Cute baby seals and kangaroo pests

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

kangaroo culling

An essay by Voiceless Council member, Dr Deidre Wicks.

While Australians and others throughout the world are protesting against the vile Canadian seal hunt now taking place, the never- ending, but largely hidden slaughter of our own native iconic animal, the kangaroo, goes on unabated and largely ignored. It is the slaughter we don’t want to know about, the slaughter we turn away from, the slaughter that is just ‘too hard’ for us to deal with. In an earlier essay, I argued that silence around animal harm is an essential feature of all industries based on the exploitation of animals. This is certainly true of the mass slaughter of kangaroos, which generally takes place away from heavily populated areas and under cover of darkness. In this, it is similar to the Canadian seal hunt which takes place in isolated areas not accessible to most people. In the latter case, the work of international photographers and film crew, who broadcast the images of blood splattered seal pups world-wide, changed this silence forever.  

There is much more that these wildlife slaughters have in common, despite being a world apart. The Canadian harp seal hunt is the largest annual slaughter of sea animals on earth. More than 2 million have been killed in the last 10 years. Despite these numbers, sealing accounts for less than .00005% of Canada’s GDP. Past anti-hunt campaigns have been successful in driving down the price and the worldwide demand for harp seal products. The Canadian government, however, continues to allow a high number of seals to be killed to please fishers, who regard seals as ‘pests’ and Newfoundlanders who are electorally important. Indeed, without government subsidies, including the work of the coastguard in carving paths through the ice for the sealing boats, the commercial seal slaughter would not survive1.  

If Canada can claim the largest slaughter of sea animals, Australia, is in the same category by allowing the largest commercial slaughter of land based wildlife on the planet; the annual slaughter of our kangaroos. In the last 20 years, almost 90 million kangaroos and wallabies have been lawfully killed for commercial purposes2. This figure does not tell the story of the large numbers of illegal kills which take place on farms and properties throughout the year. Nor does it tell the story of the pain and suffering endured by individual injured and dying animals, including joeys, who suffer unimaginable agonies in the course of this ongoing persecution. In 2012 the Australian government will allow up to 5.2 million kangaroos and wallabies to be commercially hunted3. While this industry is worth millions to the participants, its contribution to Australia’s GDP is miniscule. Similarly, commercial kangaroo shooters make up a small proportion of the rural workforce, but successive governments have had a wider constituency to please, that of  farming populations who regard the native kangaroos as ‘pests’.

Too Many of Them?

Australian farmers and graziers have been very successful in convincing a large proportion of the Australian public that there are ‘too many’ kangaroos and that they are pests that have to be eradicated. In fact when Europeans landed here in 1788, there were 48 different species of the macropod family (to which kangaroos and wallabies belong). Since then 7 have become extinct and 4 more are endangered4. In the past, much of the killing was based on the belief that kangaroos compete with sheep and cattle for grass.  In 2001, Professor Gordon Grigg co-author of the ‘Commercial Harvesting of Kangaroos in Australia’ made an astonishing revision after extensive research. He has stated that the damage caused by kangaroos on grazing lands has been overestimated by up to 500%5. This research has been largely ignored by the government, media and scientific community. Why has this happened? And why, given the scientific evidence concerning the lack of damage caused by kangaroos and wallabies, are they being killed in ever increasing numbers? The reason is that there is now a lucrative financial incentive to keep killing kangaroos and selling their skins and flesh. In addition to being a ‘pest’, they are now a ‘resource’. This change in labelling is connected to the growing perception that kangaroos can be a sustainable food source and that they can eventually replace sheep, reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions as kangaroos do not emit methane.

Kangaroos: Clean, Green and Sustainable Food?

Whereas, the majority of Canada’s population do not agree with the annual seal hunt, this view of kangaroos as a ‘sustainable resource’ and as a ‘lean and green’ food, has influenced many in Australia to see kangaroo ‘harvesting’ as a good thing. While some people don’t care what they eat as long as it tastes good, many other thoughtful Australians have been convinced that the choice to eat kangaroo is an ethical one. In this, many have been influenced by the writings of respected Australian scientist, Tim Flannery, a well-known advocate of kangaroo consumption6. Flannery  has written the introduction to the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia’s  (KIAA) website, where he puts the case that introduced European species have caused huge damage to our grazing lands and that utilising native animals has the potential to deliver great environmental benefits.  While this may sound like a reasonable position to take, there are at least three serious problems with it.

Kangaroos Instead of Sheep?

