A group of Aborigines shelter from the blazing outback sun beneath a large desert oak, sipping strong bush tea and hungrily eyeing the camel meat burgers sizzling on the camp grill.
DOCKER STATION, Australia − A group of Aborigines shelter from the blazing outback sun beneath a large desert oak, sipping strong bush tea and hungrily eyeing the camel meat burgers sizzling on the camp grill.
The half-dozen men are taking a brief lunch break from building a stockade to hold wild camels they will muster for export to the Middle East and Asia, where they will be slaughtered and sold as camel burgers.
There is little work in the Australian outback and the Aborigines hope their new camel export business will benefit their isolated community at Docker River, 155 miles west of Uluru (Ayers Rock), in the center of the Northern Territory.
"We will work really hard to make this community strong," said aboriginal foreman Dexson Ward during his lunch break.
Docker River is a typical outback Aboriginal community -- a small impoverished town of about 300 people, where nutrition is low and infant mortality is high. The camel project is designed to alleviate the poverty and break a cycle of despair and drug abuse that has ravaged the community for the past few decades.
Australia's 400,000 Aborigines are the nation's most disadvantaged group, with a life expectancy 20 years less than white Australians.
"People want to get out here and work. They would much rather work than hang around and do nothing," said Wayne Anthoney from the local Nyangatjatjara Aboriginal aid body, which has arranged financing for the camel project.
"I've (already) seen the differences. They are really revitalized. They want to do this project, they want to make it work and they want to sell camels -- they are proud of it."
Stockade construction manager Chris Hill said the camel export business was ideal for the Docker River Aboriginal community as it needed virtually no maintenance.
"They (camels) are maintenance free and every year the numbers are improving and they are basically free for the community to harvest," Hill said.
Australia is home to the largest wild dromedary (one-humped) camel population in the world, with an estimated 750,000 camels roaming the outback.
Tens of thousands of camels were brought to central Australia in the 1800s for use by Afghan railway builders and outback pioneers, and with the advent of cars later released into the wild. Left to roam free, camel numbers exploded and now in some desert areas camels outnumber kangaroos.
Australia started a small live camel export trade in 1996, but sales have been sporadic, with a maximum of only 3,500 animals sold overseas in one year.
The first exports were one-off sales to safari parks and zoos. Export of live camels for consumption grew steadily until 2003 when Saudia Arabia rejected an Australian shipment of thousands of live sheep on health grounds. The rejection saw Australia's live animal export trade nosedive.
Australia has some 10 camel exporters, but the organization Camel Australia Export said the trade to Muslim countries was being hindered by the lack of a halal abattoir to slaughter camels.
"We've been trying to develop more exports for (camel) meat production overseas, especially in the Middle East, but it won't take off until we can establish an abattoir for our purposes," said Pete Siedel, president of Camel Australia Export.
Australia's camels are increasingly in demand because they are regarded as disease free, with Hong Kong, London, Israel and Egypt placing orders to satisfy demand from upmarket restaurants.
Environmentalists are keenly watching the fledgling camel export trade hoping it takes off and reins in the explosion in camel numbers which is seriously damaging outback ecosystems through overgrazing and fouling of water holes.
"If camels aren't brought under control, and the population growth rate isn't reversed, then we will be in a situation when the Australian deserts, which aren't really true deserts, will eventually become true deserts," said Glen Edwards, senior scientist at the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Services.