Commercial harvesting of Kangaroos in Australia

by Tony Pople and Gordon Grigg
Department of Zoology, The University of Queensland
for Environment Australia, August 1999
Chapters 10,11,12 and 13 and Appendix 1 provided by staff at Environment Australia



Australia's problem with abundant kangaroo species

Australia has about 50 species of marsupial mammals of the Super-family Macropodoidea. Most of them have declined in the 210 or so years since Europeans settled here, some to extinction. Some, however, have thrived to the extent that they are now among the most abundant large mammals anywhere. The abundant species, particularly the three largest species of kangaroo, are so numerous in many rural areas that they are regarded as pests, in competition with sheep and cattle for pasture which, in a dry country like Australia, is always in short supply.

The abundance of kangaroos, with their high conservation status, and the recognition that they are regarded as a serious pest by graziers gives Australian conservation agencies a problem. Not surprisingly, all Australian macropods are protected by law, as is almost all Australian wildlife. The solution to this conflict has been to issue limited permits which allow kangaroos and some of the most numerous wallabies to be shot as pests. However, most of the control is effected through permitting a regulated commercial harvest of kangaroos and wallabies for meat and for leather.

Any commercial harvest or pest destruction of wildlife is likely to be controversial, especially if the subjects are as appealing and as well known as Australia's kangaroos. That kangaroos are the most readily identified symbol of Australia, and that they are harvested by shooting, only exacerbates the concern, and it is not uncommon for there to be organised public campaigns against their commercial use.

Thus, kangaroo management in Australia has come under close scrutiny, both locally and internationally, and there has been significant public debate about the issues which kangaroo harvesting raises. A valuable outcome of the public scrutiny and debate has been that Australia has given very close attention to the philosophy behind and the operational aspects of kangaroo management, including research and monitoring, striving for world's best practice and public accountability. Accordingly, the annual harvests, limited by quota, are conducted under Management Programs based on extensive scientific research and monitoring. The individual aims of the Management Programs differ a little between the different States but, in general, all identify the need to balance land-use requirements against the necessity to ensure continuation of self perpetuating kangaroo populations of all species.

Nevertheless, there is still considerable public debate over the commercial use of kangaroos, which has developed particularly since the 1970s (e.g. Rawlinson 1988; Arnold 1988; Senate Select Committee On Animal Welfare 1988; Preuss and Rogers 1995), and concerns were voiced from the early days of settlement (Wood Jones 1924). Culling of kangaroos and, indeed, wildlife in general, has been opposed on the grounds of conservation, animal welfare or animal rights. In the latter category, individual animal rights are believed to be violated when those animals are harvested and wildlife loses its intrinsic value when exploited; instead becoming of instrumental value (Rawlinson 1988). These arguments are based upon value judgements and cannot be debated logically. Animal welfare is becoming an increasing concern within society (O'Brien 1990). Harvesting will invariably involve some injuries and protracted deaths. However, this must be weighed up against compensatory mortality, reduction in other forms of killing when an animal changes status from a pest to a resource, the quality of life for individuals in dense, unharvested populations during droughts and alternative land uses if harvesting is not allowed.

Australia's kangaroo harvesting programs.

Seven species of macropod are currently the subject of Management Programs that have been approved to allow export:

Red kangaroo (Macropus rufus), Qld, NSW, SA, WA
Eastern grey kangaroo (M. giganteus), Qld, NSW
Western grey kangaroo (M. fuliginosus), NSW, SA, WA
Common wallaroo or euro (M. robustus), Qld, NSW, SA, WA
Whiptail wallaby (M. parryi), Qld
Bennetts wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus), Flinders Island Tas
Tasmanian pademelon (Thylogale billardierii), Flinders Island Tas

The first three species are the most abundant and make up over 95% of the commercial harvest. Starting with 1998 the harvest of Bennetts wallabies and Tasmanian pademelons from Flinders Island have been approved for export. Additional harvesting of some of the abundant wallaby species occur in the rest of Tasmania but are not exported. This document deals with the commercial harvest of macropods from the mainland Australia and the Tasmanian species are not included.

