Australia’s Camel Problem and Alternate History

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.

Only known photo of a U.S. Army camel, taken in California.

Discover more from File 770

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

17 thoughts on “Australia’s Camel Problem and Alternate History

  1. There used to be a herd of wild camel somewhere in the American Southwest… same reason. Cowboys with either a little too much imagination, or too much locoweed in their tobacco.

  2. Nature did too endow North America with herds of wild camels. They just happened to disappear about the time humans showed up.

    Their smaller relatives, the llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas (yes, those are all camels) are now farmed in North America, mainly for their wool.

  3. @Petréa: Nature did too endow North America with herds of wild camels. They just happened to disappear about the time humans showed up.

    Camels were in North America prior to 50,000 years ago which is when we believe the first humans showed up? If you’ve got a citation, I’d love to see that.

  4. Last I heard, the only sure fact is about when camels disappeared, and it was about the same time as all other mega-fauna became extinct in North America.

    The wild card is “when humans first arrived.” Nobody can agree on that. The conservative consensus is still fighting to draw the line about aboug 14,000 years ago, I think. But increasingly, maverics are looking at dates around 36,000 to 40,000 years ago, which would more or less correspond with the N. American extinction event. The issue is far from settled whether or not the arrival of early stone-age hunters would be connected in any way with the disappearance of mega-fauna from the fossil record or not.

    Personally, I think N. American mega-fauna died out because of an excessive number of bank foreclosures on housing.

  5. I actually saw some camels in the distance while in Australia for the 1999 Worldcon, and was ready for the concept because I’d read Arthur Upfield’s The Lake Frome Monster back in the late 1960s. Probably I selected it from the local library shelf because it looked like SF, but Upfield specialized in detective stories with Australian settings, and the terrifying Monster (which lurked around rather than in the lake) proved to be a feral camel.

  6. The first time I heard about the camel corps was in elementary school when I was reading a biography of Douglas MacArthur and it mentioned that he came across a herd of wild camels in (I believe) Arizona or New Mexico.

  7. the llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas

    Don’t forget Guanacos!

    ISTR triggering a fairly lengthy thread once wondering why, if useful items like the Three Sisters could spread through the New World, as they did, pack animals like the llamas never got spread around. Not quite useful enough, I suppose.

    If only one of the larger camelid species had survived….

  8. Indeed, the ancestors of modern camels evolved in North America during the Palaeogene period and later spread to most parts of Asia. They started here!

    I saw some this August in the Kimberly, when we put into shore near Broome.

  9. I suppose the question then is why they didn’t retake the ground here in North America… I assume the presence of large predators (mountain lions, bears, humans) and other species competing for the same niche is sufficient cause.

    Australia has suffered a number of these invasions: rabbits and foxes come to mind… 🙁

  10. “Feral camels continued to be sighted in the Southwest through the early 1900s.”

    Double-checking one’s knowledge with Wikipedia, and other online sources, is a good habit. 🙂

    But as the entry also notes:

    A Confederate Camel Corps exists in Harry Turtledove’s alternate history book series TL-191, set in a world where the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War. The book portrays the Confederacy’s fighting three additional wars against the United States in 1881, 1914 and 1941. Parts of the wars were fought in New Mexico, where the CSA used the “camelry”.

Comments are closed.