CNN’s report on “Australia’s wild camel condundrum” begins:
It could be a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia” — a herd of wild camels roaming vast desert plains under the scorching sun.
But the setting isn’t the desert wilderness of the Middle East or the Sahara in North Africa. It’s the Australian outback — home to the world’s largest wild camel population.
Incredible! All these years interacting with Australian fans, hearing about Aussie news and culture – never did any of you breathe a word to me about the camels. It makes me want to add a category of posts called “Why Wasn’t I Told?!!”
There are 1.2 million camels roaming virtually unchecked through vast tracks of desert and rangeland in central Australia, and debate is growing over how to control their rising numbers.
Camels are troublesome — they cause millions of dollars of damage to farms and native wildlife — and the Australian government has invested $18.8 million (AUD 19 million) to reduce their numbers, mainly through controlled shooting.
Doesn’t “controlled shooting” sound like something from a Monty Python sketch? (“Lightly killed.”)
However, the article reminds me that the very same problem might have developed in the western U.S. and Canada — I wonder why it never did.
No less famous a man than Jefferson Davis, who would later lead the Confederacy in the Civil War, initiated the U.S. Army’s camel experiment while he was Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Camel advocates had convinced Davis the animal’s endurance and speed would be invaluable transporting troops and supplies across the waterless stretches of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
The army’s first shipment of 41 camels arrived in 1856 and more were ordered for 1857. The contractor working with the camels reported favorably about his results (as army contractors can always be relied on to do) but the animals never had a significant role in the military. The outbreak of the Civil War overshadowed the experiment and it was largely forgotten. Some of the animals spent the war in California until they were auctioned in 1864. The army auctioned another 66 camels in Texas in 1866. (The source doesn’t say where they’d spent the war. Were they in Texas? Did Jeff Davis know? You alternate historians may want to get working on that trilogy about the mythical Confederate Camel Corps.)
A few of the camels sold to private owners escaped into the desert. Feral camels continued to be sighted in the Southwest through the early 1900s. One owner took his camels to British Columbia where a few got loose and became local legends.
Despite having the opportunity nature did not endow North America with its own herds of wild camels. Sounds like there’s no reason to think we’re missing very much.