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Under Fire

Survival of the Unfittest

Dr Ian Gunn, BVSc, FACVS, project director at the Animal Gene Storage Resource Centre of Australia, Institute of Reproduction and Development, Monash Medical Centre, was asked by the kangaroo industry in 1997 to approve a reduction in the official weight of kangaroos being commercially killed. This request by the industry is of great concern to Viva! as it means that there are insufficient numbers of kangaroos meeting the current weight.

Dr Gunn refused to support the request by the kangaroo industry and stated in July 1997:

“..the current situation will ultimately reduce the mature weights and sizes of future generations and could lead to a decrease in the ability of the population to survive.

“The ability to accept adhoc decisions and to the development of future policy without rational and valid facts, seems to be a continual feature of this industry. Without a national plan to preserve the species and the environment, it is totally inappropriate to allow the continual mass slaughter on the basis of the economic viability of those in the industry.” (4)

“...the continued slaughter of kangaroos has the potential to cause the extinction of a number of remaining species.”

In 1999, Dr Gunn explained that the continued culling may cause extinctions for three reasons (22):

1.       The indiscriminate killing - ie the elimination of the largest, healthiest kangaroos.
2.       The unreliable and largely estimated kangaroo population figures that the Government and industry use to justify the extent of their kill.
3.       The relocation of species habitats. Kangaroos are being forced into areas that are very sensitive to climatic changes and increased grazing pressures as eg their habitat has been destroyed and they have been killed in increasing numbers.

Dr Gunn stated in 1999 that:

“The evidence is indisputable and, if left to continue, has the potential to result in reduced genetic variability, lower reproductive efficiency and a radical reduction in the population density below sustainable levels in certain regions of the country when associated with habitat destruction or seasonal conditions such as droughts.”

He further states that Australia has the worst wildlife record in the world. Since the settlement of Europeans 210 years ago, 18 species of mammals have become extinct (half of all the world’s loss of mammals in the same time), another 45 are threatened with extinction. Six species of macropods have become extinct (and a further four are extinct on the mainland), seven are classed as endangered and 10 as vulnerable. Only nine species are considered abundant however these are killed annually (22).

The basis of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is that natural factors kill the less fit individuals in all wildlife species and so only the fittest survive to reproduce. This is survival of the fittest and is an essential process for a species to remain healthy and genetically viable.

The annual kangaroo massacre undermines the process of natural selection. The larger animals are always targeted as they provide more meat and skin. This means that although a population will try to breed quickly to regain numbers, the less fit individuals reproduce, leading to a genetically inferior population. This situation is worsened in severe drought conditions when, on top of the millions of kangaroos that die naturally, the kangaroo industry wipes out the very individuals who are able to survive the extreme conditions. 

This unnatural process which flies in the face of nature, leads to populations of kangaroos becoming less and less suited to the harsh environments which they face.

 

The Australian Wildlife Protection Council told Viva!:

“Defying natural selection and acting to ensure the artificial process of always killing the biggest and best out of a mob is a threat to the future survival of the species because even if there is an increase in populations, the animals are not fit and the populations are unstable.

“Taking the biggest Red Kangaroos for the skin trade and the young one to two year old Red Kangaroos for human consumption puts insupportable pressure on the Red Kangaroo. An up to 80 per cent male bias in the kill leaves weaker, unfit, unstable, unhealthy populations to breed next year. Is this really supposed to be ‘good management?!’”

Further, the killing destroys the social order of a mob. “When a shooter enters the structured society of a mob of kangaroos, he destroys a complex system by killing the alpha male, his immediate rivals, and the older females, who are the educators of the group. This selective hunting results in females mating with young males and the loss of the inherited genetic strength of the mob.” (22)

As Peter Preuss of the National Kangaroo Campaign, Australia states:

“This fundamental ecological implication of the commercial kangaroo industry should be enough for commercial killing to be seen as a threatening process in the long term.” (6)

Further Dr David Croft, School of Biological Sciences, University of New South Wales adds to this view. He says that reproductive success in kangaroos is a complex interaction between size, age and condition of males and females - and “very few individuals enjoy high success, most miss out”. (40)

“Amongst males, the largest and fittest fight their way to dominion over mating rights to most of the females in their local population. To achieve this status they have grown for around 10 years and on average, survived at least one drought. Where the opportunity arises, females will selectively seek out and mate with these alpha males, and attempt to thwart often successfully, the mating attempts of lesser males. Females advertise their oestrus widely...with the consequence of attracting a bevy of competing male suitors, amongst which a ‘superior’ mate will emerge.

