By Senator Lee Rhiannon
Greens animal welfare and animal rights spokesperson
In March 2018 I was in Brussels for the European premiere of the movie, Kangaroo: a love-hate story and for meetings at the European Parliament and European Commission about kangaroos.
The Australian response to the movie and my visit to Europe from commercial kangaroo industry, by government spokespeople and sections of the media was shrill and extreme. I was described as “treacherous”, my work as “absolute insanity” and the Assistant Trade Minister said he was “furious” with my call for caution and transparency.
The government’s aggressive defence of the kangaroo industry is another case of prioritising the profit of a handful of companies above a balanced, objective approach to protecting Australian wildlife.
Many comments attributed to me were incorrect. I did not say kangaroos are about to become extinct. However, as a nation I do think it is time we had an informed conversation about the real impact the kangaroo industry is having on native wildlife only found in Australia.
One of the main assertions by backers of the kangaroo industry is that the industrial scale killing of kangaroos is no risk to a population of millions (of four species). This has become a convenient way to sidestep the potentially serious risks of contamination of kangaroo meat sold for human consumption, the suffering associated with the killing of these animals, and how we ensure the long term sustainability of these unique species.
I studied zoology and botany. I value the importance of the scientific method and my training in examining the validity of an argument and in questioning assertions made in the name of scientific truths.
Claims of kangaroos in plague numbers is an emotive statement that is not objectively valid. Kangaroos are slow growing with low reproductive rates, and it is biologically impossible for kangaroo populations to “explode” or to grow quickly. Larger kangaroo numbers in some remnant habitat areas and associated road kill does not justify current management regimes which are based on servicing commercial profits and political imperative.
I have spoken in the Senate on the need for transparent and reliable data on kangaroo population numbers. Kangaroo counts are publicly funded and the raw data and detailed survey and extrapolation methodologies should be made available to the public. There is growing concern that the current methods are flawed as continually inflated population estimates are used with the result that commercial shooting quotas are over-allocated.
Another sobering perspective is the fact that current numbers of non-indigenous herbivores represent the equivalent of nearly one billion kangaroos grazing our degraded Australian landscapes.
According to NSW Kangaroo Advisory Panel Minutes the 2016 “big population increase” in the NSW Western Plains which covers two-thirds of the state, was actually due to an increase in correction factors and changed survey methodology. The media consequently reported ‘booming’ increases of kangaroos in Western NSW throughout 2017.
However the NSW Government 2018 Quota Report records serious declines across those same western zones. From 2016 to 2017 there has been an average 50 per cent decline in Grey Kangaroos across seven of the eight Western Plains commercial shooting zones, with the Narrabri Zone suffering a 69 per cent decline. There has been a 19 per cent decline in Red Kangaroos across all eight western zones increasing to 45 per cent average decline in the five zones recording population crashes. The Lower Darling zone suffered the highest loss of Reds at 53 per cent.
In parts of Western Australia the Department of Parks and Wildlife suspended commercial shooting of kangaroos after an aerial survey identified an alarming drop in kangaroo numbers, and a major petfood processor shut operations in Western Australia in 2016 blaming “declining numbers of kangaroos”.
In 1975 Tasmania recognised its Grey Kangaroo (the Forester) as in danger of extinction with just four per cent remaining due to habitat clearing and shooting. Two thousand animals were relocated into new national parks to save them, and the population is now sitting at about ten per cent of pre-European settlement numbers.
Victoria banned commercial shooting of kangaroos in 1982 after CSIRO researchers reported kangaroo populations had been reduced to “quasi-extinct” levels of below one per square kilometre across 85 per cent of Victoria. Wallaroos, which are still commercially shot in declining numbers in the other states, are listed as Endangered in Victoria, and Red Kangaroos are now only found in the north-western part of the state. The commercial industry worked for many years to reopen up Victoria to commercial shooting where so-called “petfood trials” were extended recently in 2018 to include export of skins, which is where the major profits are made by the industry.
In 1999, Peter Barber, then Director of the Victorian State RSPCA said: “The RSPCA has steadfastly opposed the quota system and the killing of kangaroos for economic purposes. The industry has not identified that any improvements have been made since the RSPCA  report was written and, in any case, as with other self-regulated industries, proper regulation and standards cannot be guaranteed.”
