Zoologist Jordi Casamitjana discusses the plight of millions of kangaroos suffering persecution in Australia
I have never been to Australia
Therefore, if I lived in the fair and equitable vegan world I dream of, I should never have had any contact with any kangaroo, dead or alive. No contact with any mob of kangaroos (this is their collective noun), any kangaroo female (called a doe) with her baby (called a joey), any kangaroo male (called a buck or boomer), or any part of a kangaroo body. But, unfortunately, I have.
I have seen them in zoos and in shoes. I have seen them in trinkets and in clothes. I have seen them in markets and in cans. They, like so many animals, wild or domesticated, have been commoditised and exported all over the world — even to literary the opposite side of the planet, where I am. Nothing new, you may say. This is what happens in the colonial carnist supremacist patriarchal society we live in. Everyone other than the “supreme” lords in power is up for grabs. It doesn’t matter if you have been chosen as the “national” animal of a country. It doesn’t matter if you have been recognised as an official symbol of a nation and have been included on its coat of arms since 1908. It doesn’t matter if you appeared on currency and stamps. It doesn’t matter if you are a native species crucial for the natural ecosystem of the largest island in the world. If you are a kangaroo, the chances are that you are going to have a very hard time. You are going to be persecuted even by those who claim you are the symbol of their people, and you may be injured, killed, skinned, dismembered, traded, and consumed as if you were nothing more than flesh and fibre.
The kangaroos of Australia are struggling to survive, and their problems really began in 1770, when Captain James Cook reached the Australian coast with his British Royal Navy ship HSM Endeavour. That’s when the disdain of the colonisers began building a mass exploitation paradigm that culminated in the largest land-based wildlife slaughter in the world.
Since colonial settlement began, all species of kangaroo have been removed from their natural habitats, displaced on behalf of a Eurocentric model of land that involves importing non-native animals to graze the fields for food. And after being displaced with the arrogant excuse that they are now “unwelcomed” in the supremacists’ land, they have been killed in mass so their bodies can also be sold for profit — as happened to the cows and sheeps who were unwillingly moved into the country to be bred and executed there.
Uttered on the other side of the planet, the kangaroos’ cries are often unheard by many animal protectionists in the northern hemisphere. But there is one day set aside to remember them. The World Kangaroo Day is on the 24th of October. To commemorate that day, I thought I would write an article about the plight of the kangaroo.
The Grazers of Down Under
Not all Kangaroos are called kangaroos. The group of marsupials who belong to what most people would think as kangaroos have different species, some of which are named kangaroos of different types (such as red kangaroo or grey kangaroo), but others are named wallabies or wallaroos. The word ‘kangaroo’ comes from the Guugu Yimidhirr people sharing the word ‘gangurru’ in the locela language with the crew of the Endeavour — and no, it does not mean “I don’t know” as the now-debunked legend says.
Zoologically speaking, kangaroos comprise the larger species of the family Macropodidae (macropods), which are the Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus), the Eastern Grey Kangaroo (M. giganteus), the Western Grey Kangaroo (M. fuliginosus), and the Antilopine Kangaroo (Osphranter antilopinus). Although they are indigenous to Australia, they can also be found in New Guinea. The intermediate sizes of macropods (with a tail length of 60-70 cm and weight of 19-22 kg for males and 13 kg for females) are called wallaroos, while the smallest size (head and body length of 45–105 cm and tail length of 33-75 cm) are called wallabies. Some people include the two bigger wallaroos, the Common Wallaroo (Osphranter robustus) and the Black Wallaroo (O. bernardus) in the group of kangaroos. Another type of macropod are the tree-kangaroos, which live on the trees of tropical rainforests in New Guinea, far north-eastern Queensland and some of the islands in the region. And then there are all sorts of smaller wallaby types who receive different names, such as pademelons, rat kangaroos, bettongs, and potoroos.
