My article as originally published in the NT News on Saturday 16th November
Raise the topic of the government’s feral camel cull with artist and business owner, Helen Durrant and you’ll be met by the bluff honesty of a life-long Territorian – like many passionate people she didn’t get where she is by mincing her words.
“I’m one of those people who believe that rather than bitch about something you go out and do something about it,” says the Alice Springs resident.
In 2009 the Federal Government announced the investment of $19 million over four years into a drop-and-rot culling program for feral camels. When she found out, Helen reacted in the manner that felt most natural – she headed straight to her spinning wheel.
“The reason I started spinning and working with camel wool was as a protest against the cull,” Helen recalls. “We have an amazing resource just sitting there and instead we are leaving these animals half-dead, some of them, to die in agony and rot in the desert, which is horrendous.”
Like many camel advocates across the country, Helen sees herself as fighting for the future of the bush. To her mind, there is a sad irony about the camel’s place in Australia; they thrive in the very places that Australian graziers struggle to farm sheep and cattle, yet are ignored as a potential industry for remote communities terminally starved for jobs and purpose.
To prove her point Helen turned her protest into profit. Utilising her lifetime of skills as a professional weaver, she created the website Camel Products Australia to demonstrate that it is possible to derive a profitable, sustainable industry from camels.
Working with wool collected from her own camels, Helen’s repertoire ranges from knitted beanies, to hand-made tote bags, to individual woolen artworks. Every item is crafted to turn heads as well as open lines of discussion about an alternative future for the humble camel.
She is the only person in Australia to work with camel wool, and the international demand for her products now out-strips the time she has to make them.
“We would be the only country in the world that has camels and doesn’t elevate their status,” she asserts. “In other countries they are held in such high regard for their meat, leather, wool, milk and fat.”
“For the rest of the world to see us simply instigating a ‘Drop-and-Rot’ cull, they can’t believe it. We just seem like barbarians and really, we are.”
Camel milk is highly regarded overseas for its healing properties, including evidence of its ability to minimise the symptoms of Autism, and camel meat is considerably healthier than beef or lamb. There is great international demand for both.
The demand is so high in fact – and Australia’s willingness to meet this demand is so low – that there are long-term plans for an Egyptian-funded camel abattoir in South Australia. Both the meat and the profits will then fly back to Egypt.
Helen is not the only one calling for smart investment to kick-starting an industry around camels; one that will create wealth rather than devour it in culling programs.
In northern South Australia, Russell Osborne runs Outback Australian Camels, leading scientific, charity and tourism camel safaris through the Northern Flinders Ranges.
“The camel cull was a quick fix and it hasn’t worked. And after 20 years of study and millions of dollars spent, is the best we can come up with really to just shoot them?” says Russell, taking off his tattered Akubra.
At the end of this year, the $19 million cull fund will run dry, having succeeded in destroying only 150,000 of the project’s initial 650,000 cull target. There are calls for the new Coalition government to top up the coffers, but for Russell continuing to single-mindedly throw money at the problem doesn’t make sense.
“If you’d put the $19 million into infrastructure – abattoirs, trap yards, trucking, building a skill base – along with a management plan to muster the camels into the pastoral properties at the edges at the arid zones, you could sort them out and see which ones are suitable for domestication. Those that aren’t can be sent for humane destruction or to the abattoir for meat.”
“Each of these avenues can turn a profit, and then we’ve got a system that results in camels being removed from the environment as well as the creation of wealth in parts of the country that are struggling.”
For Russell, smart investment is the key. He points to the wine and automotive industries that have a long history of receiving massive tax concessions in order to create opportunities and jobs. Why couldn’t a camel industry receive the same?
“The removal of the camel is the most important thing to protect Australia’s arid zone environment. But utilise it, domesticate it into the areas that are currently being over-utilised by cattle, an animal that is not so highly suited to thriving out here and that causes far more environmental damage than camels,” he said.
“We’ve got this resource that, despite the cull, will keep growing in number. And there are millions of people overseas who would love to have the opportunity that we have, and they see us shooting them from the air.”
“They must be thinking that we are genuinely rich, fat and stupid.”
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