Australia's feral camel population numbers around 300 000, far fewer than the one million generally cited.

Sydney - Australia's feral camel population numbers around 300 000, far fewer than the one million generally cited, a new study showed after a four-year cull removed 160 000.

Wild camels have roamed the arid outback since first introduced to the vast country as pack animals to help early settlers in the 19th century.

But populations mushroomed, leading to devastating overgrazing, fouling of water supplies, loss of native wildlife and damage to traditional Aboriginal lands.

The Australian Feral Camel Management Project was established in 2009 to study their impact and reduce numbers. It was the first Australian project to manage a pest on such a scale, and in a report it stressed the need to keep numbers down through a nationally coordinated response.

“There is now a real opportunity to maintain the low feral camel densities that have been achieved in the Simpson Desert and Pilbara regions,” said Jan Ferguson, managing director of Ninti One, a non-profit organisation that conducts research and training in remote Australia, which runs the project.

“However surveys indicate more work is required to reduce densities to the long-term goal of less than 0.1 animals per square kilometre - and this will require a concerted commercial use effort in conjunction with aerial and ground culling.

“This is in many ways a remarkable achievement,” she added of getting numbers down to 300 000 by aerial culling over an area of three million square kilometres.

“Feral camels may be the first widely established major pest animal in Australia that we have been able reduce to, and maintain at, acceptably low densities.”

The study focused on camel impacts on the land as well as Aboriginal cultural sites, farm infrastructure such as fences and water points, and human safety, with camels frequently wandering onto roads and airstrips and into remote communities.

It found that reducing the density of feral camels lessened the impact on key environmental assets, which in turn improved their condition with flow-on cultural and economic benefits to Aboriginal people, the pastoral industry, and the commercial camel industry.

“We have also gained a great deal of scientific knowledge about feral camel population dynamics, behaviour and their impacts on the landscape, wildlife, grazing industry and Aboriginal culture. This will help guide future management planning,” said Ferguson.

“What we have learned in successfully managing feral camels can also be adapted to the management of other large feral herbivores that pose a threat to Australian landscapes and communities.” - AFP