JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Climate change can be capricious. In parched Western Australia, drought has hurt many cattle ranchers. But some ranchers have seen more rain than usual and are thriving. Now, a story about an animal that has also benefited from the change in the weather down under, but at the expense of the human population and maybe a whole lot more.
NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: There are many exotic species native to Australia: the kangaroo, the koala, the kookaburra. But the camel is not among them.
(Soundbite of motor engine)
SULLIVAN: But they're here anyway and in large numbers, though only a few are gainfully employed like these animals at Frontier Camel Tours just outside Alice Springs.
Unidentified Woman #1: Sorry can't help.
Unidentified Woman #2: This is exciting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #1: This is Alice(ph).
Unidentified Woman #2: Hi, Alice.
Unidentified Woman #1: Then you got bloody sleeves(ph).
SULLIVAN: They're leaning back?
Unidentified Woman #2: Leaning back?
Unidentified Woman #1: I'll pick that in a moment. Just lean back.
Unidentified Woman #3: Lean back?
SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Woman #3: Okay.
Unidentified Woman #3: Lean back in.
SULLIVAN: Hop on. Up, up, up.
Unidentified Woman #3: Hang on for dear life. Come on, angel(ph).
SULLIVAN: Up, dear.
Unidentified Woman #2: All right.
SULLIVAN: Sweet (unintelligible)
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, Alice, you did good.
Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, Alice. Oh, we're high. Alice, you're a big one(ph).
(Soundbite of laughter)
SULLIVAN: This aboriginal-owned business lets tourists get a little closer to nature here in the Red Heart of Australia. In our long camel ride that will set you back about 50 bucks, and afterwards you can catch a video in the museum next to the gift shop that explains how camels came to Australia in the first place.
(Soundbite of recording)
Unidentified Man: Camels were brought here in the 19th century. They were the only creatures that the first European explorers could use to carry heavy loads across this dry and inhospitable land.
SULLIVAN: The arrival of motorized transport in the 1920s made the camels obsolete. Shipping them back to India and Pakistan was too much work and many were simply killed. But some, just a few thousand or so, were turned loose and left to fend for themselves in the desert. In another context, this might seemed cruel and inhumane, but for the camels, it was pretty close to divine intervention.
Mr. NEIL BURROWS (Science Director, Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation,): This was heaven. I mean, this dry continent was heaven for camels.
SULLIVAN: Neil Burrows is science director at the Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation.
Mr. BURROWS: No competitors essentially. No predators, no threats, no disease. They have to do the normal battle with the whims of weather, namely access to water is an issue. But because of their ability to travel long distances and to go for long periods without water, they overcame that limitation, which most other animals can't.
SULLIVAN: And some scientists argue camels may be even better adapted to life in the outback than Australia's iconic desert species, the red kangaroo.
Glenn Edwards is principal scientist for the Northern Territories Park and Wildlife Service based in Alice Springs.
Mr. GLENN EDWARDS (Principal Scientist, Northern Territories Park and Wildlife Service based, Alice Springs): When a drought hits red kangaroo populations, you have massive mortality across really all age classes, and you see a massive decline in the population. So red kangaroo populations go up and down dramatically with the good and bad seasons. But we don't see that with the camels.
SULLIVAN: And there have been far fewer bad seasons of late, according to Neil Burrows, and that, too, has worked to the camels' advantage, though not the deserts.
Mr. BURROWS: Certainly over the last 10 or 15 years, the rainfall in much of the arid zone has been above average and in some years, well above average. But that provides extra vegetation growth, which provides extra food for camels and their populations have consequently increased. We didn't go through drought periods, which is known in the arid zone or in the desert. There's huge numbers of camels that have built up during the goods times, and then actually have an enormous impact on the remaining vegetation as we go through drought periods. Climate change is driving that boom and bust scenario.
SULLIVAN: The bottom line, Australia is now home to more wild camels than any other country on Earth. An estimated one million animals were starting to push out of the desert and into populated areas and ranchlands.
(Soundbite of a tractor)
Mr. ROBIN MILLS (Rancher, Warrawagine Station): Here we're traveling in this -gathering area around the mills. You'll see ewe with a (unintelligible) north boundary fence. That's an area that we have a lot of troubles. The camels are running along the edge of the sand dunes and running into the fences and dragging down. You had some go to 100 to 200 meters(ph) or feet(ph). So glad that he wasn't hit.
SULLIVAN: Robin Mills is a rancher at Warrawagine Station, about a thousand miles west of Alice Springs. He says more and more wild camels are wandering onto his property, big, strong and thirsty, able to drink more than 30 gallons of water in one pull.
Mr. MILLS: So I had to get a bunch of 30 camels coming and I saw it sucking that sort of water out of a truck. It empties that truck. Well, the camels think that the water is underneath. So they'll strike down the truck trying to get the water underneath and then they'll (unintelligible) smash the infrastructure off but break the hull of that and that often will get water running (unintelligible) down and there it was.
SULLIVAN: So far, Mills says, his camel problem is more of a nuisance than a real threat. But he expects things to get worse in a hurry for ranchers and the desert ecosystem. The Park and Wildlife Service's Glenn Edwards is also worried about what might come next.
Mr. EDWARDS: Possibly the extinction of some plant species, possibly the disappearance of some wildlife species out of our deserts. And let's remember that the Australian deserts cover the majority of our country. So it's a reasonably serious issue, which will probably get worse with time unless we turn it around.
SULLIVAN: The Australian government has set up a commission to study the problem and find a way to solve it. Large-scale culling is one option being discussed. Exporting camels for meat is another. But neither is economically viable at the moment, and time, those studying the problem say, is running out with Australia's wild camel population set to double in the next eight years.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News.
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