In the drought-affected dustbowl of inland Australia, the kangaroos are starving. Just five years ago, the annual aerial survey of the four largest kangaroo species, conducted to assess their abundance for commercial harvest, put their combined population at almost 50m.
But now the rain has gone, and so has the feed. The population, as of 2018, had dropped to 42m. Big kangaroos are boom-and-bust species, breeding up when times are good and dying in equally large numbers when they are not. As drought spreads across mainland Australia, those kangaroos that are able to are descending on farms and competing with cattle and sheep for water and scraps of remaining feed.
Conflict is inevitable, and in some places made easier by government policy. In August 2018, the New South Wales government introduced new regulations to make it easier for landholders to obtain a licence to shoot kangaroos on their property, and easier for multiple shooters to operate at once. In effect, to allow shooting parties. Until last month it was easier to shoot kangaroos on private land in NSW than it was to shoot feral deer.
On top of the animals killed by farmers to protect crops and reduce competition, more than a million of those kangaroos will be professionally shot for human and animal consumption and to make leather. It is, depending who you talk to, the most sustainable and ethical meat trade in the world, or a monstrous violation of animal welfare that involves the murder of joeys. The weight of the evidence is on the former, but there are welfare concerns.
The national code of practice for the humane shooting of kangaroos and wallabies mandates kangaroos must be shot in the head, and bans shooting from vehicles or selecting a second target before the first is dead. But private shooters are not audited.
Only professional shooters, who operate under the commercial harvesting program, are scrutinised. Abattoirs will not accept their kills if it is not a headshot, so those killed inhumanely are worthless. There is no kangaroo farming in Australia: fillets seen on supermarket shelves or restaurant menus are wild-caught, killed by professional marksmen and gutted in the field.
Joeys are killed if their mother is shot, though professional shooters are not allowed to target females with obvious young. The description of that process, which was reviewed in 2014, makes for difficult reading. But for the majority of wild harvested kangaroos, life is better than for farmed animals, and death is swift.
And compared to dying slowly from the poor marksmanship of amateur shooters, illegally poisoned waterholes, or other random acts of cruelty, professional harvesting is humane.
“Of all the things that happen to kangaroos, this is the least worst,” says the RSPCA’s chief scientist, Bidda Jones.
The RSPCA has a mixed position on the commercial kangaroo trade, which allows the harvest of a set percentage of the wild population of the four largest macropods: red kangaroo, eastern grey kangaroo, western grey kangaroo, and wallaroo. The quota is determined on an annual basis with reference to the aerial population survey and is never more than 20% of the total population.
Four states – NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia – allow commercial harvest. In 2018 the quota was set at 15%, or 6.9 million kangaroos of a total 46.1 million, but the actual take was 1.5 million, or 3%.
In Victoria, where the kangaroo population is much smaller, the animals can be harvested for pet food but not human consumption. On 1 October, after a five-year trial, the state commenced a commercial kangaroo harvesting program and prohibited landowners from selling kangaroos they had shot under wildlife control licenses for pet food. The total number of kangaroos that can be killed for the remainder of this year, both for commercial and other purposes, is 14,090.
The national harvesting program was introduced as a land management tool. But the quota is set by reference to population, not to evidence of the land being under stress. The RSPCA would like the law changed so that environmental stress must be demonstrated before shooting is allowed. It has also raised concerns about the killing of joeys.
In other respects, Jones says, it is arguably more humane than industrial agriculture.
“The experience of a kangaroo before it is shot — and I think that’s really the most important aspect — is way better than that of most intensively farmed animals,” Jones says. “That is one of the reasons why people choose to eat kangaroo even if they do not eat any other meat.”
Stories of joeys being bashed on the head, the approved method of euthanasia, have fuelled international opposition. Animal welfare organisations based in Australia have run successful market campaigns in places like California arguing that kangaroo meat and leather is cruel and unclean. Some have argued that kangaroos are facing extinction.
The third is demonstrably untrue, says ecologist Euan Ritchie.
“In some parts of Australia there are kangaroos in quite high numbers, and that’s basically our fault,” Ritchie says. “When Europeans arrived, they really heavily changed the environment by clearing lots of trees. A lot more grass, lots of permanent water, and in many cases killing dingoes, which are their main predator. That means that in some areas we now have quite large kangaroo populations … there is no imminent threat of the large-bodied species being driven to extinction.”
Ritchie eats kangaroo. It is one of the healthiest red meats available: exceptionally lean, organic, very high in iron, with traceability from the point of shooting. And while he does not support increasing the commercial harvest, he says kangaroo is a more sustainable option than grazing cattle and sheep in areas that increasingly can’t support them.
But some people can’t get past the idea that kangaroos are cute. Australia is not the only country to eat its national emblem – elk is eaten in Sweden, carp in Japan – but for an increasingly urban population, it can be a hard sell.
“I have been doing the shopping in the supermarket and had people question me at the checkout about why I’m eating kangaroo,” Ritchie says. “And I say: ‘well, why do you eat lamb or veal?’ Lambs and calves are pretty cute too and people have no trouble eating those.”
It is a source of constant puzzlement to Ray Borda, who runs the largest kangaroo abattoir in Australia. “All baby animals are cute,” he says.
Macro Meats in South Australia processes between 6,000 and 8,000 kangaroos a week.
“If it’s done correctly, it’s the most humane way to take any animal in the whole world,” Borda says. “Because you are taking them in their natural environment, and you are taking them at rest, and it’s one shot to the brain and they don’t know any better. Look at how poultry is done, look at farm animals: they live just to be killed.”
It is also clean, he says. “We have guidelines and processes that are twice as stringent as beef or lamb.”
Most Australians, he says, recognise that kangaroos exist in very large numbers and “need to be managed,” but he accepts it will always be a niche product. An attempt was made, briefly, to rebrand kangaroo meat as “Australus” following a public competition run by the Kangaroo Industry Association of Association, of which Borda is now national president. It never really took off.
Instead the marketing changed to rebranding kangaroo from a cheap protein option to a premium game meat, like venison. It has also become popular among wellness gurus.
Improved meat carcass selection has also helped. Borda says that grey kangaroos, which have a “gamey” taste that Australians did not like, are now exported to Europe, while milder red kangaroo is sold locally. About 75% of the market is domestic.
“It’s never going to be everyone’s cup of tea,” says Borda. “But we don’t want to hide the fact that it is kangaroo; we are proud of it.”