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



Rock art of the Arnhem Land plateau clearly depicts a number of kangaroo species which were used by Australian Aborigines. Characteristics of species were generally emphasised in these drawings which date to 20,000 years before present (Chaloupka, 1984). These very early, pictorial records give useful information > on past distributions of some kangaroo species and an indication of the long history of human exploitation. Kangaroos were the principle animal group exploited consistently by Aborigines, with a single animal feeding several people, and providing material for rugs and clothes (Tunbridge 1991). Various strategies were employed to catch or kill various species, including spearing, clubbing and herding into traps. The large kangaroos were usually hunted individually. The seasonal burn off by Aboriginal people provided more grazing areas and new growth which favoured kangaroos. Increases in populations of large kangaroos may have been balanced partly by the provision of easier, more open, hunting grounds.

The history of culling kangaroos following European settlement is described by Poole (1984), Rolls (1984) and Robertshaw and Harden (1989), while a history of the industry is outlined by Livanes (1971) and Kirkpatrick and Amos (1985) for Queensland and by Prince (1984a, 1984b) for Western Australia. During the early part of the 19th century, kangaroos were certainly killed for food, sport and as pests. It was not until the middle part of the 19th century that kangaroos were harvested in any great numbers. An exception was probably Tasmania, where eastern grey kangaroos were reduced to relatively low numbers by the 1840s (Barker and Caughley 1990).

In the latter part of the 19th century, kangaroos were considered vermin and legislation encouraged their destruction partly through a system of bounties. Hrdina (1997) reported that, during 1877-1907, almost eight million kangaroos and wallaroos were presented for bounty payments in Queensland. At the same time, commercial trade in kangaroo skins increased dramatically. In Western Australia, where pastoral settlement proceeded more slowly, the skin trade appears to have been the prime motivation for the taking of kangaroos. In 1935-36, 1.25 million red kangaroo skins from Western Australia entered the market in Sydney (Poole 1984; Prince 1984a). Trends in the historical harvest of Western Australia are shown in Figure 21. Harvest offtake of red and western grey kangaroos in Western Australia

Figure 21. Harvest offtake of red and western grey kangaroos in Western Australia, 1915-1996 (modified after Prince 1984a).

By the 1950s, the trade extended to meat following the collapse of rabbit numbers after the introduction of myxomatosis. This released a large number of mobile chiller boxes for use by the kangaroo industry. Commercial harvest offtake of red and eastern grey kangaroos since 1954 in Queensland is shown in Figure 22. Kirkpatrick and Amos (1985) argued that the fluctuations in the harvest were likely to be the result of both market demand and prevailing weather patterns. The dramatic increase in offtake in the late 1950s corresponds with meat becoming a significant industry product. At the time, carcasses were much easier to handle than skins and more animals could therefore be taken each night. The low harvest offtake through the 1970s was presumably related to the ban on exports (see below). More animals seem to be taken during drier years when, for a number of reasons, animals are easier to shoot. Other factors include increased demand from graziers for pest control and increased unemployment in rural areas leading to people taking up kangaroo shooting. By the mid- 1980s, however, the quota had become the principal limiting factor for the red kangaroo harvest and, to a lesser extent, the eastern grey kangaroo and wallaroo harvest, at least for the state as a whole (see Figure 16 (a large document stored on another page)).

graph - harvest offtakes of red and eastern grey kangaroosgraph - harvest offtakes of red and eastern grey kangaroos

Figure 22 (a-b) Queensland Harvest offtake of (a) red and eastern grey kangaroos (includes some western greys), and (b) common wallaroos and whiptail wallabies in Queensland, 1954-1996.

Kirkpatrick and Amos (1985) pointed out that the trade in skins has formed the backbone of the industry. The bulk of kangaroo meat is used for pet food, but there has been an export trade in game meat for human consumption since 1955 (Macfarlane 1971; Corrigan 1988). This was suspended for about 10 years during the 1970s because of poor meat quality, a Federal ban on the export of kangaroo products and a ban on their import by the U.S. Government (Shepherd and Caughley 1987).

Shepherd and Caughley (1987) described the development of state management plans for kangaroos which followed mounting public concern for their conservation in the early 1970s. By 1984, the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982 required these management plans to have Commonwealth approval prior to approval being given for the export of kangaroo products. Management programs were approved for a period of one year and included a quota for each species taken commercially. Annual quotas have regulated the harvest in each state since the 1970s. The current system of Commonwealth approved management plans is essentially the same, though with some relaxation of the period of approval.

