Camel magic

Australia is believed to have the biggest feral camel population in the world, but one farmer is working to change public perceptions of this ‘pest’. By DENISE CULLEN

Ten years ago, Australian cattle grazier Paul Martin decided that he couldn’t stand to see another camel shot.

Shipped in from Arabia, India and Afghanistan in the 1800s to help open up Australia’s vast remote interior, camels were released en masse with the advent of mechanised transport.

With their energy-storing humps, broad toes that support their weight on sand, and ability to eat 85 per cent of even tough and thorny vegetation, they were perfectly suited to the dry, desert conditions which make up more than one-third of the continent.

Yet with a feral population numbering more than a million, and doubling every 8 to 10 years, according to the federal government’s National Feral Camel Action Plan, they wreaked havoc on landscapes and infrastructure.

As a result, farmers were killing hundreds of animals every day in an officially-sanctioned cull which struck Martin as short-sighted and wasteful.

“My frustration was that people who have these problems with camels can’t see the opportunity,” he says.

In 2015, he and his then business partner, biochemist Jeff Flood, convinced some landholders to stop shooting and, instead, help them round up the dromedaries.

They trucked 20 beasts to a rural property on the outskirts of Ipswich, one of Queensland’s oldest cities, to see if they could turn them into milking camels.

“It took us about five months to outgrow that place,” says Martin.

In 2016, the original herd, plus another 40 captured camels, moved to its current location, an 830-acre property at nearby Harrisville, where Summer Land Camels is still based.

More animals were flown in by helicopter from far-flung locations like Alice Springs and Mount Isa and in conjunction with a breeding program – which, incidentally, saw one male father 99 offspring two seasons ago – Summer Land Camels now has 550 camels on site.

It is Australia’s biggest camel dairy, producing 1000-1200 litres of milk a week.

Martin oversaw the complicated retrofitting of standard dairy equipment, because while cows and camels both have four teats, the similarities end there.

Camels are, obviously, much taller. A milking mother must be calm and contented, and have her calf nearby, in order to experience the oxytocin rush which triggers the flow of milk.

Even when all these conditions are favourable, a lactating camel will yield only 2.5 litres of milk per day on average, as compared with the cow’s 40-55 litres.

The cost of producing, and purchasing, camel milk is therefore steep. A litre of milk at Summer Land Camels’ farm gate currently sells for 18 AUD (17.2 CAD).

Yet the health properties attributed to camel milk means people are increasingly willing to pay.

Dr Nidhi Bansal, a Senior Lecturer in Food Science & Technology at The University of Queensland, has been studying camel milk for five years.

She says it contains 3-5 times more Vitamin C than cows’ milk, but has no β-lactoglobulin, one of the major allergens in cows’ milk.

“Camel milk has high antimicrobial activity due to the abundance of protective proteins in it, such as lactoferrin and immunoglobulins,” she adds.

Summer Land Camels also produces camel milk gelato, cheese and even vodka, courtesy of the whey left over from cheese-making.

More recently, Summer Land Camels has been eyeing the global infant formula market, predicted to be worth 148.21 billion AUD (142.14 billion CAD) by 2027, according to Fortune Business Insights.

The farm also produces about 500 kilograms of camel meat a week, using a specialty abattoir.

Martin expects demand to increase as people begin to see camel meat as a more sustainable alternative to traditional farming methods involving cows, sheep, pigs and goats.

Extremely lean and mild in flavour, camel meat contains more Omega fatty acids than salmon, a cameleer claims during a tour of the farm.

For Martin, producing meat and value-added products like bacon, ham and salami, simply makes good economic sense.

“The milk industry isn’t going to go unless the meat industry comes with it, because you just can’t get your costs of production down,” he explains.

“It’s no different to our cow dairy industry – it survives because it’s got a meat industry.”

Tourism wasn’t part of Martin’s original plan, but the interest shown by curious visitors (and the occasional selfie-seeking fence-jumper) after the first ships of the desert arrived encouraged him to introduce farm tours and camel rides.

“It was nothing to see 20 cars parked up the front, with all their kids hanging out the windows, looking at the camels,” he says.

Martin hopes that the camel dairy industry will expand beyond the current handful of operators.

“I realised the opportunity Australia has with these camels, and if we go and shoot them out, we’re never going to get them back again,” he says.

“We’re trying to save these animals by turning (them) into something that people will farm and enjoy.”

This story was published as A Dairy Solution for Australia’s Out-of-Control Feral Camels in Canada’s Modern Farmer magazine.

© 2022 Denise Cullen