By ERWIN CHLANDA
Position vacant, required skills: You must have grown up in the bush, be able to fix a tyre, know what’s on the other side of the hill, be a good off-road driver, know how to handle animals, can build a stock yard and fences. You don’t need to speak English.
Rewards: You will be doing an important job for your community, in a highly productive team of people who enjoying working together. You will be achieving something at which bureaucrats and politicians spending tens of millions of dollars have failed. There is an ample supply of raw materials, jobs for your children and grandchildren. You can take time off for cultural or family business and you won’t get sacked but you won’t get paid for that time.
This could be the job description of the Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company (NCC) which works in 170,000 square kilometres where WA, NT and SA meet, with Warburton the biggest community.
In its three years the NCC has caught and sold 18,000 camels. It employs eight people, mostly Indigenous, at any one time, and is the main supplier to the camel abattoir in Peterborough in SA which employs 70 people.
NCC has received small amounts from the taxpayer, some $300,000, for materials. But all the construction work is done by the crew, says Alex Knight, manager of the land and culture program, who’s worked in the area for 15 years, initially in land care.
He says about the yards now dotted around that vast desert area: “We build them so we get them the way we want them. We work on them between musters. We use materials left on the lands from all sorts of failed projects, camel related or not.
He says the bureaucracy is glad the previously wasted materials, long an embarrassment, are now used for something useful.
It’s a long shot from the Canberra funded camel culling project, run by an offshoot of the failed start-up of the Desert Knowledge movement (now under new management), inexplicably called Ninti One (Clever One): All it has to show for $19m of taxpayer’s money is some 160,000 rotting camel bodies in the desert, slaughtered by marksmen in helicopters.
NCC, by contrast, is not only reducing the camel population, it is developing and refining a growing export industry, selling meat for human consumption to the Middle East and North Africa.
The process is bafflingly simple: You don’t go to the camel, the camel comes to you. NCC is placing watering points in strategic places, and “bull catchers” – Toyotas with big bull bars – are used to round them up and drive them into nearby yards.
The transport to Peterborough is then done by road train contractors.
The height of the activity is in the year’s hottest time, when water is scarce. Camels can be without a drink easily for three days, but then they begin to lose condition, and seven days is their limit.
They can walk hundreds of kilometers to water.
Mr Knight says the business is constantly being refined. For example, camels which had a hard time have tough meat. So it pays to separate them from the others which will yield a reliable supply of good meat.
NCC is now keeping high grade camels and young ones “behind the wire” for strategic marketing.
The price for a kilo starts at around $1 but is edging towards $2 for high-grade stock which brings them into the realm of cattle in a good season and when prices are high.
Staff simply isn’t a problem, says Mr Knight: “We find people who like the work and really want to do it.
“Building good relationships is important to them. They are not terribly motivated by money. It’s about relationships, being in a team. It’s part of their identity, enjoying the work. Aboriginal people can and want to do it.
“Pay depends on how much you work but all the pay is from the sale of camels.”
The other good news is the plentiful supply of camels – although the numbers previously quoted seem to have been inflated.
Ninti One initially asked for $56m for its aerial slaughter.
Estimates at the time, supported by Alice-based scientist Glenn Edwards, were close to one million animals, about double the later estimates.
Sean Edwards, Liberal Senator from South Australia, described the Feral Camel Management Project as “another pink batts debacle in the making”.
He said in 2012 as the project was close to winding up: “Of the targeted 350,000 feral camels, a mere 36,000 were exterminated in the first two years.
“The cost per head of shooting the camels from helicopter had blown out, with the latest provided estimated being about $212 per head, plus direct operation costs, whatever they might be.
“This is not counting the $6 million dollars of State and Territory Government funds to date as well. That puts the cost per head to over $400 a head.
“Surely it is time for the authorities to rethink what they are doing, acknowledge that it is not working and try something else – such as capturing the more accessible camels and transporting them to abattoirs.”
At the time the head of Ninti One, Jan Ferguson, did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Knight says NCC could have done with some start-up funding in 2008, four years before the company’s actual start, when millions were given out to Ninti One.
For other related reading on Ninti One and the camel trade potential google this site.
PHOTOS: NCC workers Winston Mitchell and Iyan Giles. Image from the cover of the Ninti One final report, from which some of the information for this article was drawn.
By ERWIN CHLANDA