Marcus Eriksen was studying plastic pollution in the Arabian Gulf when he met camel expert Ulrich Wernery. “[Ulrich] said, ‘You want to see plastic? Come with me.’ So we went deep into the desert,” Eriksen recalls. Before long, they spotted a camel skeleton and began to dig through sand and bones.
“We unearthed this mass of plastic, and I was just appalled. I couldn’t believe that — almost did not believe that — a mass as big as a medium-sized suitcase, all plastic bags, could be inside the rib cage of this [camel] carcass,” says Eriksen, an environmental scientist at the 5 Gyres Institute, a plastic pollution research and education organization in Santa Monica, Calif.
“We hear about marine mammals, sea lions, whales, turtles and seabirds impacted” by plastic waste, Eriksen says (SN: 6/6/19). But “this is not just an ocean issue. It’s a land issue, too. It’s everywhere.”
About 390,000 dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius) live in the United Arab Emirates. Now in a study in the February 2021 Journal of Arid Environments, Eriksen, Wernery and colleagues estimate that plastic kills around 1 percent of these culturally important animals.
Of 30,000 dead camels that Wernery, a veterinary microbiologist at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, and his team have examined since 2008, 300 had guts packed with plastic. In a subset of five camels, the plastic weighed from three to 64 kilograms. The researchers dubbed these plastic masses “polybezoars” to distinguish them from naturally occurring hair and plant fiber bezoars.
As dromedaries roam the desert looking for food, they munch on plastic bags and other trash that drift into trees and pile up along roadsides. “From the camel’s perspective … if it’s not sand, it’s food,” Eriksen says.
With a stomach full of plastic, camels don’t eat because they don’t feel hungry, and they starve to death. Plastic can also leach toxins and introduce bacteria that poison the one-humped mammals, Wernery says.
“If 1 percent mortality due to plastic is verified by future and more detailed studies, then plastic pollution will certainly represent a reason of concern for [camels],” says Luca Nizzetto, an environmental scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research in Oslo, who was not involved with the research. “These types of studies are relevant to raise social awareness about this pollution.”
Banning plastic bags and single-use plastics is crucial for protecting camels and other wildlife, Eriksen says. “Plastic bags are escape artists. They blow out of garbage cans, out of landfills, out of trucks and out of people’s hands. They travel for hundreds of miles.”