Big­ger Pic­ture

From a re­mote and ex­otic land, a strange story of camels — and bad ideas — run amok

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Alanna Mitchell

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


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

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