In Queensland, regulation of the industry came with the enactment of conservation legislation (Fauna Conservation Act 1954-1979) in 1954. As described by Kirkpatrick and Amos (1985), this required shooters and dealers to be licensed, royalties to be paid on the four main commercial species (red kangaroos, eastern grey kangaroos, wallaroos and whiptail wallabies) and the numbers of each species taken to be reported by both dealers and shooters. Kirkpatrick and Amos (1985) argued that this preceded the conservation push from the general community; being driven essentially by the need to conserve a resource of considerable economic importance to rural Australia. However, while the harvest offtake was monitored, it was not until 1970 that dealer sites were restricted in number and distribution. Quotas were introduced in 1975, along with numbered, self-locking, non- reusable tags which had to be attached to each animal entering the industry. This is currently a requirement of all four mainland States that harvest kangaroos commercially (Anon. 1984; Poole 1984).

In New South Wales it was not until 1967 that royalties were imposed on carcasses sold commercially. Trade monitoring improved when serially numbered Royalty tags were introduced in 1971 with a requirement that commercial shooters attach a tag to each kangaroo killed for commercial sale and keep records of the shooting. In this way tagged kangaroo carcasses/skins could be traced back to a shooter and property.

The Western Australian Government introduced kangaroo harvest controls in 1971, at which time the commercial harvest was restricted to licensed commercial shooters, operating with quota limits on harvests and controlled through a tagging system.

By 1971, South Australia was also operating shooting controls with a system involving licenced shooters and kangaroo destruction permits, which were issued by species and property.

The harvesting process

The harvest of kangaroos is the harvest of free-ranging wildlife, by shooting. The animals are harvested at night, on private leasehold or freehold land, and only with the permission of the landholder. Because the present industry owes its origins primarily to pest control, most pastoralists allow the shooters, who are almost always self-employed, onto their properties free of charge. (This may not always remain the case, see later.) Typically, a landholder prefers to get to know and develop a trust for any shooters harvesting on the property. Because properties in the sheep rangelands may be very large, shooters often fulfill a useful watchdog role over domestic stock, water supplies, fences and gates.

Shooters are increasingly being called Wildlife Harvesters and, with the move towards increasing use of the carcasses for meat for human consumption as well as for hides and pet food, are gradually gaining increased status, with qualifications in meat handling now being required to ensure the hygienic handling of field-shot game.

Shooters usually work alone, from a 4WD vehicle, with a high- powered spotlight and a high-powered rifle, and work commonly throughout much of the night. This takes advantage of the behaviour of kangaroos which is to stand, transfixed, if caught in the beam of a high-powered light. The shooting is required to be conducted according to a Code of Practice designed, with heavy involvement of the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to ensure that the harvest is conducted humanely ( Chapter 9). This requires that the animal is shot through the head so that death is instantaneous, so great skill as a marksman is required. Kangaroo shooters do, in fact, enjoy a prodigious reputation for their skill and, indeed, with the cost of ammunition, dropping the kill with a single shot has a significant economic incentive quite apart from any humane considerations. Another aspect of the Code of Practice requires pouch young to be dispatched swiftly with a blow to the head. As marsupials, kangaroos give birth to young at a very early stage which then undergoes most of its development in the pouch, nourished by milk, rather than in the uterus as in placental mammals. The harvest is markedly male biased, because the males grow to be larger, but many females too are taken and most of them will have a young in the pouch and a smaller proportion will have a young- at-foot as well. Young-at-foot are at a stage where they are becoming independent from the mother.

If the harvest is only for skins, which is often the case in much of Queensland, the shooter stops from time-to-time to skin the animals, leaving the carcasses as carrion in the paddocks where it may be fed upon by raptors, and feral foxes and pigs. A skin shooter may handle over one hundred kangaroos per night, and often carries an offsider to assist with the skinning.

In New South Wales and South Australia, shooting only for skins is not permitted and the number of carcasses which can be harvested in one night is limited to what the truck can carry, usually about 50. When the meat was used only for pet food, standards of hygiene often left a lot to be desired. However, since kangaroo meat is now legal for human consumption in all States, and there is an increasing interest in harvesting for that, strict regulations have been brought in to ensure hygienic handling of the meat. The truck must meet specifications which ensure easy cleaning, and all implements must be washed between each processing bout. Each animal is hung on the truck and bled. The shooter again stops from time-to-time and animals are then eviscerated, the head, limbs and usually the tail, are discarded, but the skin is left on until the carcass is handled further at the processing works.. The load of carcasses is required to be delivered to the refrigerated field 'chiller', usually at a local town of depot, in the early morning before temperatures begin to rise. Subsequently, the carcasses are collected and transported to the processing works in refrigerated transport. At the processing works the skins are removed and stored for shipment to one of the tanneries and the carcasses are butchered in the same way as meat from domestic stock. The meat is usually packed in cryovac containers and the remainder goes to make fertiliser.