The first concerns the underlying assumption that if the economic value of kangaroo products were to increase, graziers would be able to reduce sheep numbers while maintaining commercial return through the killing and selling of kangaroos. This concept of ‘sheep replacement’ has been a strategy for over 20 years, yet to date, no sheep replacement has occurred7. Even during periods when sheep numbers decreased substantially due to market forces, there was no corresponding rise in kangaroo numbers. Given that much grazing is economically marginal, and that there is little competition between sheep and kangaroos, isn’t it far more likely that landholders would make a pragmatic commercial decision to add another income source (Kangaroos) rather than remove one and replace it with another?  Let us look at the practicalities of the issue in relation to the scale of meat replacement.  To replace one sheep for the human consumption market, some 22 adult kangaroos need to be killed if only prime cuts are used or around three adult kangaroos if all the meat on the body was acceptable (unlikely). To drill this down even further, if every Australian ate one portion (0.25kg) of kangaroo meat per week from animals providing a yield of 12 kg of acceptable meat per carcass, a total of 437,5000 kangaroos would need to be shot per week, or over 22 million per year. Assuming an average kill of 15%, the total population of kangaroos in Australia would need to be around 151 million in order to sustain the numbers killed. This is about 5.6 times the average number of kangaroos over any 30 year period8. At no time in Australia’s known history have the four main species who are the mainstays of the commercial industry existed in anywhere like these numbers. Given that most landholders still hold on to the view of kangaroos as ‘pests’, is it realistic to imagine vested interests in  Australia allowing 151 million kangaroos the run of the place?

Effects of Killing on Kangaroo Populations

The second problem with the ‘clean, green and sustainable’ scenario is that there is insufficient data on the effect of killing on kangaroo populations. Because words like ‘population explosion’, ‘pests’ and ‘plague’ have become such a part of the general, popular consciousness, few question the negative effects of the constant killing of kangaroos in vulnerable populations, especially during droughts. Other concerns include: the impact of killing the biggest and strongest alpha males on genetic diversity, the demographic composition within populations and the reliance on migration to re-populate zones where there has been over-killing.  Supposedly, kangaroo numbers are protected by the national quota which is set up by the Commonwealth Government and represents the numbers of kangaroos which can be killed while leaving behind a sustainable population. Often, Industry advocates will point to the fact that the quota is never actually met as a sign that the level of killing must be sustainable. This fails to recognise that the quota is often met and sometimes exceeded in the smaller zones. For example, the quotas for eastern grey kangaroos in the Upper Hunter in NSW, and for red kangaroos in Bourke, NSW were exceeded in 2006. In addition, the quota numbers do not take into account the extensive non-commercial killing, the later deaths of wounded animals and the deaths of young joeys9.  Together with other stresses on wildlife, this could lead to population crashes of certain species in certain areas. These are serious issues which should call into question the concept and word ‘sustainability’, which is thrown together with the killing of kangaroos at every opportunity.

Animal Welfare

The third problem and the one so often ignored by the wider environmental movement is that of the ethics of kangaroo killing as it relates to animal welfare. Whenever this issue is raised, the standard response from industry and governments is that kangaroo shooting is conducted according to the national Codes of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos, which were introduced in 1985. As Glenys Oogjes has pointed out, any reasonable person would think that this means that Codes of Practice exist to ensure a standard level of acceptable treatment for kangaroos across Australia10. The general public would be shocked to learn that this is not the case. In fact Codes of Practice have been drawn up with input from the industries involved and so generally describe the most common methods used in that industry.  An example of this can be seen in the wording of the Codes in relation to wounded kangaroos. It states; “In circumstances where, for dispatch of a wounded kangaroo, a shot to either the brain or heart is impractical or unsafe, a very heavy blow to the rear of the skull to destroy the brain is permissable. To ensure a humane kill, a suitably hard and heavy blunt instrument must be used (e.g., metal pipe, billet of wood etc., carried for this purpose).” This hardly reads as a guide for humane and compassionate treatment of an animal and if it was applied to a domestic pet would likely result in prosecution. This and other concessions to current practice illustrate that the Codes are more descriptive rather than proscriptive and that the term ‘humane’ is designed to give reassurance to human consumers rather than protection for the animals.

