Welfare concerns divide perception from reality

Published 1 May 2018 | Mick Keogh

The divide between urban and rural attitudes on certain subjects has never been more evident than in the current community discussion about the management of kangaroos in rural Australia. The issue has been brought to the fore by the release of a documentary called Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story, which has been promoted in Europe by Australian federal politicians attempting to stop exports of kangaroo products.

The film reportedly provides extended graphic footage of kangaroo culling and discusses the potential of kangaroo extinction. No doubt there will be renewed criticism of the kangaroo industry as a result, and potential trade implications in international markets.

This despite the most recent kangaroo census estimating the national kangaroo population at close to 50 million for the areas within Australia where commercial harvesting occur – more than twice the human population and almost double the estimated kangaroo population in 2010*. This also despite the fact that annual quotas set by scientists for the carefully monitored culling program are almost never achieved. The following figure taken from the NSW Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Management Plan demonstrates quite clearly that the annual kangaroo harvest is minimal relative to the total population and has a negligible impact on population dynamics.

Figure 1: NSW Kangaroo population, quota and harvest data.

Source:  NSW Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Management Plan.

What is missing from this discussion of animal welfare is the fate that a great many of these kangaroos suffer in a period of extended drought, as was the case from 2003 to 2009 in the southern half of Australia. The very rapid kangaroo population decline that occurred between 2001 and 2004 (from 57 million to 25 million, according to the national census) was almost entirely due to drought, with cull levels relatively steady over this period. The impact of drought is also evident in the above figure for NSW.

These 30 million kangaroo deaths were largely due to a combination of starvation and thirst, surely a much more painful demise than being shot by a professional hunter. However, these deaths never attract the attention of activists, nor is there discussion of the fact that in the absence of the current culling program, more kangaroos would suffer this fate.

Community unease about kangaroo culling extends to similar programs to manage populations of wild horses in national parks and camels in central Australia, irrespective of any scientific argument or rational discussion in support of such programs.

It is well recognised that people often make decisions based on emotion rather than logic, even when presented with overwhelming evidence. This discourse is a classic example. Footage of cute, cuddly animals in danger generates a highly emotive response from an audience, most of whom live in urban areas where the only wildlife is a few local rats and perhaps some Indian myna birds. They likely have absolutely no awareness of the impact caused by the removal of predators like dingoes, and the provision of watering points, crops and pasture on the population dynamics of native animals like kangaroos. The reality of millions of kangaroos starving to death during drought is absent from their consciousness – without context or a competing narrative, culling kangaroos by shooting seems inhuman and barbaric.

There is no easy way to bridge this divide in Australia, especially given the demographic profile of the nation – one of the most urbanised populations globally. The kangaroo industry and landholders need to ensure that objective data is regularly collected and put in front of policy makers, that the industry has in place appropriate protocols and standards which are actively enforced, and that media outlets are regularly provided with concise information about the industry. All this is difficult for a relatively small industry to resource, but essential to achieve sensible, long-term policy settings and land management.

*The actual national populations would be significantly higher as these figures do not include estimates for areas not surveyed.

Image:  Karl Baron

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