Australia considers mass killings of camels

(AP) —Thousands of camels in Australia's remote Outback could be killed by marksmen in helicopters under a government proposal aimed at cutting down the population of the havoc-wreaking creatures.

First introduced into Australia in the 1840s to help explorers travel through the Australian desert, there are now about 1 million camels roaming the country, with the population doubling every nine years.

They compete with sheep and cattle for food, trample vegetation and invade remote settlements in search of water, scaring residents as they tear apart bathrooms and rip up water pipes.

Last month, the federal government set aside 19 million Australian dollars ($16 million) for a program to help slash the population. Besides sending in sharpshooters in helicopters and on foot, officials are considering proposals to turn some of the creatures into tasty treats such as camel burgers.

Hunters in the United States have shot wolves from helicopters in Alaska in an aerial predator control program there. More than 800 wolves have been killed as part of the program, which has been a point of national controversy since it was initiated five years ago.

Glenn Edwards, who is working on drafting the Australian government's camel reduction program, said the population needs to be slashed by two-thirds to reduce catastrophic damage.

But some remain opposed to a mass slaughter. Camel exporter Paddy McHugh, who runs camel catching operations throughout Australia, said a cull would be ineffective.

"What happens in 15 years when the numbers come back again? Do we waste another $20 million?" McHugh said.

The camels McHugh's associates capture are sold overseas, used in tourism and processed for their meat. In recent years, McHugh said he has seen an explosion in international demand for the animals.

The main problem with trying to capture and export the animals is that they can grow up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall and weigh 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms), said Patrick Medway, president of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia.

"You imagine trying to catch a lion or a tiger or an elephant in its native habitat and then bring it back and sell it to another country," Medway said. "It's not an easy thing to do."

Tony Peacock, CEO of the University of Canberra's Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center, said a cull was the most effective method.

"To be shot from a helicopter is actually quite humane, even though that sounds brutal," he said. "If I was a camel, I'd prefer to just get it in the head."

Mark Pearson, executive director of the animal welfare group Animal Liberation New South Wales, offered another solution: birth control. Giving the animals a drug to render them infertile is far kinder than pumping them full of bullets, he said.

But Edwards said even if you could get close enough to administer birth control, camels still live up to 30 years — meaning decades more damage to the environment.

Edwards favors an integrated approach that would include shooting some of the animals for their meat, with others left behind to decompose. No matter what solution is accepted, Edwards said, waiting much longer to act would be disastrous.

"We need to get moving as soon as we can because we are facing a crisis," he said.