia from south to north. The exotic creatures became the preferred companions of early adventurers because of their superior strength and stamina. Amazingly fuel-efficient, they carried 700-pound [300 kg] loads for 500 miles [800 km] on just four gallons [15 L] of water.
Wonderfully reliable, camels helped in hauling food and equipment to the frontier gold towns, in building the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin, and in surveying the Trans-Australian Railway connecting Sydney and Perth. Over an area of one and a half million square miles [4 million sq km], they blazed a trail that modern machines still find hard to follow.
The domestic camel count peaked at 22,000 by 1922, but as the automobile took over, many camels were turned loose. Free to roam and reproduce, reportedly more than 200,000 now call the Australian deserts home, and some people estimate that the population will double within six years.
Not all these camels are left to run wild though. A spokesman for the Central Australian Camel Association told Awake!: “Australia has the only disease-free camel herds in the world, and so each year a small number are exported to zoos and parks in the United States and Asia.” Local tour operators also offer visitors a chance to mount a camel’s back and rediscover Australia’s wild interior—an interior shared by other liberated beasts of burden.
What Is a Brumby?
The first fleet of English ships unloaded its burden of prisoners, soldiers, and horses on Australian shores in 1788. The history of the horse in this country, like that of its human companions, is both romantic and tragic.
Vital in the quest to tame the new frontier, horses carried early pioneers to the four corners of the continent. Strays and runaways soon established feral, or wild, herds, and these horses became known as brumbies. The word “brumby” may have come from the Queensland Aboriginal word baroomby, meaning “wild.”
The wild, free spirit of the brumby fired the imagination of poets like A. B. (Banjo) Paterson, and his ballad “The Man From Snowy River” secured the brumby’s place in the hearts of many Australians. The brumby’s ranks gained in number after World War I when demand for the Waler—a horse bred specifically for the Australian Light Horse Brigade and used by the Indian army—declined and the mounts were set free. Now an estimated 300,000 feral horses roam the continent.
As they roam, their hooves pound the fragile topsoil like a blacksmith’s hammer and tear at the banks of watering holes. When drought strikes, they starve or die of thirst. In a land already straining under the weight of its cattle herds, these brumbies have become an intolerable burden. Thus, thousands are culled each year. Some are processed for human consumption; others, sold as pet food.
For sheer weight of numbers, though, it is the brumby’s cousin, the donkey, that has truly run wild. More prolific than the feral horse and distributed over a wider area than the camel, it has become a victim of its own success.
The Judas Solution
Like the horse, donkeys were first imported in the late 1700’s to pull loads or plow fields, and they quickly made themselves at home. They were released into the wild en masse during the 1920’s, and their population densities reached 30 times that of natural herds of wild asses.
Designed for desert life, donkeys, like the camel, inhibit perspiration when dehydrated and survive water loss equal to 30 percent of their body weight. (A loss of 12 to 15 percent would kill many other mammals.) They prefer to dine on lush pasture but are able to thrive on coarse plants that cattle will not touch. By the 1970’s, more than 750,000 donkeys swept across half the continent. This swelling tide became a threat to the ecology and the cattle industry; action had to be taken.
Systematically culled from 1978 to 1993, over 500,000 donkeys were destroyed in northwestern Australia alone. Currently 300 donkeys are fitted with radio transmitters in what is called the Judas program. Released to join their herd, these donkeys are tracked by helicopter, and their companions are humanely culled. As the Judas donkey befriends another group, these too are located and liquidated.
“This is a long-term problem,” an agricultural protection officer in Western Australia told Awake! “If small seed populations are left, then within a very short time, donkey numbers will be back to where they were in the 1970’s,” he warned. “People often don’t understand why these animals are culled and left where they fall. But people don’t realize just how inaccessible these areas are. There are no roads out here, and most of the area can be reached only by helicopter. It is human intervention that caused the problem, so we have to try to limit the damage as humanely as possible.”
Tough and Prolific
You could now be forgiven for imagining that the center of Australia is a giant traffic jam of unwanted pack animals. But Australia’s backyard is very large. These animals roam over an area the size of Europe and nearly as remote as the moon—with terrain that is similar to both places. Just tracking the herds is a challenge, let alone controlling them.
Unlike many endangered native species, these tough and prolific animals are carving out a permanent niche in the landscape. Free from natural predators and isolated from disease, they run wild in outback Australia!
[Picture on page 16]
Some 200,000 camels roam free in Australia’s deserts
Agriculture Western Australia
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Brumbies run wild on the edge of the Simpson Desert
[Picture on page 17]
A camel train hauling wool, 1929
Image Library, State Library of New South Wales
[Picture on page 18]
A brumby roundup—outback style
© Esther Beaton
[Picture on page 18]
Fitting a radio transmitter to a Judas donkey
Agriculture Western Australia