Dromedary camels are hardy creatures that roam deserts like that in the United Arab Emirates, foraging for nourishment wherever they can find it. Troublingly, scientists say, the ungulates often mistake bits and pieces of plastic waste for food, which is posing a grave threat to the animals’ health.
Plastic waste has permeated the planet from the highest mountaintops to the bottom of seas. It has also penetrated even into relatively remote and sparely populated areas like the Arabian Desert. In Dubai alone out of 30,000 camels examined since 2008 as many as 300 animals are known to have succumbed to plastic pollution, say the authors of a new study.
Local vets found that the animals’ guts were packed 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 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 Marcus Eriksen, a lead author of the study who is research director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a US-based nonprofit that seeks to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.
“We hear about marine mammals, sea lions, whales, turtles and seabirds impacted, [but] this is not just an ocean issue. It’s a land issue, too. It’s everywhere,” Eriksen adds.
Deserts may seem like comparatively pristine environments as there are few people living in them, yet 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 film packaging spill out of waste bins and landfills, only to be blown by strong winds over large distances across open deserts.
“Plastic bags are escape artists,” Eriksen says. “They blow out of garbage cans, out of landfills, out of trucks and out of people’s hands. They travel for hundreds of miles.”
Once they arrive in the desert, these bits and pieces of plastic are easily mistaken for food by animals like camels in environments that offer little nourishment. The plastic waste then accumulates the stomachs of the ungulates over time, causing blockages. Camels can also end up feeling full, which cause them to starve slowly to death.
The solution lies in improved waste management and alternatives to plastic packaging for storing and deliver goods throughout the region, the researchers say.
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