Camels in the Arabian desert are dying of plastic waste
In Dubai alone, hundreds of camels have succumbed to plastic pollution.
Dromedary camels are hardy creatures that roam deserts like that of the United Arab Emirates, seeking food wherever they can find it. Disturbingly, scientists say, ungulates often mistake pieces of plastic waste for food, posing a serious threat to animal health.
Plastic waste has permeated the planet from the highest mountain peaks to the bottom of the seas. It also penetrated even into relatively remote and sparsely populated areas like the Arabian Desert. In Dubai alone, out of 30,000 camels examined since 2008, as many as 300 animals have succumbed to plastic pollution, according to the authors of a new study.
Local vets found that the animals’ guts were filled with plastic waste, which had led to gastrointestinal blockages, sepsis, dehydration and malnutrition. Some of the animals had swallowed nearly 64 kilograms of plastic.
“We dug up this mass of plastic, and I was just appalled. I couldn’t believe – I almost couldn’t believe it – that a mass as big as a medium-sized suitcase, all plastic bags plastic, could be inside the rib cage of this [camel] carcass,” says Marcus Eriksen, lead author of the study and director of research at 5 Gyres Institute, a US-based nonprofit organization that seeks to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.
“We hear of marine mammals, sea lions, whales, turtles and seabirds affected, [but] it’s not just about the ocean. It is also a land issue. It’s everywhere,” adds Eriksen.
Deserts may seem like relatively pristine environments because few people live there, but plastic waste has invaded even these inhospitable areas. In the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, plastic bags, plastic wrappings and plastic wraps are pouring out of garbage cans and landfills, only to be blown by high winds great distances across open deserts.
“Plastic bags are escape artists,” says Eriksen. “They blow trash cans, landfills, trucks and people’s hands. They travel hundreds of kilometres.
Once in the desert, these pieces of plastic are easily mistaken for food by animals like camels in low-nutrition environments. The plastic waste then accumulates in the stomachs of the ungulates over time, causing blockages. Camels may also end up feeling full, causing them to slowly starve to death.
The solution lies in better waste management and alternatives to plastic packaging to store and deliver goods across the region, researchers say.