Australia’s commercial kangaroo industry: hopping to nowhere

An average of three million kangaroos are killed per year for pet meat, meat for human consumption and hides. DarthShrine/Flickr

Australia’s commercial kangaroo industry is the world’s largest consumptive mammalian wildlife industry. Calculated on a ten-year period, an average of three million adult kangaroos are killed each year in the rangelands for pet meat, meat for human consumption and hides. But pressures on the industry may well see its collapse.

For example, despite years of negotiations, Russia is still refusing to lift its ban on Australia’s kangaroo meat. Russia once accounted for 70% of exports from the commercial kangaroo industry. But in August 2009, the country banned imports of kangaroo meat from Australia due to hygiene concerns, citing high levels of E. coli and salmonella. Despite the Australian Government investing at least $400,000 to address these issues, Russia remains unconvinced about food safety. The ban may be here to stay.

Another lucrative kangaroo product is leather, used for soccer shoes and other high value products. Adidas, a leading supplier of sport shoes, has also banned kangaroo leather due to concerns for the welfare of dependent young kangaroos killed or abandoned as a result of the commercial kill.

These bans do not bode well. A representative from the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia was recently reported saying: “I think we are starting to have to seriously consider the end of the kangaroo industry nationally.”

But how did we end up here? And where can we go?

European and colonial contact with kangaroos

In 1770, Captain James Cook described the kangaroo as being like a mouse in colour, a greyhound in size and shape but a hare or deer in locomotion. Europeans killed kangaroos initially as a food source for the colonies and then later for recreation. However, in the 1800s pastoralists increasingly saw kangaroos and other marsupials as “pests” that needed to be killed.

By the 1880s, all of the states of eastern Australia had introduced legislation for the destruction of kangaroos and wallabies. For example, NSW’s Pasture and Stock Protection Act 1880 declared kangaroos and wallabies to be vermin and bounties were offered for their heads. As a result, a massive number of these animals were killed.

From 1883 to 1920, NSW killed around 3 million bettongs and potoroos (Potoroids). Three of these species are now extinct (possibly due in part to the introduction of the red fox). Although all macropods are now protected species, the long shadow of these efforts at extermination are still felt today.

Concern for kangaroos

Scientific study of kangaroos developed during the 20th century, resulting in an increased interest in their conservation. In 1969, CSIRO researcher John Calaby argued that the red kangaroo had become endangered due to “uncontrolled meat hunting and drought”. In 1974, the United States Government banned the import of kangaroo products.

In response, the Commonwealth Government banned the export of kangaroo products and took some power over the industry from the state governments. The Commonwealth’s ban was later lifted and a regulatory system with quotas was put in place. This still operates today.

The Australian government carefully regulates the export of kangaroo meat. jazzijava/Flickr

Pest status

From its earliest beginnings, the kangaroo industry has relied upon popular perceptions of kangaroos as “pests”, particularly in rural communities. Even today it is frequently argued that kangaroo populations must be reduced. Common reasons cited are that they compete with livestock for resources in the rangelands and that their numbers have increased because of the installation of artificial waterholes.

However, the programs of management have not correlated with increased pastoral productivity, and long-term observations in north-western NSW indicate that kangaroos and livestock only compete when pasture is drought-affected. Kangaroos and livestock have different foraging styles that generally lead to the two groups being ecologically separate.

The red kangaroo, which is the most abundant rangeland species, does not show water-focused grazing as livestock do.

The latest economic assessment found that kangaroos cost pastoralists around $44 million a year. The cost to graziers was estimated at $15.5 million. The cost to crop farmers was estimated to be $11.9 million and fencing damage was estimated at $16.7 million.

This assessment did not take account of any of the benefits of having kangaroos in the landscape. Indeed, kangaroos have 16 million years of evolutionary history in the Australian landscape and may contribute to its well being.

Where to from here

If the commercial kangaroo industry collapsed tomorrow, it appears likely that some landowners may take matters into their own hands and shoot kangaroos non-commercially. Such an occurrence may present a risk to the conservation of kangaroos and to their welfare. Research by the RSPCA found that there is a far higher degree of cruelty in non-commercial killing than in commercial killing. Issues arise around the decreased accuracy of shooting by farm personnel.

It is time for the federal and state governments to reassess kangaroo management. The industry has been based upon erroneous underpinnings, portraying kangaroos as “pests” without any clear justification. Landowners may need options in the cases where kangaroos are reducing the productivity of their properties. But shooting kangaroos does not need to be the first response.

One option being trialled in other countries are insurance policies whereby pastoralists are able to insure against damage caused by a particular wild species and receive payments when damage occurs. Another approach is for landholders to benefit from wildlife via ecotourism. Perhaps it is time for Australia to consider such approaches and take pride in our kangaroos.

This article is partly based upon Keely Boom et al, ‘'Pest’ and resource: A legal history of Australia’s kangaroos' (2012) 1(1) Animal Studies Journal 17-40.