As It Happens

'It's a slow death': Camels are dying with masses of plastic in their bellies, study finds

The first time Marcus Eriksen saw a massive ball of plastic lodged in the remains of a camel, he was stunned.

The plastic clumps, called polybezoars, are responsible for 1% of camel deaths in U.A.E., researchers say

Camels feast on garbage in the desert outside Dubai. (Submitted by Marcus Eriksen)

The first time Marcus Eriksen saw a massive ball of plastic lodged in the remains of a camel, he was stunned.

The California environmental scientist was studying the effects of plastic pollution in the Gulf of Arabia when he met a veterinary microbiologist named Ulrich Wernery in the United Arab Emirates.

"He said, 'If you want to see impacts of plastics, come with me,'" Eriksen told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Wernery then led him 100 kilometres into the desert outside Dubai to a pile of sun-bleached camel bones.

"He pulls out two ribs, hands one to me and says, 'Start digging.' So we're digging inside this camel's chest. I'm thinking, this is the most surreal thing in the world," Eriksen said.

"And then after a few minutes, we pulled out this mass of tangled plastic bags and rope about as big as a large suitcase, and my jaw dropped."

A mound of plastic called a polybezoar sits in the sand in the the remains of a camel. (Submitted by Marcus Eriksen)

The pair have since documented the effect of plastic pollution on camels. Their findings will be published in the February 2021 edition of the Journal of Arid Environments.

While this type of thing has been well-documented in seabirds and marine life, Eriksen says the study found it's "much more common than you would think" for the desert creatures too. 

Suitcase-sized polybezoars

The study looked at 30,000 dead camels that Wernery and his team have collected at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai since 2008. Of those, 300 had plastic masses in their bellies.

"They range from the size of a basketball to roughly a large suitcase," Eriksen said.

"I've got five of these in my garage. One of them weighs about 80 kilograms. It's massive, a lot of ropes and plastic bags. I've got one that's … as big as my torso, like a giant potato. I cut it in half, and through and through, it's only plastic bags. Between, I'd say, between 2,500 and 3,000 plastic bags, all compressed."

The polybezoars found in the guts of dead camels range from 'the size of a basketball to roughly a large suitcase,' says environmental scientist Marcus Eriksen. (Journal of Arid Environments)

Eriksen says it's normal for camels to have masses in their guts called bezoars made up of the non-foodstuff they gobble up by accident — things like hair and plant fibres.

They've dubbed these new plastic masses "polybezoars."

"These polybezoars, they're a new feature in camel biology," he said.

And they're a deadly one. The study estimates the polybezoars are responsible for one per cent of camel deaths in the U.A.E.

"Think of the camels, what they know. All they know in the desert [is] if it's not sand, it's food," Eriksen said. "If they see a plastic bag stuck in a tree … or stuck against a fence, they might think, 'Oh, that's a novel piece of food,' and they'll consume it."

It's even more enticing if the plastic has traces of leftover food on it, he said.

"But I should also say they also eat it because it's just abundant," Eriksen added. "Plastic bags are like the great escape artists. They fly out of the best containment systems that our waste management systems have available on the planet. They blow out of landfills, out of trucks, out of garbage cans. They're extremely difficult to contain."

Eriksen is an environmental scientist with the Gyres Institute, which studies plastic pollution. (Submitted by Marcus Eriksen)

The study posits plastic consumption kills the camels in three different ways: causing intestinal blockages, creating lacerations inside their stomachs, or creating a toxic environment as bacteria grows in the plastic folds.

"It's a slow death," Eriksen said. 

"Imagine if you had five plastic bags crushed up in your body, and maybe a dozen bottle caps and a few straws, and it stayed there for years. I mean, you would suffer until you'd ultimately perish from that ingested trash. And that's what the camels are experiencing."

Still, he holds out hope for the future. 

While there's been a major uptick in single-use plastics over the past decade, Eriksen says there's also been a growing awareness of their harmful side-effects, and worldwide legislation to combat it.

Canada's federal government has vowed to ban single-use plastics in 2021.

"I've been on this issue for 20 years. I'm pretty excited seeing all the innovation that's transforming the world of packaging and getting us off that single-use plastic habit," Eriksen said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Matt Meuse. 

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