My concerns also come from the impacts colonisation has had on this country and from the impacts we all continue to have. The extent of forest and woodland clearing, large scale agriculture, urban expansion, transport routes and mining are recognised as major causes of habitat loss and decline of native species.
The history is clear that the same threats apply to kangaroos, and the science is clear that continuing kangaroo persistence across our landscapes requires extensive quality habitat and feed, where animals are safe from shooting. However remnant kangaroo habitat is largely cleared, fragmented, and degraded.
Australia’s poor history in protecting our wildlife for me is a strong reason why we need to speak up now about the future of our kangaroo species.
Humans have caused populous animals to become extinct
Australia has the second highest loss of biodiversity in the world after Indonesia, and the worst mammal extinction rate on the planet. Thirty mammals only found in Australia have become extinct since Britain colonised this country. To put this in a global context, one out of three of the world’s mammal extinctions in the last 400 years have occurred in Australia.
I am not saying kangaroos are about to become extinct but there is evidence of local population declines and extinctions with survey count data showing increasing zero-counted landscapes, and shooting data suggesting continuing long-term declines. It is not unusual for state governments to suspend commercial shooting in zones because of declining populations.
A 2015 Conversation fact check article on kangaroo populations that states that there are still substantial numbers of some kangaroo species also acknowledges that “human history is littered with examples of causing the extinction of populous animals”.
The planet is undergoing its sixth mass extinction event due to over-exploitation, habitat loss and increasingly climate change. These processes continue to affect Australian wildlife including kangaroos. There are examples of species once found in their millions that have become extinct due to the impact of human activities. The Passenger Pigeon that blackened the skies in the USA in the 19th century is now extinct. One study reported a colony of 136 million birds.
Other once abundant species that are now extinct in the wild include Finsch’s Duck in New Zealand, the Monk Seal in the Caribbean and the Scimitar-horned Oryx in Central Africa.
A number of macropods (the scientific name for the kangaroo family) have already become extinct including the Yallara or Lesser Bilby, the Crescent Nailtail Wallaby, Toolache Wallaby, the Desert Rat-Kangaroo and the Rufous Hare-Wallaby.
Four out of ten Bettong species are now extinct and three are under threat of extinction. One out of five species of potoroos is extinct. (Bettongs and potoroos are in the rat-kangaroo family.)
Open letters on kangaroos: health and cruelty
To bring some balance to the debate about kangaroos the following two documents should be widely circulated and hopefully read by current ministers and relevant department staff.
A group of scientists, economists and lawyers have written an Open Letter to the Public about the Commercial Killing of Kangaroos. 20 animal welfare and rights groups have released their Open Letter to Lawmakers, Decision-Makers and the Public about the Shooting of Kangaroos. This is based on another open letter of concern by over 80 scientists and academics from around the world. These letters address some of the health and cruelty concerns associated with the industry.
Future of kangaroos - future of this debate
The movie Kangaroo: a love-hate story has turned the spotlight back on the kangaroo industry. The industry and their financial and political backers don’t like that. But it is time we reassessed our treatment of kangaroos, and Indigenous people need to be centre stage in that reassessment.
Aboriginal people have a diversity of views about kangaroo killing and that further strengthens the need for those views to be included in decisions about kangaroo management.
To achieve a balanced approach to kangaroo management the government needs to separate itself from commercial interests and put resources into developing and applying an accurate and transparent methodology for collecting kangaroo population data. Kangaroo absence as revealed by the government’s own survey count data needs to be mapped and acknowledged instead of extrapolating and inflating numbers across zero-count landscapes to create impressions of abundance.
A truly sustainable future for these unique creatures should be the focus of government policy. This cannot be achieved while the government gives priority to working with the kangaroo industry to help prop up the profits of the handful of companies involved in the slaughter and trade.
The movie Kangaroo should be widely screened as it opens up the uncomfortable conversation on how we treat and manage our wildlife that is long overdue.
As one species on this planet, humans still have a lot to learn about how to live in balance with our environment.