Indigenous business shows way to camel profits


p2292-camels-2By 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.
p2292-camels-Wins-MitchNCC 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.


  1. Good on you Alex and the team at NCC.
    You first attempted to get this up while working on the APY Lands but as the article suggests, external pressures and funding only supported aerial culling, not supporting a local Indigenous enterprise with a local solution that was practical and worked.
    I am pleased to hear your efforts have been more rewarding while working across the border in WA.
    Anangu will support such an enterprise and there is a market, nationally and overseas for this product. Keep at it and well done.

  2. Great story, Erwin, bringing us up to date with a real enterprise in the NT and not just new ways of wasting money.
    I’ve seen some of these trucks of camels on the Stuart Highway and it is great to know the back story.
    I think similar entrepreneurial use could be made of the wild horses in the outback such as around Hermansburg; not to ship to abattoirs but to be used for trail rides to places like Palm Valley.

  3. Why do tax payers need to keep contributing to these ventures? Why isn’t the indigenous corporation assisting?
    If this is such a profitable business I don’t think the corporation would mind being involved. After all they are there to help their people.

  4. This is very good news. A local sustainable industry built on tackling a feral animal problem and putting an end to the waste of the camel cull. Well done. I wish you all good luck.

  5. What a great good news story! A terrific venture bound by connection to culture. It’s always about relationships … how we grow them and how we respect them.
    Let’s see this industry thrive for all the right reasons. Building social capacity in tandem with fiscal sensibility will always be a winner.

  6. @ Fred: Surely a few dollars here and there for what is clearly an incredibly worthwhile enterprise is much better than the wasted millions used to cull via helicopter at the behest of our learned betters.

  7. In April 2011 I wrote a 1500 word article for the ASN on the camel culling / harvesting issue.
    To respond to this article and the comments on it I quote from my original article;
    “To just stop the population increasing would require 70,000 80,000 camels harvested every year!”
    “Feral camels have potential commercial uses. A camel industry has been emerging in Australia over the last 20 years, but it is still very small.”
    “Commercial utilisation could potentially remove enough animals to have a significant localised impact … However, a flourishing camel industry alone can not bring down the camel population in the short term.”
    The research report from the DK provided much of the information, and I quote from it:-
    The commercial utilisation of feral camels can, and should, be integrated into a national feral camel management strategy. Commercial utilisation will have localised impact on feral camel numbers (and their negative impacts), but such utilisation needs to be seen as part of a comprehensive feral camel management strategy aimed at significantly reducing the negative impacts of the species.”
    “Harvesting for commercial utilisation should focus on two regions. These are the tri-state border region (SA, NT, and WA) and the Alice Springs region.”
    “The commercial utilisation of feral camels provides an opportunity for local economic development, employment, capacity building, and empowerment.”
    So, yes this is an excellent story, and is part of the development of the industry, which we hope will continue
    But to suggest that it somehow negates the DK research, or the culling program is just plain wrong.

  8. @ Charlie Carter, Posted November 11, 2015 at 11:41am: The camel cull as carried out from helicopter gunships was wasteful of a national resource, an example of lazy bureaucratic thinking, and just plain wrong.