Under Australian Law, the individual States have responsibility for wildlife management within their state boundaries, whereas the export of all wildlife or wildlife products is controlled under the provisions of the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Imports and Exports) Act 1982 (WP (REI) Act) with Environment Australia administering the Act and giving advice to the relevant Federal Minister. The Assistant Secretary of Wildlife Australia is the Designated Authority under the WP (REI) Act and has an intermediary role in the process of approval of the State Kangaroo Management Programs, providing advice to the Minister because, under agreement reached at ANZECC (Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council), State programs become part of an overall National Plan of Management for kangaroos. The Federal Minister takes advice also from the Scientific Committee for Sustainable Use of Wildlife. For more details, see Appendix 1.

In practice, these requirements and procedures mean that each of the relevant States (Qld, NSW, SA and WA) develops a Kangaroo Management Program which is subject to review by Environment Australia, in consultation with the Minister's Committee for Sustainable Use, before going to the Minister for his consideration and approval. Approval of a Program may be given for up to five years. Management Programs provide statements of the aims of kangaroo management in the State, usually to ensure the conservation of the species throughout their ranges and, by conducting an annual harvest, to address grazier's concerns about kangaroos causing lost revenue or inhibiting land regeneration. Increasingly, States are including in the aims the additional goal of treating the kangaroos as a renewable resource. The Programs also provide details of annual population monitoring, how annual quotas are derived and used to limit harvesting, procedures such as the issue of tags by which harvests are regulated and, indeed, all aspects of the operation and regulation of kangaroo management in that State.

Management Programs requiring renewal or variation are submitted to Environment Australia after which they are available for a period of one month for public comment. Harvest quotas are submitted on an annual basis.

The quota proposals, based on population trends and the most recent survey data, are considered by the same processes which lead to the approval of Management Programs, and recommended to the Minister for signing early in December. It is comparatively common for clarifications or modifications to be made to both management programs and quota proposals following the committee stage.

In recent years, quotas to all States have typically totalled about four million kangaroos. The total annual harvest has not yet reached that limit, although the proportion of the national quota taken has increased recently. Details of quotas and harvests, species by species in each State for the last few years, along with population trends, are provided in Chapter 4.

The extent to which the annual harvests have been successful at reducing kangaroo numbers is controversial, with people in the rural industries usually being dissatisfied that kangaroos remain so numerous, despite the large harvests. In practice, the quotas in recent years have been set within the capacity of the kangaroo populations to compensate. That is, the harvest quotas have been set primarily with sustainability in mind. The argument concerns the extent to which the subsequent harvest provides damage mitigation.

That is not to say, however, that kangaroo populations are not diminished as a result of the harvests, although that is often the assumption made by graziers in the face of continuing high numbers. There are good reasons for accepting that the full taking of the quota, typically 15% of the estimated populations, would lower kangaroo numbers by approximately 40% compared to what the numbers would be if there were no harvesting. Actual harvests in recent years would have gone a good way towards that. There is a view often expressed that quotas should be raised further, to achieve more effective pest control. This is countered by a different view, which questions the extent to which further reduction in kangaroo numbers really would lead to increased sheep productivity. The whole area is under active discussion among scientists and land managers, and the issues will be reviewed in Chapter 7.

While the harvesting of kangaroos is in some States undertaken primarily for pest control, to mitigate damage to crops, pasture and fences, there is increasing recognition that kangaroos are a valuable resource whose commercial use is in tune with ideas about gaining conservation benefit from the sustainable use of wildlife (Chapter 8).

These issues will all be explored further, along with reviews of the operation of the industry and its regulation (Chapters 5, 10 and 11), animal welfare issues (Chapter 9), quota setting (Chapter 4), and the principles behind wildlife management in general, and kangaroo management in particular (Chapter 2). More detailed information on some issues is provided in Appendixes.

Useful recent review publications about the biology and ecology of kangaroos, kangaroo management and the principles of sustainable use of wildlife are Lee and Cockburn (1985), Caughley
et al. (1987a), Tyndale-Biscoe and Renfree (1987), Grigg et al. (1989), Hume et al. (1989), Ramsay (1994), Grigg et al. (1995) and, in more popular vein, Dawson (1995). Additionally, Archer et al. (1985) and Domico and Newman (1993) provide useful semi- popular, well-illustrated overviews of the Macropodoidea.