There is, however, a wider problem with the Codes and that is non-compliance.  It is impossible to measure and enforce at the point of kill (in the wild and at night) where most cruelty occurs and where there is no monitoring and policing. We know, for instance, that non-fatal body shots are an unavoidable part of the industry, causing painful and disabling injuries. Field and chiller data suggests that anywhere from 120,000 to over one million kangaroos are miss-shot annually. Lack of industry monitoring makes it difficult to establish more accurate figures11. A former commercial kangaroo shooter has described some of the injuries: ‘The mouth of the kangaroo can be blown off and the kangaroo can escape to die of shock and starvation. Forearms can be blow off, as can ears, eyes and noses. Backbones can be pulverised to an unrecognisable state etc. Hind legs can be shattered with the kangaroo desperately trying to get away on the other or without the use of either. To deny that this goes on is just an exercise in attempting to fool the public’.  

Another serious welfare concern is the incidental death of tens of thousands of joeys each year.  Under the Codes of Practice, shooters ‘euthanase’ the joeys by either a forceful blow to the head, a forceful blow to the base of the skull or a single shot to the brain or heart, depending on its size and stage of development. Dependent joeys who are not caught and killed die as a result of starvation, neglect and exposure. A long-term average of 800,000 dependent young suffer an inhumane death each year12.

These facts, along with the well documented problems with hygiene, ought to raise serious doubts concerning the ‘clean, green’ claims being made for this degrading industry.  We, the settlers of this land, along with its original inhabitants, inherited a priceless treasury of unique flora and fauna. We thought so much of the kangaroo that we included it on our national Coat of Arms. Perhaps while writing our letters of protest to the Canadian government about the seal hunt we might occasionally glance at our Coat of Arms and at our long suffering icon and consider our own cruelty. It is probably time to decide what sort of a people we want to become. Do we treat our national icon with respect and work to encourage new forms of eco-tourism where we can proudly show off our natural wonders? Or do we continue to slaughter our wildlife, in which case we should be honest and replace our Coat of Arms with the image of a hunter with a high powered rifle on one side and a spotlight encrusted four-wheel drive on the other? Which people do we want to be?

  • 1. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (2012) Seal Hunt, date accessed 22 April 2012 <http://www.seashepherd.org/seals/seal-hunt-facts.html> and Harpseals.org (2012) Update on the 2012 Seal ‘Hunt’, date accessed 22 April 2012 <http://www.harpseals.org/index.php>
  • 2. Voiceless (2012) Kangaroos, date accessed 23 April 2012 < www.voiceless.org.au/the-issues/kangaroos>
  • 3. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012) Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Quotas in 2012, date accessed 28 May 2012 <http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/wildlife-trade/wild-harvest/k...
  • 4. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012) EPBC Act List of Threatened Fauna, date accessed 30 May 2012 <http://www.environment.gov.au/cgibin/sprat/public/publicthreatenedlist.p...
  • 5. Maryland Wilson (2002) Submission from the Australian Wildlife Protection Council, Australian Wildlife Protection Council, date accessed 23 April 2012 <www.awpc.org.au/submissions/submission9.htm>
  • 6. While I also hold respect for much of the work of Tim Flannery, I find many of his statements concerning the eating of wildlife problematic. For example, in his 2002 book, The Future Eaters, he comments; ‘….is it more moral to kill and consume a whale, without cost to the environment, than to live as a vegetarian in Australia, destroying seven kilograms of irreplaceable soil,…. for each kilogram of bread we consume?’ (pp.402-403). Where is the evidence that vegetarians eat more bread than meat eaters? This also ignores the approx. 4 million tonnes of grain that we supplement feed to ruminant grazing animals each year in Australia, plus 2 million tons of cereal to dairy cattle. In addition, his support for agriculture being exempt from greenhouse gas emission counts, leads me to question the scientific basis of this aspect of his work, which appears more ideological than rational.
  • 7. Dror Ben-Ami et al, Advocating Kangaroo Meat: Towards Ecological Benefit or Plunder? THINKK publication, p.5
  • 8. Ibid p.11
  • 9. Keely Boom and Dror Ben-Ami, Shooting our wildlife: An analysis of the law and policy governing the killing of kangaroos. THINKK publication, p.32
  • 10. Glenys Oogjes (2005) ‘Band-Aid’ Code Will Not Stop Joey Cruelty – Only an End to the Practices Can Do That. In Kangaroos Myths and Realities, Maryland Wilson and David Croft (eds), The Australian Wildlife Protection Council Inc., pp108-111.
  • 11. Voiceless (2012) Kangaroos, date accessed 23 April 2012 < www.voiceless.org.au/the-issues/kangaroos>
  • 12. David B Croft (2005) Kangaroos Maligned – 16 Million Years of Evolution and Two Centuries of Persecution. In Kangaroos Myths and Realities, Maryland Wilson and David Croft (eds), The Australian Wildlife Protection Council Inc., pp17-31.