Food fight – Aboriginal elders take on the kangaroo industry

Indigenous people traditionally eat kangaroo, but they’re worried about the scale of the hunting. AAP

Last month, an alliance of Aboriginal elders announced their intention to bring a constitutional law challenge against Australia’s kangaroo industry.

The announcement follows efforts by the Federal Government to export kangaroo meat to China and Russia.

If eating kangaroos is good for Australia, why oppose it?

The Australian Alliance for Native Animals Survival (AAFNAS) has written letters to the Chinese and Russian governments expressing their strong opposition to the proposed export of kangaroo meat to those countries.

So why would Aboriginal elders oppose the kangaroo industry and the export of kangaroo meat? After all, Aboriginal Australians have been eating kangaroos for thousands of years.

Moreover, the introduction of cattle and sheep for meat has caused irreparable damage to the Australian landscape. Wouldn’t it would be a good thing if we all started eating kangaroos?

The AAFNAS sees things differently.

Uncle Eric Craigie, president of the AAFNAS, was quoted in the Fairfax media saying:

“We have harvested animals but we have only ever taken what we needed. We are not into mass slaughter.”

Uncle Eric – whose personal totem is the kangaroo – has pointed out that until now Aboriginal people have always focused on land rights. But Aboriginal people “have never ever spoken up for the animals in this country”.

AAFNAS is changing that. It has established itself as “a group of First Peoples with representatives from all over Australia”. AAFNAS is “an independent community-based educational association that … advocates for animals and cares for country”.

Too many, and too much cruelty

So what’s the big deal over the kangaroo industry?

The industry represents the largest commercial slaughter of land-based wildlife in the world, with around 3 million adult kangaroos and 855,000 joeys killed every year.

By contrast, Aboriginal people only killed kangaroos on a subsistence basis for their family and tribe.

The kangaroos are wild (not farmed) and are hunted at night by professional, licensed shooters in remote parts of Australia’s rangelands.

The industry is regulated by a National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos (Commercial Purposes) - known as the “Code”. Yet there is virtually no monitoring of killing in the field.

Given the field conditions of the killing – it happens in extremely remote locations – it would be virtually impossible to do so.

The Code itself legalises cruelty to kangaroos, particularly with regard to joeys. The Code treats them as a waste product of the industry.

If a female kangaroo is killed, the shooter is required to kill any dependent young. This may include pouch young and young “at foot”. Both are dependent on their mother for survival.

The Code’s recommended method for killing furred pouch young is euthanasia by a single “forceful blow to the base of the skull sufficient to destroy the functional capacity of the brain”.

Shooters are legally able to crush the heads of joeys with a steel water pipe or even the towbar of a vehicle. Such practices would be considered clear breaches of anti-cruelty laws if committed against a range of other animals.

The Australian Wildlife Protection Council has compared the cruelty suffered by these joeys to that experienced by Canadian harp seals and by whales.

Australia has condemned the cruelty inflicted upon whales by the whaling industry, yet has failed to critically examine the cruelty inflicted by its own kangaroo industry.

Concerns about cleanliness

In spite of this cruelty, Australia is trying to export kangaroo meat into Russia and China, lured by the attraction of growing markets and, of course, profits.

Russia previously bought 70% of all kangaroo meat exported from Australia yet suspended imports in August 2009. Russia cited dangerous levels of salmonella and E. coli in kangaroo meat.

Former NSW chief food inspector, Desmond Sibraa, blamed a lack of industry care in adhering to Australian standards:

“There is a big difference between animals slaughtered in an abattoir with an inspector present, and a kangaroo shot in the bush with dust and blowflies.”

The industry itself has shrunk considerably over the past few years. In 2005, the kangaroo industry estimated its worth to the Australian economy at $200 million, providing approximately 4000 jobs.

However, recent, low revenues of $50 million for 2008/2009 (for meat, pet food and skins) suggest that this estimate is currently over-valued.

It is not yet clear on what grounds the AAFNAS will challenge the kangaroo industry. However they are likely to draw upon the fact that Australian governments have failed to consult Aboriginal people about what happens to kangaroos.

Further reading