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



Whereas kangaroo harvesting has in the past been approved primarily for damage mitigation, there is an increasing recognition of additional potential benefits to be had from focussing more directly on kangaroos as a sustainable, renewable resource (Grigg et al. 1995). This chapter will explore some of the issues that this raises.

The contrasts between the two motivations for approving a harvest of kangaroos and between the consequent management actions are stark; if the aim is pest control, then quotas should be set high in order to bring numbers down. If the aim is to have a sustainable industry, then quotas should be set so as to maximise the harvest, and that implies an acceptance that kangaroo numbers will remain high. However, neither of these scenarios is acceptable across the board. Graziers would like to see kangaroo numbers lower, some conservation bodies support a sustainable industry, while others would be with the animal rights organisations which campaign for no kangaroos to be shot at all.

The situation which has developed in recent years is a compromise, with quotas being set high enough each year to achieve significant reductions, but low enough to avoid further diminutions in numbers. The complicating factors are the high conservation value of kangaroos, which dictates limits to the extent of pest control, and the fact that rainfall and subsequent pasture growth have such a large effect on kangaroo numbers, quite aside from any effects of the harvests themselves (see Chapter 6).

Additionally, there are strong and often conflicting views about all of these issues within the community and many people believe that there should not be any commercial utilisation of wildlife, whatever the reason.

Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness among many conservation bodies and agencies that the sustainable use of wildlife offers many opportunities to better secure its conservation and, in many instances, to achieve habitat conservation.

Sustainable use of wildlife for conservation - the issue in general

The principle is simple. In short, if a wildlife product can be harvested directly and sustainably from a particular habitat, then the commercial use of that product puts a value on the habitat which supports the wildlife generating the product. This may lead to the habitat being conserved, conserving the exploited wildlife and, in passing, conserving all of the other components of the fauna and flora which comprise that habitat. This is a sharp contrast to what is usually the case, where natural habitat is cleared as a prelude to planting a traditional crop or introducing grazing stock.

This is not to say that all proposed sustainable wildlife harvesting is automatically a good thing. Rather it is to say that the principle may be a good one and that every case should be looked at on its merits.

It is worth exploring the principle and its implications further, because they are of very great relevance to kangaroo management.

Wildlife may be defined as undomesticated native animals and uncultivated native plants (Pople and Grigg 1994). The commercial use of wildlife may be in the form of harvesting from the wild, ranching or farming. (Ranching is the term given when individuals are removed from the wild into captivity and husbanded there until ready for sale.) Wildlife use may be consumptive or non-consumptive.

Traditional forestry and fishing enterprises are familiar examples of consumptive commercial use of wildlife. Unfortunately, overexploitation and mismanagement in these and other industries such as sealing and whaling, coupled with animal rights and animal welfare concerns, has led to the general idea of wildlife harvesting gaining a bad reputation.

For most westernised peoples, particularly those living in urban societies, wildlife has gained a particular meaning, usually with a very high status. Indeed, many conservation bodies focus particularly on the conservation of wildlife and, for many people, the idea of wildlife harvesting seems contradictory to conservation.

So it came as a surprise to many when, in 1990, the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in Perth, adopted a resolution which recognised that '.... ethical, wise and sustainable use of some wildlife can provide an alternative or supplementary means of productive land use, and can be consistent with and encourage conservation, where such is in accordance with adequate safeguards ....'.

Two things in this resolution are of particular importance. First, an endorsement from a world conservation body that commercial wildlife use is an acceptable form of productive land use and, second, the identification of a positive linkage between wildlife harvesting and conservation.

The identification of appropriate safeguards became a task for an IUCN Specialist Group, and appropriate internationally agreed standards have yet to be developed. In Australia, with such a long history of concern about kangaroo harvesting, there had already been much discussion about the principles agreed to by IUCN in Perth. Indeed, the Australian Conservation Foundation once had a policy for the commercial use of kangaroos, preferring to see graziers harvesting kangaroos than the 'hard-footed introduced domestic animals'.

