Kangaroos: pest, emblem or delicious?

Six months have flown past and I am still yet to understand how anyone accomplishes anything when they have a full time job. While I find myself with spare time between work and trying ever so unsuccessfully to publish the remainder of my thesis, I would like to discuss something that has always been a hot topic of disagreement, but also intense anger, both from Australians and non-Australians. I have seen the topic of culling and use (particularly consumption) of eastern grey kangaroos creep back into mainstream media in the past few weeks, so I would like to discuss it from a scientific point of view, as well as an ethics point of view.

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My heading may have been written in jest, but this is a serious issue that has always been interesting to me. Coming from Canberra, I am well aware of the capacity for eastern grey kangaroos (hereafter referred to as kangaroos) to reach plague proportions within areas providing ample resources; primarily grasslands and water. I am also well aware of many of the problems arising from an overpopulation of kangaroos, and the damage they can do to habitats, ecosystems, threatened species and human safety.  There is no shortage of scientific literature outlining concerns and consequences of kangaroo overpopulation, grazing implications and general population studies, while there seem to be few peer reviewed publications directly addressing culling. There are, however, plenty of opinion pieces, news articles and scientific communication articles on culling, alongside the dilemmas of eating kangaroos, as well as farming them for ecological and sustainability reasons – this will add to the category of scientific communications/opinion pieces.

Kangaroo overpopulation:

Why does kangaroo overpopulation becomes such an issue? particularly concentrating in areas such as the ACT, while they have dedicated conservation groups in parts of south east Queensland?  The capacity for kangaroos to overpopulate areas with large areas of grassland is concurrent with the extent of rural and regional landscapes, which more often than not, comprise large amounts of clearing, replacing habitat such as forests (which are not necessarily suitable for kangaroos) with large areas of grassland, particularly those which are modified to include highly palatable flora. These regional areas also often provide easily accessible, plentiful water sources with dam and reservoir construction on many properties. Combine this with scattered trees, which provide shelter, and we create the perfect combination of resource requirements to entice and support kangaroo communities. Grassland habitat throughout ACT, as well as other areas of previously native grassland (such as those located to the north and west of Melbourne, for example) are ideal for the explosion of already existing kangaroo populations. Compare this to the forested landscapes of south east Queensland, somewhat restricted by the presence of mountains to the west, where forest is retained over grassland. In these areas where kangaroo presence is supported by ample resources, and is not subject to intensive residential development, kangaroo numbers increase, which ultimately puts them in close contact with humans.

When kangaroo populations reach this point, questions begin to arise about the sustainability of these populations, and their impact on natural areas, residents and other species. Sometimes these situations are confounded by circumstances accompanying human development, which is often where the culling comes in. An excellent example of this is the ‘defense land kangaroo cull’ which occurred literally over my back fence while I lived in Canberra in 2008. In this particular circumstance, kangaroos had been (accidentally, I presume) fenced into federally-owned defense land in north Canberra, where they had bred and become overpopulated. Furthermore, they were occupying a patch of high-quality native grassland which was home to a number of threatened flora and fauna, including EPBC Act listed grassland earless dragons and golden sun moths, which would not survive if the high kangaroo numbers persisted.

Releasing the kangaroos seemed to be a straightforward solution; however, the situation was complicated by a number of other concerns. There was already a concern of overpopulation within the ACT, but further to this, these kangaroos had inbred for about 20 years – meaning they may have developed potentially dangerous genetic mutations which could spread to other local populations. The release of the kangaroos also threatened increase road kill rates, with high collision rates already a concern within the area due to the numerous high speed (80 km/h) roads. The situation had been investigated by a number of ecologists from multiple academic bodies, including the University of Canberra and the Australian National University; they generally agreed that a cull was the best option, both for residents and wildlife (personal communications, 2008).

Needless to say, tensions erupted between advocates of the cull, and anti-cull conservation and animal rights groups, including the RSPCA. I still remember the banners that went up all over the place blaming the government for the “needless slaughter”. The cull eventually went ahead, as have many more since, which continue to make headlines, sometimes internationally.

So are kangaroo culls necessary?