Technically, although the term kangaroos should only be used for the large macropods (a large male can be 2 metres tall and weigh 90 kg), is commonly used for the entire group — especially by non-Australians.
Kangaroos are the primary native herbivore in Australia and have been essential to the survival of its native forests and grasslands for at least 50 million years. As the native mammals of Australia are all marsupials (whose young are carried in a pouch), there are no ruminants on the island other than the animals brought by the colonisers (cows, sheeps, goats, horses, and camels). The natural grazers of the island are the kangaroos, who have evolved specialized teeth to eat grass. They have a long muscular tail for balance, and large hind legs and feet adapted for leaping (which they used to escape the Thylacines — or Tasmanian tigers— who, together with wedge-tailed eagles, were the only natural predators before the last one died in London zoo in 1931).
However, since humans arrived in Australia, new alien predators have been introduced (foxes, dingoes, feral dogs, and the humans themselves). This messing with the natural ecosystems of Australia has also messed with the ecology of kangaroos, who in some areas disappeared very quickly after the introduction of competitor grazers. Some say that in other areas they reproduced more because of the elimination of natural predators and the creation of artificial sources of water, but there is no agreement about this and it seems this is more of an excuse to shoot them blaming them for “over-grazing” — whilst there is no evidence of that. The spreading of grain farms has also altered the kangaroos’ ecosystem and has put them in conflict with farmers — who treat them as pests even if there is little evidence that they are significantly damaging their crops. Sheep and cattle are more of a threat to kangaroos than the other way around (one sheep consuming as much as three kangaroos and one cow as much as 30 kangaroos).
They were perfectly adapted to the Australian ecosystems playing the “grazing” role for millions of years until humans arrived and really messed with their lives — and then blame them for the chaos they caused. That seems very unfair to me. But this unjust blame was more than rhetorical. As often happens in these cases, it quickly became lethal persecution — even sanctioned by the authorities.
Although, theoretically, kangaroos are protected fauna in Australia, shooting kangaroos is legal in the country. In response to the wrongly perceived growing population in some areas, the Australian states permit licence holders to “cull” or shoot kangaroos as long as a code of conduct is followed (and this is what they mean as being “protected”…protected from what they class as “inhumane” killing, but not from killing itself). For instance, in New South Wales (NSW), graziers can apply for a licence to shoot kangaroos on their land if they deem them to be a “pest”. However, claims that kangaroos destroy agriculture are not supported by research, and credible studies have found that kangaroos rarely compete for pasture or visit grain crops.
There are also four species of kangaroos allowed to be commercially killed for their flesh or skin, under a different code of conduct. These are the Red Kangaroos, the Eastern Grey Kangaroos, the Western Grey Kangaroos and the Common Wallaroos. The past 30 years have seen more than 100 million kangaroos and wallabies lawfully killed for commercial purposes. This is just a profit-making industry that exploits Australian fauna (that should be properly protected) under the excuse of the exaggerated claims of overpopulation and competition with farmers. Politicians and pro-industry supporters continue to push the propaganda that killing kangaroos is necessary to control their population and protect agriculture, but this is only a PR exercise.
The ”overpopulation” argument is just a false excuse because, due to their biology, kangaroo populations are unlikely to “explode” at any time of year. Marsupials only have one joey per year and although twins have been seen, only one joey can be in the pouch at one time. It would take 18 months for a joey to fully wean. And joeys have also a high mortality rate of around 70% or more due to predation from foxes and other animals. Research has shown that kangaroo populations can only increase by around 9% per year.
Nevertheless, the federal and state governments seem determined to support the industries that exploit kangaroos, so each state set quotas regarding how many kangaroos can be shot — and it could be up to 20% of the kangaroos in a given region. The 2022 NSW quota is 1,692,207 kangaroos, split into 619,932 for Red Kangaroos, 358,835, for Eastern Grey Kangaroos from the Western Plains, 574,202 for Eastern Grey Kangaroos from the Central and Northern Tablelands and South East NSW, 94,754 for Western Grey Kangaroos, and 44,484 for Wallaroos. And this is just one state! Every year the commercial kangaroo industry kills millions of kangaroos. It’s not surprising that kangaroos are said to be the victims of the largest land-based wildlife slaughter in the world.
