Australia

The woman saving Australia's wild camels from slaughter as demand for milk rises

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In an effort to control numbers, hundreds of thousands of wild camels are slaughtered each year in Australia. This camel farmer is aiming to change negative perceptions of the animals, and their milk.

When Michelle Phillips saved a group of camels destined for the abattoir, she had never worked on a farm, let alone milked a camel.

“I did research about culling … and it really upset me to see these animals were brought to [Australia] for our own benefit, to build roads and railway lines and now they are being killed,” she told SBS News.

“I drove down to Shepparton [in rural Victoria] and … we picked out five females and their babies.”

Camel farmer Michelle Phillips
Michelle Phillips tending to the camels on her farm in the Upper Hunter Valley.
SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

First brought to Australia in the 19th century from India and Afghanistan, it’s now estimated there are about one million wild camels across the country. 

Michelle’s rescued herd were caught roaming the plains between South Australia and Uluru but became quickly accustomed to their new pastures in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales.

"I recall driving through the gate that night saying 'what have I done? … I own camels now',” Ms Phillips said.

“I didn’t know anything about camels, I was a cake decorator.”

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The wild camels being saved from slaughter.
The wild camels being saved from slaughter.

Learning quickly on the job and with the help of some “camel whisperers”, Ms Phillips patiently trained her wild camels to tolerate the milking-machine process.

“We have plucked them out of the bush … so we have to read each camel individually,” she said.

“If you upset a camel it will sit down [and then] you can’t get the [milking] cups on.”

Ms Phillips went on to set up Camel Milk NSW, the only licensed camel milk dairy in the state.

Now home to 80 camels, the main bull in the paddock is called Hughie, after Hugh Hefner.

Female calves are kept for milking while males graze local fields and are used for weed-control on predominantly organic farms.

'White gold'

Camels produce a substantially smaller yield than cows and the taste is slightly less creamy.

“A camel produces five litres [while] a cow produces 30 litres - milked twice a day - that’s 60 litres straight up,” Ms Phillips said.

“We supply our milk by demand … so it can vary between 100 and 300 litres a week.”

Camels on the farm in the NSW Upper Hunter.
All of Michelle's camels are rescued from the wild.
SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Although a relatively new taste in Australia, one litre of camel milk retails on average between $17 to $20.

“I run into people all the time who have never heard of camel milk” Ms Phillips said.

"But it's not really that new, Cleopatra used to bathe in camel milk."

“It’s going to come to a point where more people will want to start drinking camel milk [and] the more people that do that, the cheaper it’ll get.”

Mick helps milk camels on the farm.
Mick, who works on the farm, helps milk the camels.
SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Nicknamed 'white gold', traditional markets for camel milk included Africa, the Middle East and Asia .

In Australia, customers include those with a cultural preference for camel milk - people of Somali or Middle Eastern origin - as well as a growing customer base who are buying camel milk due to its potential health benefits.

Jane Freeman, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says camel milk production is an example of "farmers being innovative and coming up with great new ways to utilise what potentially is a feral population". 

"It's high in protein, calcium and a key range of vitamins and minerals like iron and Vitamin C," Ms Freeman said.

"Early research is also suggesting that it may be helpful for people with insulin-dependent diabetes."

In 2006, the nutritional value of camel milk was also confirmed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation which stated, “to devotees, camel milk is pure nectar … it is very good for you.” 

Changing negative perceptions

For Ms Phillips, her main goal is to challenge the stigma associated with the animals she adores. 

“People will walk behind you and say, ‘camels are disgusting, they will spit on you and kick you’,” she said.

“The animals themselves are really placid and really sweet-natured.

“It’s heartbreaking to see such a cool, majestic creature like this … just being slaughtered.”

Michelle's daughter, Gabriella helps out around the farm.
Michelle's daughter Gabriella helps out around the farm.
SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Aiming to re-cast camels as a useful farming animal, Michelle would like to see more people tapping into the industry.

“Being in a farming area, [some] farmers [think] a good camel is a dead camel,” she said.

“If they look outside the square and use [camel] meat and milk, it could help bring in more income for themselves in times of drought.”

Currently a fledgling industry in Australia, government reports have forecast expansion in camel milk production between 2016 and 2021, with levels then sitting at an estimated 50,000 litres per annum.

Ms Phillips hopes the growing interest may be a solution to Australia’s wild camel population.

“That way we can save more camels because we will need more camels to produce more milk.”

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