Outback Wagyu: Camel Hunting in Australia

Outback Wagyu: Camel Hunting in Australia

Camels are perhaps the most unexpected of inhabitants of Australia’s modern deserts. On a continent otherwise dominated by marsupials, reptiles, and cattle stations the size of small countries, these giant nomads seem both alien yet perfectly adapted to the vast desert scrubland they now call home. Their presence isn’t without controversy, but a growing group of outdoorsmen are pursuing these animals in their new habitat and reaping the rewards of their delectable meat.

Camels? In Australia?

As strange as that might sound, camels have a long history on the continent, dating back to when the first Europeans reached the shores of Australia in the early 17th century. Australia is not only a vast continent, approximately 11 times the size of Texas, but its interior is also incredibly dry. So dry, in fact, that horses and mules were poorly equipped to carry settlers and their gear into this new country, and most would die after a few days in the extreme heat. So, to get around this obstacle, settlers had to employ the only domestic livestock capable of traversing the deserts. Dromedary camels.

The first camels were imported from the Canary Islands in 1840 and were used for decades to allow explorers and station owners to access huge areas of land across the desert. But, as motor vehicles became more popular in the early 20th century, traveling by camel became obsolete, and many were turned loose by their previous owners. The herds that now roam Australia are descendants of those liberated animals. And unlike their native range, there were very few predators (apart from the odd dingo pack) and, initially, very little human disturbance. Joined by other feral escapees such as brumby horses, feral donkeys, and feral “scrub bulls,” these camels now number between three hundred thousand to one million individuals, roaming across many of the large cattle stations in the area.

camel meat

Impacts of a Long-Legged Invader

The introduction of such a huge population of herbivores doesn’t come without consequences, both economic and environmental. Not only do they compete with native grazers such as red kangaroos, but they also compete for water with wildlife, livestock, and the communities in these remote regions. In many areas, camels will simply push over cattle fences to access water ponds, draining much of it dry and then moving on to another area to raid. Their nomadic nature can create a number of problems that are hard to avoid without resorting to some form of culling.

In rural South Australia, local governments have begun to do just that. In 2020, some 5,000 of these animals were gunned down by government-contracted helicopter cullers, largely backed by the many cattle graziers in the region, who disdain the damage that camels were causing to their fences and water sources. And because of how incredibly remote the area is, most of these animals were left to rot. Despite culls like this, populations of camels continue to grow, leading some locals to see them in a different light. Instead of all-out eradication, utilization has been seen as another option.

camel hunting

Utilizing a Resource

Over the last 50 years, as camels have become increasingly abundant across Australia’s deserts, the local hunting population has started to see this animal as more than a pest and instead a valuable quarry. Their incredible eyesight and nomadic nature make for a challenging quarry, often requiring the hunter to travel huge distances each day to locate individuals on the landscape, on properties up to seven times the size of the King Ranch in Texas. Once located, taking one with a rifle is reasonably simple at a range of 100 to 200 meters, given there is a bit of cover around, but getting within bow range is much more of a challenge.

And once harvested, their meat is delectable. A local hunter in South Australia, Joshua Haines, describes the meat as: “A combination between the wagyu beef and the finest quality venison.”

The reason behind this comes down to the camel’s biology. Despite the myth, the iconic hump of a camel isn’t filled with water but instead filled with fat. Camels can quickly covert grass and browse into fat during times of plenty and then have reserved energy stores to tap into during drier months.

Because of this, the backstraps of a camel are not only surrounded by a lump of pearly white fat weighing over 80 pounds but also have considerable marbling. Not only is the meat delicious, but each camel can produce over 400 pounds of meat, more than what you’d get off the largest bull elk. The meat is so fatty that even when making sausages, you don’t need to add fat, and for that huge mass of hump fat, it can be rendered down into “camel grease” that can be used similarly to bear or pork fat.

camel fat

Growing Camel Markets

And it isn’t just hunters that have started to recognise this value, but also the station owners themselves. Instead of culling camels, some landowners are mustering them with helicopters and shipping them back to the Middle East, where the market for camel meat is very strong.

In many instances, using camels as the main grazer on the landscape instead of cattle can actually be beneficial, as they consume less food and water than cows, they’re largely disease resistant, and their soft footpads greatly minimize erosion. Though there are still many obstacles preventing sustainable use, such as a lack of infrastructure in the remote outback, it’s becoming an increasingly attractive prospect for many landowners as a way to profit off this widespread species.

As often is the case with introduced species, their presence is highly divisive. On one hand, their environmental and economic impacts are incredibly significant, but at the same time, their impacts on the local communities as a food and recreation source are impossible to ignore. Finding a balance between these two through sustainable harvest is likely the best way forward, both for the camels and the people living alongside them.

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