I see it most often on social media these days, people boiling over with anger (and aggression) at people who advocate kangaroo culls, or the consumption/use of kangaroos. There is no black and white answer when it comes to managing overpopulated species, particularly when those species are native (and national emblems, no less). The culling of animals in general is bound to upset a lot of people, and rightfully so, but is there an alternative? I have my own opinions, which can be summed up in one word: maybe. In the case of the defense land scenario, I personally believe the cull was the right call; an opinion I formed in studying the overgrazing of native grasslands and threatened grassland fauna, under some of the best population ecologists in Australia. My viewpoints on this, although founded firmly within a scientific/academic context, are not necessarily right for every circumstance– but consideration must be given to how we, as humans, facilitate the spread of kangaroo populations, and how they terminally affect other species. The destruction of habitat, replaced with modified grasslands, and the provision of permanent water resources are two of the driving forces behind the kangaroo overpopulation, and the simple answer is that it cannot continue without serious repercussions. The real answer lies in addressing our massive landscape impacts and how we can regulate our own behaviour to reduce overpopulation in the first place.

Not just a flagship species – a national emblem

Of course, this whole discussion borders on the bizarre in the eyes of many international countries due to the kangaroo being displayed prominently on our coat of arms, as a national fauna emblem. This has occurred most notably the United States, who voiced their distaste for the destruction and use of kangaroos previously by banning kangaroo products being imported. It seems to be a trait of Australian culture to devour our faunal emblems (although don’t eat a koala, you could be in big trouble). This in itself is one of the primary reasons why kangaroo culls make big news; something which is addressed in many scientific communications and opinion pieces. Perhaps if kangaroos were not seen as flagship species for Australian culture, their control might not be headline-worthy, but more aligned with the acceptable cull of rabbits and foxes.

What about kangaroos as food?

Naturally, a synonymous topic is the use of kangaroos as food. As far as I am aware, culled kangaroos are used for meat or hide, reducing the needless waste of life resulting from our aggressive landscape alteration to kangaroo ‘Elysian Fields’. There is an increasing presence of kangaroo meat in supermarkets; you can find steaks, mince, sausages and even gourmet dog food often advertises kangaroo meat as a prime ingredient. Kangaroo meat is better for you, touting a fat content similar to chicken breast and exceeding the typical benefits of other red meat. What is most important to me, however, is the ecologically sustainable side of farming kangaroo over beef or lamb, something a lot of people seem unaware of.

Historically, Australia has been scarred by widespread farming practices including intensive livestock grazing; primarily sheep and cattle. There are a number of concerns associated with livestock farming, not taking into account the density at which it is farmed, which of course also matters. Sheep and cattle are ungulates (hooved animals); a group of animals within which Australia has no native members. Ungulates inflict a terrible strain on Australian habitat, compacting soil, destroying native vegetation and increasing erosion, because our ecosystems are not used to them. The farming and consumption of kangaroos within Australia, in this context, makes far more sense than farming sheep and cattle, as their natural occurrence within our ecosystems has encouraged a natural resilience to their presence, and in some cases, they encourage growth of natural habitats.  But will it ever become a nationally/internationally acceptable thing to eat a national emblem? I hope so, for the environment’s sake.

Of course, vegetarian and vegan conservationists will, without a doubt, mention that we do not need meat to survive, and that all of this is just side-lining a more important topic of overconsumption of meat, and the associated loss of animal life. In a way, they are right, but the likelihood of Australia ever becoming a vegetarian nation is not high. Therefore, we need to consider how we can reduce meat consumption, while the meat we do consume is harvested ethically, and with the least possible ecological impacts. I often consider whether I could become vegetarian, but my already very restricted dietary requirements prevent me from ever really being able to live healthily on a meat free diet.  This is a good example of why we can’t all transition to becoming a completely vegetarian society. In this case, I think it is critical to consider every meat product you buy, not just ethically (always free range, low cruelty, sustainable, local meat), but with our natural environment in mind. I personally believe, and there is a great deal of evidence to support the idea, that we should be transitioning away from seriously damaging farming practices and encouraging the consumption of native, plentiful and low carbon-demand animals such as kangaroo, wallaby, emu and crocodile. Our highly sensitive and seriously unique environment cannot sustain current farming practices any more than it can sustain high populations of kangaroos (or any other animal). It is my hope, however, that one day we will mediate our development and farming practices to prevent the overpopulation of kangaroos, and significantly reduce (or remove) the need for culling practices in Australia.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Dr Mel

Photo credit: artoftea.com.au

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