Of camels and plastic bags

Praseeda Nair
Filed on December 24, 2011
Of camels and plastic bags

Cameron Oliver came to the forefront of eco-campaigning when he was presented with the Abu Dhabi Award for ‘Everyday Heroes’ at the age of 11.

One in two camels dies every day from ingesting plastic bags and other waste

Cameron Oliver came to the forefront of eco-campaigning when he was presented with the Abu Dhabi Award for ‘Everyday Heroes’ at the age of 11. Now 15 and more environmentally aware than the average teenager, Cameron’s love for camels and his campaign for their survival in the face of desert dumping and reckless littering, has earned him popularity among the eco-aware. The grade 9 student still feels like he has been preaching to the converted, though, as his campaign mission still requires greater momentum to combat the rising mortality rates of the region’s iconic animal.

“When I started my campaign, the statistics were that one in three camels died every day (from ingesting plastic bags and other waste). Now it has increased to one in two camels. I think people in the UAE are aware of the high level of littering that goes on here, but not many realise the effect that this has on the ecosystem. People see desert land and take it for granted that there may not be much wildlife as there would in a forest. The desert wilderness has its own kind of beauty and that is fading fast,” Cameron told Khaleej Times.

General Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with Cameron

At this rate, the days of the most prominent icon of the Middle East might be numbered. Cameron’s campaign is to start small: by distributing simple awareness messages in the form of a campaign sticker to schools, taxis and litter bins around the country.

“Once the public realise the impact of tossing plastic into the environment has, half the battle is won. The problem is raising awareness. I hope someday my campaign sticker will be on the back of every taxi and on every lamp post litter bin to remind people to dispose of their waste properly.” Cameron’s campaign message highlights the hard-hitting fact that camels often mistake plastic wrappers, bags, and bottles for food, owing to their bright colours. As these materials are non-organic, camels are unable to digest them and eventually the waste congeals and hardens within their digestive tract, causing them a slow and painful death. As much as 60kg of calcified plastic is regularly found inside a single camel’s carcass.

Over the years, Cameron has visited camel rearing farms, witnessed races and spoken with professionals like Dr Ulli Wernery, Scientific Director at Central Vetrinary Research Laboratory, Dubai, whose in-depth study of camel carcasses and their environment provide clues as to why the species is slowly dying out. “Dr Wernery took me around the lab and showed me exactly what the hardened stomach contents of a dead camel looks like. It’s enough to make anyone lose their appetite,” Cameron said. “There is definitely hope, though,” he continued.

“The camel farms I visited were very well maintained. The camels seemed well-fed on honey and milk and they wore special muzzles to keep them from eating plastic. They were even covered with blankets at night to keep them warm.”

The easiest way to ensure the safety of camels outside the care of farms is to cut down on littering completely. The blame doesn’t squarely fall on desert campers who may leave waste behind, according to Cameron’s research. Even if they were careful to pick up after themselves, waste can still find its way to the desert as the UAE’s strong northwesterly winds can easily pick up bags and wrappers and deposit them among sand dunes where starved camels may graze. Apart from regular desert clean-up drives and responsible waste disposal, Cameron expressed the need for the public to see camels as loving animals that are an asset to life in the region. “When you actually interact with camels you realise how warm and friendly they are. They’re huge but not intimidating at all. Riding a camel was the most amazing experience of my life,” he enthused.

The grim reality of the 50 per cent mortality rate has accelerated Cameron’s efforts in spreading awareness, as he now hopes to raise funds for his campaign after three years of sponsorship and support from his parents alone. “I want the campaign to expand, but it’s not easy with limited funds. For example, each sticker costs Dh2 to print, so distributing thousands can really add up. I hope more people can identify with my concern for the local camel population and would want to support and join my campaign.”

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