The history of Camels in Australia

feral camel

Australia has two species of feral camels – dromedaries and Bactrian. A majority of them are dromedaries. Mostly camels were imported to Australia from Persia, India and Afghanistan in the early days of the European settlement.

The first suggestion of bringing camels to Australia was made in 1822 by Conrad Malte-Brun. Malte Brun was a Danish-French geographer and journalist. By 1839 suggestions of introducing Camels to Australia came from many corners. The report below, appeared in Lauceston Advertiser on 19th September 1839, will give a peak into one such suggestion.

Launceston Advertiser – Thursday 19 September 1839

A’ friend of ours, who has spent much of his time in various parts of Asia, particularly in Persia and Arabia, has suggested to us the advantages which might be derived by this colony, from the introduction of the camel and dromedary, which he says, are admirably adapted to this country. Many portions of Persia resemble New South Wales in every respect and but for the camel or dromedary, merchandise from the interior of Persia, and countries adjacent would never reach the coast All the goods shipped at Bushire for India or other parts in Arabia, are brought to Bushire on the backs of camels and dromedaries.

A good camel will travel thirty miles per diem, with a load of one thousand weight, but the average may be fairly taken at seven hundred and fifty. The docility and abstemious habits of the camel are proverbial Where a goat can find subsistence, so can a camel. The providence of nature’s God is so obviously manifested, in providing men with an animal adapted to the country in which the usefulness is so essential, that without it commercial intercourse would be physically impossible.

Persia boasts of no artificially constructed roads; and the surface of the country is such as almost to defy, in many parts, the construction of roads adapted to wheel carriages. As respects this country, we need not say that the formation of good toads will be the work of considerable time, labour, and expense— while on the other hand the absence of good roads has not, and will not deter the adventurous emigrant settler from seeking locations remote from the capital. The difficulties to which remote settlers are subjected in the way of land carriage are too well known to require amplification. Last year the harassing drought to which we were a prey, subjected the wool grower to many and great inconveniences, not only in the lots of bullocks, but the loss of time, and consequently of money— but such would not have been the case, had our settlers been possessed camels. This animal is satisfied if it drinks once in four or five days; and as respects of food, it will eat anything in the absence of grass, it will subsist itself on the tender branches of trees, and the quantity of food that would support one bullock would be sufficient for four camels. But it may be asked, will the camel endure our temperature?

Can the camel endure cold? The elevated flats of Persia are in the winter season subjected to great a depression of the thermometer as any portion of this colony. And as our informant says, for heat — it Is need less to observe that the animal which can endure the scorching sands of the Durchesten, which lies between Bushire and the famed city of Shiraz, would live in a furnace. — Some persons have objected to camels on the presumption that each camel required a driver, but such is not the fact Two men are sufficient for ten or a dozen camels. They travel like the mules in South America and in old Spain— nose and tail, connected by a halter. They may do the same in New South Wales surely, with equal facility. The point to be considered is camel can be procured at a price sufficiently low to warrant the experiment?

They can – they can be bought ln the first instance at less price than good horses can be purchased in Britain; and they have shorter voyage to make by sea. They are hardier animals than horse, and therefore less liable to die on the voyage.

As to the method of managing them, nothing can be more simple. They can take care of themselves or nearly so. They require no grooming, and when nights are cold put them under a shed, and that is all they need. At work harsh usage is unnecessary. In fact, there is not a domestic animal which can render to much assistance to man, who requires so little in return from man. With camels and coolies, together with steam navigation, this colony would in a brief space of time, far outdo Its former out doings.


The first camels to arrive in Australia

In 1840 Phillip Brothers purchased six camels (Dromedary) from Canary Isles and loaded aboard the ship, S.S. Appoline. Only one camel survived, named harry landed in Port Adelaide in 1840. Harry was purchased by John Horrocks of Pentwortham in exchange of six cows valued at £90. Harry was more of an object of wonder than a working animal.

In 1840, two more camels were imported to Melbourne and exhibited to public. Later they were overlanded to Sydney and with an offspring bought by the New South Wales Government for 225 pounds and were exhibited to public.

In 1860, The Victorian Government imported 24 camels from India for use by the explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. The intention of the exploration was to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres. The Victorian Government appointed George James Landells to purchase the camels from India. The animals arrived in Melbourne in June 1860 and the Exploration Committee purchased an additional six from George Coppin’s Cremorne Gardens. Twenty-six camels were taken for the exploration. Six camels were left in Royal Park.

In 1862, Thomas Elder (Elder & Co) sent Samuel Stuckey to India to look for camels to import. In 1866 Stuckey had bought 124 camels in India and brought them out to Port Augusta with 31 Afghan cameleers. In Beltana ( South Australia) they started a successful breeding programme. The Camels were exported to Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Western Australia. At first the camels were used on local stations but within a short time they were also used as pack and wagon animals.

In 1886, around 260 camels were brought from India to South Australia, which were used for carrying supplies to the Western Australian Gold fields. From then onwards, camels were widely used for carrying goods especially in the outback. By 1900, there were around 6000 camels in Australia. The main advantage of using Camel was being a desert animal, it could travel days without water.

In 1908 for the survey of trans- Australian Railway, camels transported water, and building materials for distances up to 500km into the desert.


Below is a Newspaper extract from The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957), Thursday 4 June 1908


A long caravan, composed of over 100 camels, with all the impedimenta of a strong survey party, is at present feeling its way across the back country of Western Australia, on the way to Kanowna. From that town the Western Australian section of the trans-Australian railway survey is to commence. Much of the delay has occurred   through the camels which are to be used in the work being up in the north-west of the state. They had to be moved hundreds of miles across virtual desert before the survey party could set out. Yesterday the Minister for Home Affairs (Senator Keat- ing) received a telegram from the Premier of Western Australia (Mr. Moore), stating that the camel team had passed through Lawlers on May 28 and was expected to reach Kanowna on June 10.


The Afghans

The Came-leers who worked in Outback Australia from the 1860s to the 1930s were known as Afghans” or “Ghans”. Though there were Afghans among them, most were from India and Pakistan. They were mostly Muslims and played a major role in establishing Islam in Australia.

Generally speaking, Afghans were discriminated in Australia due to their distinct customs and religious beliefs. But some of them made good their Australian life by becoming successful businessmen. One noteworthy name is Afghan cameleer Abdul Wade. Wade arrived in Australia in 1879 moved to Bourke, NSW in 1893 and began importing camels and recruiting Afghan cameleers for the recently formed Bourke Camel Carrying Co. Abdul Wade had four hundred camels and sixty men working for him.


The Decline

The working Camel population in Australia reached its peak of 20,000 in 1922. The beginning of the 20th century saw Camels replaced by Motorised transport. Many were released into the wild forming a fast-growing feral population. Even until 1950’s camels were used for Police Patrols and dingo fencers. In 1939 Cecil Madigan used camels when he led the first major expedition across the Simpson Desert.

In 2008, the population of feral camels were estimated to be about one million, and was projected to double every 8–10 years. A culling program was introduced to keep the population in check and today it hovers around 30,000.

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