Australia: Killing Camels for Carbon Credits?

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Feral camels have never gotten much love in the Australian bush. Considered to be an invasive species, they graze native plants to the point of local extinction. They walk across roads in the middle of the night. They trample fences. Now one Australian company has a plan to get rid of the camel scourge once and for all. The proposition? Kill a camel, get a carbon credit.

To understand how this creature found itself in the cross-hairs of this 21st century solution, one must go back to the 1840s. Imported from India by the thousands in the second half of the 19th century, camels were used as transport and draught animals in western and central Australian for decades, able to endure the southerly continent’s hot, arid conditions. They reached their domesticated peak in the 1920s at about 20,000 animals, but as cars and railways took over, the camels were no longer needed. They wandered into the bush — and multiplied. Today, some 1.2 million feral camels roam the nation, and as of 2009, their population was still doubling every 8 or 9 years.

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Today, the varieties of mayhem that feral camels whip up across rural Australia cost the domestic economy at least $10 million a year. They have a seemingly bottomless appetite for delicate flora; they destroy rural infrastructure; they cause road, rail and even air traffic accidents, and they rip air conditioning boxes off the sides of houses to try to get to water. Having a camel eating the outside of your house sounds unpleasant, but the damage they’re doing is even more wide-reaching that all that. Like cows, camels are ruminants, and the fermentation that takes place during their digestion causes them to belch and, er, otherwise emit methane — a lot of methane. Every camel releases about 100 pounds of methane per year, or the equivalent of about a quarter of the emissions of the average American car.

As Australia struggles to get out from under its status as the world’s largest carbon emitter per capita, at least one company has sensed an opportunity. Under the nation’s Carbon Farming Initiative, a plan to help combat emissions that was submitted to parliament yesterday, Adelaide-based company Northwest Carbon has suggested the nation solve its camel crisis by putting a price on the animals’ heads — on the carbon market. Under the scheme, companies and individuals would receive carbon credits for shooting camels by helicopter or truck, or herding them and taking them to slaughterhouses. The camels could be processed for pet food or human consumption, and the carbon credits earned could be sold to domestic or foreign polluting companies.“We’re a nation of innovators and we find innovative solutions to our challenges,” Northwest Carbon’s Tim Moore told the Australian. “This is just a classic example.”

The net emissions saved from killing Australia’s feral camels is not insignificant — by some estimates, camel populations could be releasing the equivalent of 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2020. But it’s still a cosmetic measure compared to tackling the power companies, mines, and smelters that top the list of the nations greenhouse gas emissions, or even reducing other commercial ruminant herds like cows and sheep, which are far larger methane emitters than camels simply because of their sheer numbers.

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The scheme also is bound to run into the same wall that other people working on Australia’s camel problem have been hitting for years: People don’t like mass culls of large animals. While Australian towns make public holidays of stomping on the dread cane toad, shooting kangaroos and camels is harder for many to come to terms with. “Camels aren’t in our backyards; they’re not in people’s faces all the time like rabbits and foxes and cane toads,” Murray McGregor of the Australia’s Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre told me a few years back when I was writing about the marketing of kangaroo meat. Though kangaroo meat has gone fairly mainstream, the few who have tried to market camel meat have made slower progress — a fact that has less to do with flavor than concept. “Most people eat with their ears rather than with their taste buds,” McGregor said. “If they don’t know what it is, I’d defy most people to differentiate it from beef.”

The CFI bill is expected to go before parliament for debate early week.

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