Quite recently the Australasian Wildlife Management Society debated and adopted two relevant formal Position Papers, one on the commercial use of wildlife, which attempted to address the need identified by IUCN for appropriate safeguards and a second on kangaroo harvesting. Each is derived from the outcome of a workshop on the topic, the former at a conference 'Conservation Biology in Australia and Oceania' held in Brisbane in October 1991 (Moritz and Kikkawa 1994), the latter at a conference 'Conservation through Sustainable Use of Wildlife', also held in Brisbane, in February 1994 (Grigg et al. 1995). The second conference was held specifically to explore further the issues addressed in the workshop on the commercial use of wildlife at the first. Both conferences were organised by The University of Queensland's Centre for Conservation Biology and both were very well attended (approximately 250 and 350, respectively). Both of the AWMS position statements are reproduced in Appendix 2 and Appendix 3, with permission, because they convey much about the general issues involved as well as potential solutions.

The philosophy of sustainable use of kangaroos to gain a conservation benefit translates easily to kangaroos. Instead of treating kangaroos as a pest, recognise them as a resource and encourage their conservation. Kangaroo populations depend for their long-term survival on the habitat in which they live. Most of Australia's kangaroos live in the sheep rangelands (see Figures 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8). Productivity in most of the sheep rangelands is under threat from land degradation caused by grazing animals. Long-term productive use of the sheep rangelands depends upon the introduction of land management practices which minimise further degradation of the land. Better integration of the commercial use of kangaroos into overall production on the grazing lands may lead to a change of attitude among landholders, one which regards kangaroos as a resource instead of a pest. This scenario has been developed and promoted particularly in a series of papers by Grigg (1987, 1988, 1995, 1997).

In particular, Grigg has argued that because conservation considerations prohibit removing kangaroos to the extent that landholders would like, a better strategy might be for graziers to carry lower numbers of sheep and make up the economic shortfall from kangaroos. This could allow grazing properties to be economically viable at lower total stocking rates and could facilitate land rehabilitation.

It is worth remembering that in Queensland's mulga lands 200 out of 1300 pastoral enterprises are considered to be inviable and that average debt levels were $220,000 per property in 1993, a 50% increase over debt levels in 1988 (Queensland Department of Primary Industries 1994). Further, possibly only 10% of properties are considered large enough to be viable in the long term under current conditions. The situation is said to be broadly similar in New South Wales, with 250 properties inviable in the long term and perenniality of pasture low in many areas with the worst affected no longer capable of sustaining sheep grazing at commercially viable levels.

What is missing at present, and what prevents the Grigg scenario becoming implemented, is that kangaroo products at present are too low in value for most graziers to see them as a potential resource. Grigg has argued that a solid marketing program could promote the meat as a speciality product on the world game meat market, leading to a price rise which, if sufficient, could drive a change in attitude to kangaroos.

The practicality of this option is not supported universally, even among those who support the idea philosophically and even though the idea is judged to be sound ecologically (Graetz 1988). The doubts are economic ones, particularly about the prospects for a significant increase in the value of kangaroo products being realised (Choquenot et al. 1998). On the other hand, Switala (1995) provided a more encouraging analysis. It all boils down to economics, and whether or not the many positive attributes of kangaroo meat, its nutritional and low fat value and the potential conservation gains from its use, can be translated into significant price rises. Also relevant is the role of the present kangaroo industry, whose participants are understandably reluctant to start paying for a product which has, up to now, been given to them freely by landholders, or to take steps which might encourage new players in the industry.

Many points of view on this issue have been expressed, and an overview of the facts and opinions behind most of the arguments are recorded in a series of papers in Grigg et al. (1995). In particular, see papers by Grigg (1995), which spells out the proposal in more detail, Alchin (1995) which addresses the issue from the perspective of a landholder contemplating diversification into kangaroos, Sattler (1995) which advocates diversification into kangaroos as a way to achieve conservation objectives in Queensland's mulga lands and Switala (1995) for an analysis of the quantity of meat available and its economic potential in the short term.