“Relatively few unharvested males live long enough to challenge for alpha status.” For example, studies in Queensland show that only 20 per cent of male Red Kangaroos reach four to nine years and yet almost 60 per cent of males are commercially shot in this age group (41). Croft points out: “If we then impose an artificial selective pressure through the current regime of male-biased ‘top-down’ culling, fewer still will survive and the result is a severe disruption to the natural social organisation, changes to population dynamics and the introduction of unnatural selective forces.”

Breeding males are becoming smaller and younger and Croft says those that would not normally breed are doing so. “There is a strong selection for smaller body size. We lose genotypes that have been strongly selected by the environment because survival to an old age is a matter of good foraging skills, disease resistance, competitive abilities and chance,” says Croft. There is sound scientific evidence to show that female kangaroos choose ‘good genes’ in potential partners. The kangaroo industry argues that killing kangaroos does not destroy ‘good genes’ because killing 15-20 per cent of the population should leave plenty of copies of ‘good genes’ in the population. Croft refutes this as: “This would be true if the cull selected targets at random but clearly this is not the case. The cull may effectively take close to 100 per cent of large males”. He says this should “prompt alarm”.

Other countries indicate how commercial killing selects against characteristics developed for survival. In Sri Lanka the strong selection pressure from killing elephants for ivory has increased the proportion of tuskless individuals in the wild populations. Kurt at el (1995) report a very high proportion – 93 per cent - of tuskless subadult and adult bull elephants, yet this trait is rare in Asian elephants. Tusked elephants are preferred as mates because they have better foraging skills and can defend themselves and their family against predators, but there are now few to find (42).

The above shows that the Australian Government’s claim that slaughtering kangaroos for meat “saves millions of kangaroos from dying a slow death due to Australia's frequent droughts” to be grossly misleading as the weakest kangaroos are left to survive by the targeted killing.

Doug Reilly shares this view. He is one of Australia’s most respected and knowledgeable kangaroo experts. He runs a sanctuary for orphaned kangaroos at Chinaman Creek Environmental Research Station, Winnowie Conservation Park, South Australia. He states: “The cull is really a large wild-harvest or farming of wild populations. The real danger in this practice has been a drastic change in the social and biological make-up of these wild populations.

“In any wild animal if you disrupt in a short period of time the normal reproduction processes that have evolved over tens of thousands of years you are in danger of putting the species at risk. Precedents have been set in other parts of the world where large populations of a species (wolves, seaks, bison etc) have faced extinction after widespread and destructive ‘culling’ programs. Many of these species suffered exotic bacterias and viruses when their population contained a critical and unsustainable gene pool.” (44)

The kangaroo industry is responsible for potentially putting the kangaroo at risk. Dr Ian Gunn reiterates: “The evidence is indisputable. A moratorium on the culling of all macropods is urgently needed.”

Further Contradictions of the Kangaroo Industry

Michael Archer, director of the Australian Museum, Sydney, is a driving force behind killing kangaroos on the basis of it helping wildlife! This ill-conceived plan is aptly called FATE (The Future of Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystems). Politician Richard Jones (former member of the New South Wales legislative council), criticises FATE “... as it does indeed represent the ultimate fate of Australia’s fauna and flora - for it proposes what is essentially their privatisation”.

Jones states that the commercialisation of wildlife means “the possible loss of our national symbol and the continuing degradation of ecosystems with four wheel drives carving up our fragile soils of rangelands in their nightly search for a kill. With the legal commercial kill tripling in the last 10 years and with the biggest kangaroos the prime target, there can be little doubt that the gene pool is weakening. Recent outbreaks of disease may be an indication of this.” (34)

Amazingly, Archer argues that unless the kangaroo is valued as an economic resource: “It is at risk of extinction through general disinterest, destruction of its habitat and predator activity.” (18)

The Government backs Archer and yet it states that the kangaroo is certainly not at risk from extinction - in fact it is in plague proportions. Politician Mr Slack-Smith declared that there are “at least 50 million of the four most common kangaroo species. As a result it is essential to protect the environment and to reduce the impact of kangaroo populations on farming and grazing enterprises. Fortunately, every State in Australia has managed to establish effective culling programs and Australia is beginning to benefit from the increasing popularity of kangaroo products domestically and overseas.” (26)

Archer claims that large-scale farming of non-Australian species such as sheep and cattle is damaging the vast and marginal rangelands and that they should be ‘downsized’ (one point on which we agree!). Even John Kelly of the Kangaroo Industry Association agrees in one breath, saying that killing kangaroos instead of sheep and cattle “makes enormous environmental wisdom” (26). In the next, his Association states that the industry “plays an important role” in controlling kangaroos. “The kangaroo population would be approximately 30 per cent higher if the industry did not exist. (Caughley 1987) This would threaten the stability of the region and potentially result in extensive desertification.” (Note the native kangaroos do not cause desertification - hardhoofed cattle and sheep do.)

