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Plastic left by campers in UAE’s deserts is killing camels: Vet researcher

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Campers and picnickers escaping the city and heading into the desert are leaving behind plastic pollution, which is killing scores of camels in deserts across the United Arab Emirates, according to a leading veterinary researcher.

Dr Ulrich Wernery, a veterinary microbiologist in Dubai and head of the emirate’s Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, said many camels have died due to the ingestion of plastic that has amassed over time in their digestive tracts.

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“There is a number of animal fatalities - not only in camels, but also turtles, gazelles and in sheep - caused by plastic ingestion,” Dr Wernery told Al Arabia English. “It is far from good.”

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic there is even more trash discarded in the desert, in our experience, as more people try to avoid the city - especially at weekend - and go in the desert for caping or bbq-ing and you see places that I cannot describe.

“It is so bad.”

While campers and picnickers leave trash in the desert, due to high winds and the open environment, plastic bags and other plastic pollution can also blow into the desert from landfills.

As the dromedaries roam the desert, they munch on plastic bags, other trash, and plastic pollution that has drifted into sand dunes or into trees.

Dr Ulrich Wernery, a veterinary microbiologist in Dubai and head of the emirate’s Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, said many camels have died due to the ingestion of plastic that has amassed over time in their digestive tracts.(Stock photo)
Dr Ulrich Wernery, a veterinary microbiologist in Dubai and head of the emirate’s Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, said many camels have died due to the ingestion of plastic that has amassed over time in their digestive tracts.(Stock photo)

Single use plastics, such as plastic bags, often wind up in camel stomachs, which kills the dromedaries slowly by blocking their intestines, tearing at organs, and creating bacterial infections.

Absorbing plastic can also lead to ulcers which causes tremendous discomfort for the desert animal. Also, since they are forced to feel constantly full, they end up not eating enough food and this can cause intestinal bleeding, blockages, dehydration, malnutrition and death, said the veterinary specialist.

Dr Wernery led a research team into the cause of camel deaths in the region for a study, ‘The plight of camels eating plastic waste,’ which was published in the Journal of Arid Environments earlier this year.

Since 2008, Wernery’s team has examined 3,000 dead camels. Of these, one per cent – or 300 camels - had guts packed with plastic.

These camels had a ‘polybezoar’ type of ingestion – a term used to define a tightly packed collection of indigestible materials such as plastics that is strapped in the stomach or digestive tract, causing a large stone-like mass.

During their studies, the team found a camel which had upwards of 200 plastic bags packed into its stomach.

Plastic, warns Dr Wernery, is a not a problem limited to the ocean.

Banning plastic bags and other single-use plastics is essential for preserving the specials and other animals, he said.

“The UAE has to ban single use plastic bags as the first step. It is so important.”

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