AGRICULTURE & ENVIRONMENT

Q&A with a camel farmer

What happens when you try to challenge and change an age-old industry?

Why do we drink cow’s milk instead of another animal’s milk? Who decided, thousands of years ago, that a cow’s milk is the best-tasting, or that cows are the easiest animal to milk? We can’t even begin to fathom the very beginnings of animal milking and milk production and let’s face it, do we even want to? (Some very strange images come to mind). Hannah Purss however, did fathom it, only she already had a wealth of history and research behind her.

Hannah is, in my opinion, an inspirational human.

My fondest memory of Hannah was when, in high school, she decided that it would be a great idea to bring her pet snake to school in a cloth bag, and didn’t understand why all her friends didn’t share quite the same love and fascination for it as she did.

Never having had a typical career path, she was always told by her grandmother to “do exactly what you want to do” in life. After working in the Northern Territory doing odd jobs and coordinating tourist camel rides, it wasn’t long before Hannah discovered her love for these strange, spitting, four legged animals. When she first moved to the NT, she discovered the government’s camel culling program. She was devastated when she found out that the government were aerial culling wild camels in huge numbers, a tragic and wasteful process. Hannah recognised that Australia is in the worst drought on record, and desperate for new industry. With her business partners, she founded the Australian Wild Camel Corporation.

Now, at only twenty-seven years of age, Hannah has big plans. She is developing an environmentally compatible and animal welfare focused camel dairy and meat processing farm, which utilises Australia’s wild camel population to produce highly sought after milk and meat. In the wild, camels suffer from external threats such as culling, wild dogs and hunters. Hannah’s enterprise aims to contribute to the economy of Australia while maintaining an environmental conscience. Hannah tells me how she became so passionate about camels and how you can follow your passions; no matter what they might be.

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The history of humans drinking cow’s milk goes back thousands of years. Why do you think it has taken us so long to realise that camel milk is just as good, if not better for us, than cow’s milk?

Many people believe that camels were actually the first animal to be domesticated. Camel milk and meat have always been highly prized for their nutritional and health benefits and have been consumed for millennia by the traditional communities throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It’s really the western world that has just cottoned on to camels’ milk. I have met Bedouin men that live in the desert by themselves and live on their camels’ milk and dates for weeks at a time. They are in their 80s and they are incredibly fit and healthy.

Yes, there seems to be an endless list of health benefits of drinking camel milk. What are the benefits that you have discovered, and why do you think that no one else in Australia has really looked into camel milk as a marketable animal by-product yet?

It is rich in Vitamin C, iron and B Vitamins, as well as having a myriad of other potential uses. We are currently working with a team of researchers to explore its immunological benefits even further. People are definitely looking into trying to milk camels, but camel milk is such a young industry that it is hard to get started, particularly in Australia. There aren’t any domesticated camels that have been bred and trained to milk, equipment all has to be modified and there aren’t a lot of people that you can learn from, so everyone is starting from scratch.

Between our leadership team at AWCC, we probably have 50 years combined of research into different aspects of camel health, milking and caretaking. We’ve sought out experts nationally and internationally, and there is a lot to learn still, but we’ve laid the foundation to grow our knowledge as we go. Hopefully, we will be able to make it easier for others to start camel dairies in the future.

How did you go about learning about camels and starting the business?

Camels are a passion of mine and I was lucky enough to find a partner who feels the same. Evan and I have travelled to India, the Middle East and around Australia learning about camels as well as researching and reading as much as we possibly can. Every camel person I could talk to or camel experience I have had an opportunity to encounter, I have taken with both hands and immersed myself fully in the camel world. By spending time with wild camels and experimenting with different training methods, Evan and I have developed a training method for wild camels which requires minimal contact and use of body language to train animals for milking.

Why do you think that camel milk and camel meat haven’t become as popular as say, kangaroo here in Australia?

There is a high demand for camel milk and meat in Australia, so the problem is actually not the demand – it’s the supply. Because there isn’t an established camel industry in Australia, smaller operators lack the ability or drive to supply enough camels to meet the demand that is there. We will need at least 2000 – 3000 camels to meet our current demand for milk.

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What are some of the benefits of farming camel milk and meat versus cows or sheep in Australia?

Firstly, camels naturally thrive here. In drought, camels survive when cattle, sheep and even native animals are dying. They can eat 85% of vegetation that is already here, including many thorny and hard to control weeds. They’re browsers that have soft feet, so with space they actually minimally impact vegetation and cause far less erosion than cattle, sheep, horses etc because they can’t rip the ground up with their feet.

What kind of measures do you take to ensure that you abide by animal welfare practices in your business?

Of course, we have policies and procedures. But ultimately, I believe it comes down to choosing the right people. We seek out people that love animals and are committed to animal welfare as individuals, and who are level headed and patient. If everyone in your team is personally committed to giving your animals the best life possible, I believe that you can’t go too wrong.

We have a high focus on training and development for staff too, so they’re not only enthusiastic about helping our animals have wonderful, healthy lives, they also have the skills. There is an excellent vet on our team and she consults with us about anything we can’t sort out ourselves. We work with her, other vets and animal nutritionists regularly to develop health programs for the camels. From the moment they come in from the wild, we make sure their health is being monitored and taken care of. I am really focused on making sure we are learning from every opportunity and improving constantly.

Another challenge we have is that camels are highly sensitive and intelligent creatures; they have strong family ties and will stop lactating if they are unhappy or if you take their calf away. I wouldn’t want to take their calves away anyway, but it is a challenge to work around the mother-calf bond. I am absolutely committed to the happiness of our camels, that’s why I’m so passionate about being in this industry, you can sign as many petitions and boycott as much as you want, but the easiest way to make sure that animal welfare is ensured is by ensuring it yourself.

And finally, what would be your own advice to women or young girls wanting to start their own business or follow the road-less-travelled in their own careers?

I would give them exactly the same advice that my grandma gave me, do exactly what you want to do and don’t let anyone tell you to do anything else. I have followed that advice to a T! If you don’t know what you want to do, make the time to explore and find out what you want from life. There’s no point wasting your life, especially not your youth.

 

Q&A with a camel farmer
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