Many other advocates of the kangaroo industry also do not support Archer’s view, stating that the kangaroos should be killed so that they do not harm cattle and sheep farmers! They argue that it is the kangaroos, not their own farming practices, that destroy the environment. (See section Why are Kangaroos Killed? for information on why this argument is false.)

An analysis of the arguments put forward by the industry and Government quickly exposes that they frequently contradict themselves and, to put it mildly, manipulate the facts.

Quotas - A Cynical PR Exercise

Quotas were introduced in 1975 (32). Each year the federal minister for the environment announces the annual kill quotas. These are set State by State and species by species.

As the National Kangaroo Campaign in Australia state, it is assumed that the quotas reflect the actual numbers of kangaroos and determine the level of killing.

However, if this were the case, you would expect sizeable fluctuations in State quotas to accommodate the rise and fall in kangaroo numbers. The general trend has been a steady increase in State kills since the 1970s. Even in 1982 to 83, during a severe drought which caused kangaroo numbers to drop to 11 million; the kangaroo quotas were set at more than three million annually.

The National Kangaroo Campaign state:

“An examination of quotas together with the actual number of kangaroos killed exposes the quota system to be little more than a PR exercise. The number of species killed often exceeds the set quota. When this occurs, the following year’s quota is simply increased to accommodate the overkill in that state.”

The RSPCA of Australia totally opposes the setting of quotas and further opposes the commercial kangaroo industry because of the inherent cruelty involved in the killing.

Kangaroos Are Killed for Money, Not Love...

It is interesting that outlets that sell kangaroo meat, and the industry, desperately try to defend the kangaroo massacre, rather than admit that these wild animals are killed purely for money. Even State Governments in Australia concede that the huge numbers killed now has nothing to do with damage mitigation or population control; it is simply a profit making exercise.

In 1984 the Queensland Government added the following statement to its kangaroo management programme:

“It is important to recognise that while the kangaroo industry was originally a response to the past problem caused by these animals, it has now come to exist in its own right as the user of a renewable natural resource and thus serves its own interests.”   

Of course referring to living, feeling creatures as ‘renewable resources’ is meant to soften the reality of what it really means - the wholesale slaughter of the planet’s wildlife.

The Queensland admission that commercial killing is NOT a tool for management has been extended to other states. The Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australian Governments all openly promote the commercial species of kangaroo and wallaby as a ‘renewable resource’ which should be shot regardless of whether the animals are perceived to cause damage or not.  

The Australian Wildlife Protection Council says:

“Kangaroos are killed for profit rather than in response to damage mitigation. The huge increase in the numbers killed since the 1970s has ensured profits but conflicts with the traditional objectives for which the kangaroo industry has gained public tolerance.

“Most Australians are not aware of this recent change in official policy which erodes the status of the kangaroo to that of a mere commodity.”

Kangaroos and the Environment

One of the most disingenuous statements the sellers of kangaroo meat make is that the commercial killing of kangaroos ‘protects the environment’.
The kangaroo industry is environmentally unfriendly! Night after night shooters criss cross the fragile outback terrain, causing erosion, trampling the native vegetation and disturbing (crushing and sometimes killing) the small ground dwelling native species (many of which are endangered). They kill and gut millions of kangaroos, leaving their remains to feed feral animals, thus further skewing the ecology of the outback.

When I was in Australia in March 1998, I had a TV debate with John Kelly, director of a possum abattoir in Tasmania and spokesperson for the kangaroo industry. He argued that kangaroos needed to be killed to protect the environment and that kangaroos were incapable of controlling their own numbers. (In fact, female Red Kangaroos stop reproducing (anoestrus) during prolonged poor conditions.) He spoke of the kangaroos as if they were some alien species destroying everything in their path. (See section Further Contradictions from the Kangaroo Industry on page 24.) I pointed out that the truth was the opposite - as Australian ecologist Bryan Walters says: “The kangaroo does not destroy Australia's environment - it is an integral part of that environment and lives in harmony with it.”

Of course the kangaroo is the original resident of Australia. They are unique to Australia and are perfectly adapted to live within that magnificent country’s harsh climate and sensitive environment. The earliest ancestors of kangaroos evolved about 50 millions years ago; by about 25 million years ago the evolution of the macropoids was well under way and by four to five million years ago the first species clearly related to the modern Grey Kangaroos and Wallaroos appeared. The Red Kangaroo is the most recently evolved kangaroo. Its fossil record goes back up to two million years ago and its evolution coincides with the spread of the deserts in Australia. (7) The Aborigines entered Australia 40 to 60,000 years ago; the Europeans 210 years ago. The environment of Australia has been decimated over the past 150 years. One guess as to which species is to blame. 

