From a remote and exotic land, a strange story of camels — and bad ideas — run amok
From a remote and exotic land, a strange, cautionary fable of camels and very bad ideas run amok. Truth once again is stranger than fiction
Once upon a time, there was a strange land on the bottom of the Earth so isolated from the rest of the world that its very own collection of animals evolved over millions of years.
These animals were weird. Some stood upright as high as a tall man, with huge feet, long bouncy tails and pouches at the front where they carried their young. Instead of running, they leapt like giant frogs. Others were mammals that laid eggs, had bills like a duck, tails like a beaver and lived both on land and in water. There were six-foot-tall birds that couldn’t fly but could sprint, whose males hatched the huge eggs the females laid.
Even more peculiar was what wasn’t there. There were no monkeys on this faraway island. No cats. No weasels or rabbits. No herds of hoofed grass-eaters like the antelope, deer, gazelles, oryxes and yaks that dominated the wild plains elsewhere on Earth.
Eventually, about 50,000 years ago, humans showed up. Later still, just two centuries ago, some of these humans decided, Enough of this hard work! We need big, hoofed grass-eaters to carry us and our heavy loads and pull our carts. We need to get to the outback faster, for that is what they called the desert in the centre of this island.
And so they brought camels to this strange land, because camels had been bearing heavy loads for humans for about 5,000 years in deserts on faraway continents. And the camels, quite strange themselves, fit right in. Indeed, they did a good job, trudging over the sand with saddles on their backs and carts hooked around their long necks. They almost never needed to stop for water, and they would kneel down when asked.
But then, about a hundred years ago, these humans got wind of something that did the job a lot better: cars. “Begone,” they said, as they let 5,000 to 10,000 wander off into the desert to fend for themselves. Maybe they will be okay, the humans said to themselves. And they tried not to pay them any mind.
And they were right! The camels were okay. Better than anyone could have imagined. Fetid water that made other animals sick? They drank it! Poisonous plants? They loved them! They ate everything in sight, even the soil to get its salt. They never got sick. They were immune to parasites. And they could reproduce like the dickens. Every female had a good 30 years of having healthy babies.
For a long time, no one bothered about all these camels. Pretty soon, by about 2010, there were a million of them. A million! They were so good at reproducing that they could double their numbers every decade or so. It wasn’t long before the people whose ancestors had lived in the outback for thousands of years were worried that the camels would take over. They were already eating a lot of the food that other animals needed and drinking up the little water there was. Ranchers who were trying to raise cattle and sheep started to mutter things about a camel plague and narrowed their eyes every time they thought about them.
And then something else happened. All over the world, humans had been burning fossils to make their car engines and industries run. A byproduct was carbon dioxide gas put up into the air. And that gas was warming things up, changing where rain fell and just generally disrupting the way weather worked. These changes hit hard in the outback: the desert got hotter, water dried up. It wasn’t long before a drought set in, and it was the worst the strange remote land had ever seen.
The camels didn’t need a lot of water, but they needed some, and it was disappearing. The camels were getting desperate. They started damaging bore holes and taps and even attacking air conditioners to get at water.
Something had to be done. People did studies, naturally. They thought about it for quite a while. And then the people decided to kill off a lot of these camels, shooting them from the air and on the ground, until they got the numbers down to about 300,000. But this doesn’t mean everyone lived happily ever after. You see, this is not a fairy tale. This is a very real problem Australia is grappling with right now. Unless something changes, camels will go right back up to a million in the next 20 years.
Still, like so many fairy tales, there is a lesson to be learned. To wit: when it comes to Nature, if you think you know how it all works, you’re wrong.a
THE CAMELS LOVED THE OUTBACK. SO MUCH SO THAT BY ABOUT 2010, THERE WERE A MILLION CAMELS LIVING THERE. A MILLION!
THIS AIN’T AESOP How a million camels came to live in the Outback is not a fable or a fairy story. It’s a cautionary tale