  9. @ Charlie Carter is right.
    Let’s look at this story for the positive benefits of camel management through the lens of sustainable economic development.
    The ecological and economic damage of feral camels warrants an on-going culling program where camels are impacting on areas that are too far for people to manage them.
    ALEC advocated for a diversified approach to “getting camels out of the landscape” with the development of an industry being part of the solution.
    Despite copping a barrage of abuse from animal liberationists and vegans both locally and internationally for coining the term “cameltarian” as a local and sustainable alternative to farmed livestock, ALEC continues to do its bit for promoting camel meat to the local audience with camel burgers being the mainstay of ALEC fundraising barbecues.
    Despite disagreeing with the one-sided approach to camel management, we recognise the need for an integrated approach to management.
    Congratulations to Alex and the Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company team. Hopefully it is a model that other regions can adopt to cover the costs of camel management in the more remote areas.
    @ Hal et al: Much was learned from the National Feral Camel Management project and while not without its challenges, including the wettest two years in recent history, the project brought together a wide range of partners who hadn’t worked together at that level previously.
    The key to all of this is learning. Learning how to work together and when not to. Learning from previous attempts and adapting and trying again. The NCC is a great example of persistence.
    The Alice Springs Regional Economic Development Committee has been working to understand the potential for a camel industry between SA and NT, unfortunately, despite my suggestion to, it doesn’t yet include WA in the strategy. Let’s hope it will.
    Again, the ecological need for a camel industry to support culling efforts requires support on the national level.
    Good news stories are few and far between out here – this is one of them but let’s not deny the learning from the past and the bright light (albeit from a helicopter) that the National Feral Camel Management Project shone on the issue.
    The report is here …
    The past is past … learning from the lessons is how we advance.
    FYI, ALEC is organising the National Camel Panel as part of the EcoFair in 2016 as it is the international year of the camelid. [ED – The extant members of this group are: dromedary camel, Bactrian camels, wild or feral camels, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos, according to Wikipedia.]
    We will be inviting a representative from the NCC to be a part of it and someone from the National Feral Camel Management Project among others. Stay tuned!

  10. Lately I must say that every time I see the intelligent comments made by Jimmy Cocking (Director of Arid Lands Environment Centre), I think to myself how much value these guys bring to the Territory’s debate and governance.
    And with no funding from government too.
    I must say that over the years I might have stereotyped ALEC – but I am growing in my appreciation of the contribution they make.
    @ Jimmy: I might not agree with your arguments and positioning all the time, but with this camel comment and other contributions of late, you’ve been spot on.
    Thank you.

  11. @ Once was Conservative. Great to see you acknowledge the tremendous work continually being achieved through the dedicated, hard work of Jimmy Cocking and his team at ALEC.
    I made the decision over 12 months ago to make a monthly donation (albeit a small one) to the organisation when they had their funding so ruthlessly cut by the incumbent NT government.
    ALEC presents a perceived threat (as it should) to the mistruths and collusion perpetrated by the oil and gas industries in cohort with the NTG.
    Trying to de-fund them out of existence can’t work whilst ever there are community member sponsors. An intelligent and passionate young leader, Jimmy achieves so much at the Territory and national environmental stages. He and his team are to be congratulated for so much of the work they do often on a pro-bono basis.
    Perhaps, you too might consider becoming a Desert Defender sponsor? All donations are tax deductible.

  12. @ Hal. I fail to see how energetic thinking, bureaucratic or otherwise can overcome the simple arithmetic.
    Average 6,000 / year mustered, 70,000 – 80,000 needed just to stop population growth. The “national resource” – feral animals – was trashing our natural resource, the arid environment of Central Australia.

  13. Charlie and Jimmy: Farm them for much needed protein in the world’s food chain. Don’t just shoot them, and then leave them to rot in the sandhills.
    If Australia can spend a billion dollars this year keeping off-shore detention centres going, is it asking too much to spend a fraction of that farming feral camel meat in the Outback?
    It used to be cruelly said that the early European settlers had a saying something like if you can’t shoot it, chop it down. And how did that work out for us?
    It is a bit of a shame seeing that practice carry through into the 21st century.

  14. My understanding is that the national Ninti / government project put a lot of money into commercial use infrastructure on APY and Ngaanyatjarra lands which I presume NCC is still using?
    NCC may also wish to clarify how many of the 18,000 harvested camels were removed under the national project camel removal subsidy and how many have been removed in 2014 and 2015 after the subsidy stopped?

  15. @ Hal: The research report I quoted from also says: “The farming of camels could support a sustainable alternative pastoral industry but would not contribute to the management of feral camels.”
    I thought this was self evident.
    If Hal Duell was suggesting that the wild camels in the remotest parts of the Centre, with next to no access or infrastructure, should have been mustered and farmed, then he truly has no understanding of the issues.