The Numbers Do Not Match
There are several disputes about the population numbers that justify the kangaroo shootings, as well as how many animals are actually killed every year. The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment claims that only 3% of the 50 million kangaroos in the country are used in meat production each year.
However, according to the Center for a Humane Economy, kangaroos are now facing localised extinction in some areas: In the state of South Australia, Red Kangaroo numbers declined by more than 39% from 2018 to 2019; in South Australia’s commercial zone, Wallaroo numbers have declined by 92% since 2017 and Western Grey Kangaroos declined by 77% from 2018 to 2019; in Queensland, the 2020 commercial kill in two western commercial zones was suspended as populations of Eastern Grey Kangaroos and Wallaroos declined below trigger points. In Victoria, kangaroo species were recovering after a moratorium on the commercial hunt starting in the 1980s, but now they are killed again.
Since 2001, kangaroo populations have declined by 40% and according to a report by NSW ecologist Ray Mjadwesch, all commercially hunted kangaroos have declined so dramatically that they fulfil the criteria as a threatened species — despite the International Union of Conservation of Nature does not classify them as such — with up to 90% of kangaroos lost since the arrival of Europeans.
We then have the animal welfare problem of killing by shooting. There are Codes of Conduct regulating how Kangaroos can be legally shot. They say kangaroos should be shot in the brain to kill them instantly, but many kangaroos are being shot in the body, suffering a slow agonising death. And because shooters are allowed to kill female kangaroos now, many of these carry Joeys, which the codes say they should be killed with either a single blow to the head or decapitated. But nobody is checking how this is done. According to a government report by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, a majority of joeys who were not in their mother’s pouch become orphaned. And as the authorities responsible for enforcing these codes are also responsible for promoting the commercial industry, this is a serious conflict of interest.
In addition to the suffering of the kangaroos shot and injured by unsupervised shooters, there is also a very damaging effect on the survivors. Kangaroos are very social and family-orientated animals who have been observed to suffer considerable grief and stress when one of their mob dies or is injured. The large males and females targeted by the commercial industry are kangaroos who play an integral role in the cohesion of the mob and the protection and teaching of the younger kangaroos. When they go, the entire society is affected.
There have been many complaints about the shooting of kangaroos, in particular about the numbers and the monitoring. In some states, public enquiries have been initiated to study the issue. The NSW Parliament’s Planning and Environment Committee spent months examining the health of kangaroos in the state. Catherine Cusack MP sat in this committee, and she said, “I’m now seriously alarmed that we have a big issue in relation to the sustainability of this species that’s iconic to Australia… It’s actually quite distressing to me that our kangaroos could be in such a predicament.” The 2021 inquiry found there were “grave concerns” with the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s oversight of kangaroo shooting by private land-holders. Internal documents leaked to ABC News revealed the government’s staff have voiced concerns about the way the kangaroo management program is policed. Data presented to the inquiry showed that up to 40% of kangaroos are miss-shot and left to die a painfully slow death.
Where Do the Kangaroos’ Corpses Go?
No independent observers monitor what happens when shooters kill the kangaroos, often at night. The hunters pursue the terrified kangaroo families with vehicles, they miss-shoot and injure several, and no one helps the now orphan mother-dependent joeys. Partly butchered decapitated carcasses are hung in vehicles in all temperatures for who knows how long. Eventually, the bodies of millions of kangaroos are processed in towns to end up in different places. Some in footwear, others in leather hats, others in motorcycle suits, others in handbags, others in wallets, others in whips, others in steak dishes, others in burgers, others in sausages, and many in pet food.
