Australia Exporting Camels for Saudi Diners

From crocodile ranches to emu farms, Australia has a well-established reputation in raising exotic meats. Now it seems the Land Down Under is branching out into another market: camels.

And this month, the ranchers of Oz gained the most obvious, but perhaps unlikely of customers when they shipped 119 animals from the northern port city of Darwin to the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Peter Seidel, the executive officer of the Central Australian Camel Association, told ABCNEWS.com while camels still exist in Saudi Arabia, they are largely bred for racing.

The Saudi camels are the equivalent of thoroughbreds, he said, while the ones in Australia are like draft horses. Both countries' camels are the dromedary, one-humped camels. The Bactrian, or two-humped camels are found mostly in Central Asia.

But there's very little difference in the taste of the animals — thoroughbred or draft, Bactrian or Dromedary, Seidel said. "It's all very much the same."

Camel Shortage in Saudi Arabia?

Shortly before he died in 1960, the famous English explorer St. John Philby predicted the camel would disappear from Arabia in 30 years.

He was laughed at then, but his prediction largely rings true today, as the desert nomads that once relied on the camels settled down, and replaced their animals with planes, trains and automobiles.

The camel has always been part of the traditional Muslim diet. Every year, hundreds of thousands of camels are slaughtered during the Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj, in Mecca.

The Saudis traditionally imported camels from North Africa, but various factors, including disease, drought and political instability led them to look elsewhere.

Plus, Seidel said, Australia has the world's only remaining herds of wild camel. In the rest of the world, camels are domesticated and managed in private herds.

Australia's camels were brought over from Northern India in the 19th century for use in pioneering its arid back country, he said.

When the explorers were done with the animals, they let the entire population of 20,000 into the wild. "What we have today is the direct descendants of those," Seidel said.

Today, Australia has a population of 500,000 camels. In some places, they're becoming a nuisance.

But Seidel's organization has found a market for them. Most of his ranchers ship their animals to neighboring Muslim countries like Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

Seidel has even found a market in the United States, where they are usually used for leisure, in safari parks — but some are slaughtered for food.

Fresh Hump Today

One of the largest camel-consuming populations in the United States is located about as far as you can get from the sandy, sunny dunes of the Arabian peninsula.

The city of Minneapolis, on the windswept plains of the Midwest, contains America's largest population of Somalis. And the Somalis, overwhelmingly Muslim, from a land just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, love their camel.

Randy Weinstein, of RW Meats in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, provides most of the stores in the area with their supply — from Australia as well.

At the wholesale price of $3.50 per pound, camel is a specialty meat — expensive compared to other traditional favorites, like goat, which costs about $1.20 per pound, Weinstein said. But for the Somalis, he said, "it's a taste of home."

It's not only the local Somali population that goes for the camel, he said. Minneapolis-area Ethiopians are also big consumers, as well as Saudi Arabian Arabs. He said he hardly saw any Lebanese, Iraqis or Egyptians partake.

Camel meat tastes like beef but it is quite a bit tougher, he said. "You've got to roast it and cook the hell out of it," he said, comparing it to preparing a piece of beef brisket. Unfortunately, people often make the mistake of treating it like goat, he said, which takes much less cooking time to make tender.

The cuts of camel are no different than the cuts of a steer. There's a tenderloin, a flank steak, a rump roast. Much of the rest of the camel is also used in the same way as beef.

They have hides for leather, udders for milk, Weinstein said. The main thing that distinguishes camels — their hump — is used as well, he said.

The hump is a piece of solid white fat, and provides the animal with sustenance when food is scarce, Seidel said. Weinberg said it appears like a hump of gristle or tendon, and is eaten.

"The Arabs like the hump but only if it's fresh," he said. "Unless it's like just been slaughtered yesterday, they don't want it."