More than 1 million feral camels are thrashing the remote Australian desert, destroying water supplies and disturbing Aboriginal communities to the tune of 10 million Australian dollars a year.
As part of plans to contain the camel's havoc and reduce the animals' numbers, managers have launched a website, CamelScan, where the public can report feral camel sightings and damages using a Google maps-based tool.
"They can do enormous damage," said Jan Ferguson, managing director of Ninti One Limited, the organization that manages the Feral Camel Management Project, which launched CamelScan. "They can eat up to very high heights in our trees. When water is short, they go for running water. They will take pipes and air conditioning units off of walls, and smash up toilet systems."
The program adds another species to the list of programs tracking other feral animals in Australia, including rabbits, foxes and myna birds. Since CamelScan launched earlier this month, the public has logged nearly 150 sightings.
"You need to count these animals. You need to know where they are and what they're doing," said Ferguson.
The single-humped dromedary camels were brought mainly from India in the second half of the 19th century to work in the scrubby, red-earthed arid parts of the Australian outback, transporting people and as pack animals. Once trains, roads and machinery made them obsolete as workers, the camels were let loose, creating the world's only population of wild camels.
Since then their population has doubled every eight or nine years.
"They are desert-adapted animals," explained Ferguson. "They adapt very well to our conditions."
The camels can chug more than 50 gallons of water in three minutes and their thirst often leads to problems. Sometimes when large numbers of feral camels converge on a small waterhole, the first animals get mired in the holes and die, fouling the water and destroying the waterhole completely. These waterholes are critical resources for humans and native birds and animals.
"There's no way you're ever going to eradicate them," said Murray McGregor of Curtin University in Perth, whose research estimated their numbers. "The key thing is to keep the number controlled to minimize the environmental and cultural damage."
The camels are spread over a 3.3 million square kilometer (nearly 1.3 million square mile) area. McGregor's work estimated that more than 40 percent of the camels are on Aboriginal lands. About 18 months ago, 3000 camels descended on one Aboriginal community during a period of drought, Ferguson said.
The Feral Camel Management Project aims to to protect key areas of biodiversity and native habitat, Ferguson says, including 18 "priority environmental assets."
This includes the goal of reducing the camel density to one camel per 10 square kilometers around key locations. There are between five and 20 camels per square kilometer in some areas.
When feasible, the animals are rounded up and used for commercial consumption by people or pets. But the camels can be in extremely remote locations.
"Some are in a place where there is no economic use for them," Ferguson said. "There are camels in such remote areas that there is no option but to shoot to waste (leaving the carcasses)."
Ferguson notes that other methods to protect and manage the areas, such as putting up fences, are part of the group's strategy.
"Very important sites can be fenced or exclusion barrier put on them," McGregor said. "But these are very strong animals. You have to put something that's quite extensive to keep them out. If they're after water, they will use everything they've got to get at it."