Feral animals in the Central Australian landscape

Camels remain the biggest feral threat to the Central Australian landscape.

While the CLC is actively working to control impacts of feral animals such as horses, donkeys, and foxes, camels remain one of the greatest threats to livelihoods and biodiversity over large swathes of Aboriginal land, especially in the west, south west and south east CLC regions.

Camels

More than a million feral camels are roaming across inland Australia destroying vegetation, infrastructure and sacred sites.

Aboriginal traditional landowners don’t like to see camels shot and left to waste on their country and the management of feral animals in Central Australia must be approached with the understanding that Aboriginal culture dictates a vastly different view of the world to non-Aboriginal people.

Many feral animals are seen to have the right to be present through their long association with the country. Aboriginal people often see the use of the land’s resources by all animals as natural and disapprove of killing feral animals if they are only going to be wasted and not eaten.

This different perspective has required a greater emphasis to be placed on raising awareness with traditional owners about the impacts feral animals have on country and on valuable resources such as bushfoods and medicinal plants. Traditional owners are increasingly expressing their concern over camels’ impact on traditional water sources such as rock holes and soakages, the decline of important resource plants and environmental degradation and infrastructure damage in and around living areas.

Following this concerted education campaign, the focus of the CLC’s work has shifted to facilitating community decision-making regarding camel management options and strategies to build capacity in communities to enable Aboriginal rangers and other community members to participate in camel population monitoring and control activities.

As awareness of the damage camels do is growing, discussion on communities has progressed to the point where consent for culling programs and camel harvesting licences is now possible.

The CLC coordinated an aerial ‘crisis’ cull of camels in the Docker River area in December 2009 to alleviate distress being caused to community residents and damage to community infrastructure. Around 3,600 camels were culled during this operation which was the subject of intense national and international media interest and scrutiny.

Since then other culls have been carried out. The question of culling has been highly controversial and while the CLC and traditional owners would prefer another solution, culling has been the only practical way that a large number of camels can be removed quickly and humanely.

People often ask why camels are not being harvested for meat. The CLC has received a number of inquiries and proposals about camel harvesting from potential commercial operations. Unfortunately most people who have registered their interest have little idea of the realities of the local environment – for the most part, the country is remote, inaccessible and lacking essential infrastructure to support commercial operations of that scale.

The commercial viability of wild harvest options for camels is limited because the resource is spread over such large, inaccessible areas. In addition, it must be remembered that most camels are on Aboriginal land and Aboriginal people do not want camels butchered near their communities and the waste left to rot nearby as has happened in the past. Hopes of building up markets for feral animals and their meat have also been limited because there is only a very small domestic market for feral animals, including for pet food.

The CLC has been working closely with researchers from the Desert Knowledge CRC who are undertaking cross-jurisdictional management planning on feral camels. However, due to exceptionally high rainfall during the 2010-11 season there have been substantial delays in harvest trials and culling operations because of limited access to areas, and because the camel population is widely dispersed due to the widespread availability of surface waters.

The focus of the CLC this year is on training Aboriginal rangers and other community members in population monitoring techniques as well as continuing community consultations to ensure

informed consent exists for any future camel control operations on Aboriginal lands within the CLC region. As the country dries out in 2012 it is hoped that more effort can be put into camel harvest programs and culling operations in order to reduce population growth likely to result from the exceptional season in 2010-11.

Horses and donkeys

The CLC has worked with traditional owners in its region and with the Northern Territory Government on the control of feral donkeys and horses. Areas are targeted based on the build up of feral populations or impacts reported by pastoralists or community members.

The CLC has facilitated agreements between traditional owners of Aboriginal Land Trusts and the NT Government allowing for the aerial shooting of feral donkeys and horses and also their removal by commercial pet-meat companies.

CLC staff also assist communities and small Aboriginal pastoral enterprises with mustering and the sale of feral horses, scrub cattle and donkeys when numbers become unacceptably high.

Foxes and feral cats

Whilst some Aboriginal people in the CLC region hunt cats and foxes for food or as medicine resources, these feral predators are present in large numbers across most of the region and are having significant impacts on native mammals (including threatened species such as bilbies, black-footed rock-wallabies and mulgara), birds and reptiles (including the nationally threatened great desert skink and Slater’s skink).

In recent years the CLC has been involved in the trial of specialised bait stations designed to deliver poison baits to foxes while restricting access to the baits by dingoes because of differences in the snout shape of the two species. Dingoes are believed to play a critical role in controlling feral predators such as cats and foxes, and healthy populations of dingoes in desert regions tend to coincide with healthier populations of vulnerable native animals such as bilbies and great desert skinks.

Fox baiting trials were undertaken with the assistance of Parks and Wildlife NT staff and Aboriginal rangers on Karlantijpa North ALT in the Tennant Creek area, the Central Desert ALT on the Lander River floodout and at Sangster’s Bore in the Tanami as part of the recovery program for nationally threatened bilbies.

Whilst these fox management trials showed some success, further efforts have been postponed until there has been more development of cat-specific baits in order that the total predator pressure can be effectively managed in high conservation value areas. It is likely that further predator management work will be delayed until the end of the current high rainfall period (2010-11), because foxes and cats are unlikely to take baits in seasons where there is an abundance of food resources in the wild.