Kangaroo - the Scapegoat for Land Mismanagement

The federal Government’s Environment Australia (which implements legislation designed to ensure that kangaroos are killed and exported) aggressively supports the kangaroo industry. It published a revised report, The Commercial Harvesting of Kangaroos in Australia in April 1999. It is supposedly a justification of the massacre - however, it is nothing of the sort. As David Nicholls, formerly a full time commercial kangaroo shooter, states: “Nowhere in its 134 pages does it state that kangaroos are a significant and widespread problem other than a perceived one to the grazing community. It does however, on many occasions point out that the unsustainable use of land by sheep and cattle producers is a real problem.”

Primary Industries, a Government body, equate two kangaroos to one sheep. In other words, the 130 million sheep in Australia is equivalent to 260 million kangaroos! Yet - as already seen, the estimate of the kangaroo population is, according to Environment Australia, 25 to 35 million (29).

As Nicholls states:

“For kangaroo ‘culling’ to be necessary, scientific method requires that significant, widespread and continual damage to rangelands and infrastructure is actually happening. IT IS NOT and no such inkling of evidence exists and because of the proportionally smaller number of kangaroos than stock, for it to exist, would mean that kangaroos would have to be far greater destroyers per capita than introduced stock.” (33)

Kangaroos, as already seen, have evolved to suit Australia’s environment - with soft feet, requiring less water then livestock, no need to grow wool or fat and are efficient travellers that do not compete for resources with sheep (see Kangaroos are Killed for Money, not Love...). The Australian Government tries to portray the kangaroo as a pest - Nicholls states: “Kangaroos have never been pests and they are not now.” They are vilified when it is the sheep and cattle that are ruining sensitive environment.

The Europeans who first invaded Australia soon found that it was not a trouble-free land. By 1853 John Robertson of south-western Victoria wrote:

“...the few sheep made little impression on the face of the country for three or four years...then plants began to disappear...the clay hills are slipping in all directions...springs of salt water are bursting out in every hollow...when rain falls it runs off the hard ground into the creeks and is carrying earth, trees and all before it.”

As the Australian Wildlife Protection Council says:

“By the 1850s the kangaroo had become a scapegoat for land mismanagement. It was seen as one more problem facing man on the land. But, unlike many other environmental and economic problems facing these folk, the kangaroo could be dealt with by the age old expedient method of extermination.”

Year

Cattle

 Sheep

1861

4 million

20 million

1921

13.5 million

82 million

1961

17 million

152.5 million

1990

23 million

170 million

2000

27 million

130 million

2005

27.5 million

101 million

 

 

 

Source: Livestock and Livestock Products, Australia; Australian Bureau of Statistics

The kangaroo has not destroyed Australia's environment; the white human settlers have raped the land by introducing heavy, hard hoofed domestic animals such as cattle and sheep. Australia’s soils are far thinner than those in Europe and tree clearance and livestock have taken a heavy toll. Land degradation is now Australia’s “most pressing environmental problem” (11). Despite the enormous damage done by these species, livestock numbers are still high - as shown here:

Estimates of degraded land due to pastoralism range from 1.85 to 2.18 million km2 (8,9). The situation is particularly serious in New South Wales where 100 per cent of the rangelands are degraded. Considering that the rangelands have only been used for pastoralism for 100-150 years, this data is frightening. Much of the badly degraded land will turn to desert unless urgent action is taken (8).

As Greenpeace International surmise:

“The farming lobby continues to use kangaroos and wallabies as an excuse for diminishing margins between farm costs and returns.....in fact kangaroos are not a significant factor in the reduction of farm productivity nor indeed do they threaten agricultural interests.”  (10)

Currently, farmers cannot blame kangaroos for their misfortunes - because they are celebrating an upturn in profits. The Age reported on 7 April 2001 a farmer saying: “Everything has jelled together for this season. The wool market is good, so is the beef, the lamb and the oats...I haven’t seen anything like it in my time. It’s unbelievable.”

And The Australian reported on 17 April 2001 that investors are rushing into the rural services and that ‘cattle and wool prices are booming......[there is] a kind of renaissance in Australia’s rural sector’.

Despite the fact that the kangaroo does not compete with livestock for food, the kangaroo has been labelled a pest by farmers which gives them a good excuse to make money from killing them. The Government has a greater imperative to placate the farming lobby than protect wildlife because of its political leverage. This is because historically, Australia’s economic base was built through the agricultural and pastoral sectors. However, since the 1950s other sectors in the economy

 

 

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