1860 Camels landed in Melbourne

Contemporary illustration of camels for the Burke & Wills expedition landing in Melbourne

Twenty-five camels landed in Melbourne in 1860 to carry supplies for the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition. Many more followed, along with their Muslim cameleers, known as Afghans. They butchered meat according to Halal principles and grew exotic plants and herbs important to their diet. Camels played a vital role in carrying provisions to outback settlements until the early 1900s.

The very first camel to arrive in Australia met a tragic end after causing the death of his owner. The camel, named Harry, was the sole survivor of six beasts shipped from the Canary Islands in 1840.  Six years later, he was the cause of a shooting accident that resulted in the death of his owner, John Horrocks, while searching for pastoral land to the north of Adelaide. As a result, Harry himself was shot.

Image – State Library of South Australia

From the 1860s onwards, camels were much used by inland explorers to carry food and other supplies to remote settlements.  South Australian grazier Thomas Elder imported 122 camels from Karachi, then still in India, in 1866. Most of the handlers who came with them were from provinces bordering Afghanistan, so they became known – mostly inaccurately – as Afghans. This term persisted even though cameleers later arrived from Persia, India, Egypt and Turkey.

It is estimated that from 1870 to 1900  more than 2,000 cameleers and 15,000 camels came to Australia. They played a significant part in the building of the overland telegraph line to Darwin and in the construction of the first rabbit-proof fence.

A camel carrying salt from the salt lakes to Underbool Railway Station in Victoria’s Mallee in c1930. (Museum of Victoria image )

By the 1920s, rail and motor transport had largely replaced the camel as a mode of transport. Many were released into the wild, where they have multiplied to the point of becoming a significant pest. Some estimates put their numbers as high as 1.2 million. The Central Australian Camel Industry Association is trying to develop an export industry for Australian camels.

Camel meat is now available for human consumption, although it’s not commonly found in your local supermarket. Processing began in 1988 at Wamboden Abattoir, Alice Springs and demand for meat has steadily risen, perhaps thanks to the change in Australia’s ethnic mix. A report produced for the Australian Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in February 2000 stated:

Previous research with consumers found that those most likely to buy and consume camel meat are Territorians, tourists and Muslims. According to the trade (wholesalers, retailers) Muslims from the Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Turkey were most likely to buy camel meat. Tourists were perceived to be the target market by restaurants, while butchers perceived local residents as well as tourists as the most likely buyers of camel meat.

With a taste somewhere between beef and lamb, Camel meat is a lean meat protein source. It is high in protein and low in fat. Meat isn’t the only camel product making it onto the Australian market. Since 2014, several dairies have been producing camel milk for human consumption. Advocates claim it’s closer to human milk than cow’s milk, with similar protein size, structure and digestibility. The Australian Camel Industry Association was established in 2009. The Association says its charter is to:

…promote humane, responsible and efficient, camel management practices, and aim to bring together members with interests in grazing, mustering, animal husbandry, government, export, tourism and racing, meat processing, environmental and land management, feral camel management, camel dairy & by-products, research, training and education.

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