  16. @ Charlie: Not should, but could. And a bit of energetic thinking could probably find a line in DFAT’s budget to fund it.
    As to the issues, and the cull as it is now practiced benefits no one.
    Yes, some feral animals are removed from some of the remotest parts of the Centre. Yeah! And to farm them would not be easy. It would mean playing a long game.
    But to cull them the shooters are already finding them. Use the same choppers to start bringing them in to where there is access and infrastructure.
    The shooters would still have their fun. In any wild mob, there are always those wanting culling. For the others, fresh frozen for some and the bulk into jerky.
    To say that this possibility is all too hard while man is clearing the Amazon to grow GM soy to feed the 8 billion of us (and counting) shows a narrow and selfish focus.
    We could be looking out and at least trying to do some good for others as well as for us. Is that concept really beyond your grasp?
    The other issue is the enterprise that is the core of this story. Meaningful work in some of the most impoverished and marginalised communities in Australia deserves more support than a mere pat on the back accompanied be the patronising observation that the effort is all little more than pissing in the wind.

  17. Hal Duell (Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:44 am): Getting individual small groups of camels out of the remote vastnesses of the SA and WA deserts sounds to me like an extremely arduous and expensive exercise.
    Helicopter mustering of small very remote herds in such circumstances would not be economically viable in many cases, and this is the situation in which the majority of these feral animals exist.
    It is not as though one helicopter could sustain pursuit of a single small herd over hundreds of km, without a break for re-fuelling at least, and including during the night when they would disperse from the point where they had been at sundown.
    Plus they would probably die of thirst, overheating and exhaustion during the pursuit.
    The industry is thus necessarily confined to dealing with wild camels in those areas that have roads – a very small percentage of the arid areas.

  18. @ Bob: Not so much mustering as monitoring and nudging. The wild ones will come in over time, and as needed for the food industry. Or they would if shown the way. Water is the key here.
    But I think it’s time to knock this dialogue on the head.
    I’ll leave Charlie with his overwhelming stats, Jimmy with his burgers and his talks, and acknowledge that we will deploy the gunships to remove tons of food from the human foodchain.
    And we will do that because we are the lucky country, and because we can.

  19. @Hal Duell: It was only I the 80s when thousands of sheep were shot because of the live export trade of sheep fell through and were worth 50c each and it cost $1.60 getting them to market.
    It was only a few years ago when we sent rabbit carcasses to Spain. The government then decided to release the calesi virus and thousands of rabbits were left to die, and we lost that trade.
    Because of this all our Akubra hats are made of English rabbit fur.
    Also in the pastoral country, there are thousands of horses and donkeys shot and left, in times of drought.
    Three years ago in Heywood Vic, the dairy farm shot all their bull calves, as it cost more to take them to market than what they would receive.
    Only a few years ago, the military at Duntroon killed 3000 kangaroos and left them to rot.
    How much camel meat is in the supermarkets? So what makes this venture so profitable? I think the costs will outweigh the income.

  20. Fred the Philistine yes indeed the costs will almost certainly outweigh the income.
    Except if the income includes a bag of tax payer money.
    And if you dig deep enough you will find that the Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company is just another part of the Aboriginal Industry.
    And true to form this sort of business is keen to show that while Aboriginal involvement has been an unmitigated disaster they are successful.
    Docker River and Kintore etc etc etc camel projects may have been unmitigated disasters but the NCC ticks all the boxes and deserves Federal support.
    But a few years down the track … we know how this ends.

  21. Relying on harvesting to solve the feral camel problem would be a big mistake for all the reasons mentioned below.

  22. Just room for thought, you will need a few angle grinders to sharpen you teeth while eating camel.

  23. Wrong again Freddie (Fred the Philistine, Posted November 23, 2015 at 7:59 pm): You obviously haven’t been eating Gary Dann’s product. A good camel steak is both delicious and tender.

  24. Camel hump is mostly fat and probably the easiest thing to remove. In a simple process it can be transformed into diesel at a cost of about 40 cents a liter.


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