Australia has been commercially producing kangaroo meat since 1959, and it has been exporting it to more than 60 countries — and recently, as kangaroos emit fewer amounts of methane compared to bovines and sheeps, their meat is sometimes “greenwashed” as planet-friendlier. Each year Australia exports $80m worth of kangaroo products in the form of meat and leather. The two biggest export destinations for these items are Europe and the US.
Kangaroos Alive is an organisation that has been spreading awareness about the use of kangaroo meat in pet food. They have been asking supporters to write to the pet food companies to stop using kangaroo meat, as well as writing to local vets asking to support their campaign. Now that research has shown that both dogs and cats can thrive on nutritionally complete plant-based pet food, there is no excuse for using kangaroo meat to feed them.
According to Dr Dror Ben-Ami, of the Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology, Sydney, Kangaroo meat is known to be sometimes contaminated with Salmonella spp, high levels of E. coli, Toxoplasmosis, Listeria, and Coxiella. Because of this and the cruelty of the shooting, several big brands in Europe have stopped using kangaroo meat and skins (brands like Prada, Versace, and Carrefour in France and Belgium).
There are also political moves to ban the imports of all kangaroo products to the EU. The Dutch Party for the Animals in alliance with the Animal Justice Party in Australia are pushing the European Union to ban the import of kangaroo products. This happened after in February 2022 the Dutch parliament passed a motion from the Party for the Animals MP Frank Wassenberg calling on the government to “address the problem of access to the European market of controversial products such as kangaroo meat and kangaroo products with the European Commission.” But, of course, in Australia, this problematic meat ends up in pet food, as fewer checks are made there (and there have been several claims that this has caused diseases in dogs).
In the US, California banned the sale of kangaroo leather products in 1971, and now there are attempts to make this a federal ban nationwide. In 2021, Democratic congressman Salud Carbajal and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick introduced to the US Congress the Kangaroo Protection Act aimed to ban the importation of kangaroo products into the US — but it has not been debated yet.
Many people don’t know that kangaroo leather is used in sporting footwear. In 2022, several sporting retailers in California were sued for allegedly violating a 50-year-old ban in the State on selling products made of Kangaroo skin. The Centre for a Humane Economy and the Animal Wellness Action group filed a civil lawsuit in a Californian court against US Soccer Wearhouse and other sporting retailers claiming they were “openly flouting the law” by selling “kangaroo-based cleats” in their shops. Cleats are protrusions on the sole of a shoe or on an external attachment to a shoe that provide additional traction on a soft or slippery surface, and some manufacturers use leather made of kangaroo skin because of its high strength-to-weight ratio. In 2007, the California Supreme Court affirmed the 1971 kangaroo leather ban in an unrelated case concerning the sale of Adidas soccer cleats made from kangaroo leather. Kangaroos Are Not Shoes is another campaign raising awareness of the commercial kangaroo industry in Australia.
Despite all these bans and international boycotts, millions of kangaroos are still being shot in Australia every year, causing a great deal of suffering, and every time they have a breather because people are concerned about local extinctions, the massacres resume when their numbers go up again. The problem will never be solved if numbers are the only thing Australians care about.
For us, vegans, one kangaroo shot is one too many. And even if kangaroos are shot following the code of conduct to the letter, and no females are shot to prevent the problem of the orphan joeys, that would not be acceptable to us. Not a single kangaroo deserves to be shot. Not a single kangaroo body should be used for any product. Not a single kangaroo product should be allowed to be traded, not just internationally, but also locally.
They were minding their own business eating grass and not harming anyone, and then a ship landed nearly three hundred years ago, and they have been persecuted ever since. Imagine how many have died from the first time a gun was aimed at them. It all started with people from the northern hemisphere going to Australia and messing with all its inhabitants. it’s worth remembering that. And it’s worth remembering these gentle emblematic creatures and their continuous struggle to survive — and no better day to do that than World Kangaroo Day.
The very sad plight of the Australian kangaroo is something we all should feel responsible for.
Even if we have never been to Australia.