Kangaroo Meat – Environmentally Sustainable or Australia’s Shame?

In the last few weeks, I have heard a lot of people talking about how wonderful and environmentally sustainable kangaroo meat is. I have often wondered exactly how much people know about kangaroo meat, and how it is produced in Australia. I’ve decided to write a post about the subject to share my views.

A young eastern gray kangaroo, known as a joey, peers from its mother's pouch. Photograph by Nicole Duplaix

Biology

Macropods are marsupials from the family Macropodidae (meaning big foot). Kangaroos are herbivores with most species endemic to Australia (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008). They are found through all Australian landscapes, and although often seen grazing or sleeping during the day, they are largely nocturnal keeping the bulk of energy sapping activities to dusk and dawn periods. Kangaroos are an evolved part of the Australian ecosystem and their large soft padded feet cause no degradation to their natural environment (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008; Dooley, 2004; Office of Environment and Heritage, 2012).

Kangaroos are a matriarchal society. The females, known as “does”, remain with their mothers and sisters for life. Upon maturity, bucks (males) leave the extended family group, known as a “mob” in search of an unrelated group.

Kangaroos are capable of breeding all year around when food and water conditions allow. Females of all macropod species have a top opening front facing pouch that houses four teats (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008). The kangaroo baby, known as a joey is born in an immature embryonic state and climbs into the pouch. Depending on the species, the joey can remain in the pouch for up to 11 months  (Dooley, 2004).

Once it has matured, it will remain at its mother’s side. This stage of development is known as “at-foot” young. During this stage, the at-foot young will continue to suckle from the same teat until independent. This is around 18 months of age in some species such as the Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropodus giganteus) (Dooley, 2004). During this phase of maturity, the doe will have produced a new joey which will have attached itself to a different teat in the pouch. In an unparalleled feat in the animal kingdom, the mother will produce two different milk compositions for her two dependant joeys which are tailored specifically for their developmental stage (Dooley, 2004).

Kangaroos' legs cannot move independently of one another, so they must hop everywhere. Red Kangaroo's photograph by Joseph J. Scherschel, National Geographic Stock

Status

At the time of European settlement in Australia, 53 species were known to be in existence on the continent. Six species have become extinct and another 11 are known to be endangered nationally (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2009). Kangaroos are protected in Australia under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Population and Community, 1999).

Culling

Traditionally, indigenous people have hunted kangaroos for their skins and meat. European settlers also viewed kangaroos as an exploitable resource. Farming of this natural resource has proven difficult  and today commercial harvesting of wild kangaroos, known as culls, is conducted by licensed hunters in accordance with federal and state management plans. Culling is conducted based on a quota system. Annual reviews checks identify population size and trends. It also identifies the current climate situation (ie: drought). The quota is therefore set with relation to this data, and in view of market demand.  The commonly utilised species are the Red Kangaroo, Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos, Common Wallaroo, Bennetts Wallaby and Pademelon (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008).

A new Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Management Plan (NSW) was enacted in December 2011 and is valid 1 Jan 2012 – 31 Dec 2016. In NSW, harvesting is restricted to Red Kangaroo, Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos, Common Wallaroo (Office of Environment and Heritage, 2012). None of these species are listed with the Union for Conservation in Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN Red List) or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Fauna (CITES) (Office of Environment and Heritage, 2012).

Meat and Export

Because kangaroos are a product of wild harvesting, the meat is advertised as being antibiotic, chemical and growth hormone free.  It is popular for its gamey flavour, low fat, high protein, zinc and iron qualities. Kangaroo meat has been exported to Europe since 1959 and according to the Government’s Foreign Affairs website, it is exported to more than 55 countries (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008).

All of the Eastern Grey Kangaroos in this photo were culled in May 2008 after an international campaign to try to save them. Photograph by Ray Drew.

The Hidden Costs

Natural macropod populations are known to have increase in response to European farming methodology. Their competition with live stock for natural resources such as food and water, and predation on agricultural crops has bought them into disfavour with farmers (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008; Office of Environment and Heritage, 2012). Culling is used as a method of finding a balance between agricultural needs and conservation.

The death toll and hunting techniques

When a mob is disturbed by hunters, the mob will often scatter in panic and chaos. The dominant buck will often turn to confront and delay the perusers, allowing his mob time to escape. I have witnessed this behaviour myself on two occasions. It is often this dominant buck with other high ranking males that are the first to be killed. The removal of these dominant animals allows lesser males to take a breeding role in the mob. Through this reaction cycle, the gene pool strength is reduced.

It has to be recognised that when a doe dies, a total of four animals is killed. Inside the doe’s uterus, an embryo waits for birth in a state of suspended development. A pouch bound joey is often found. The Code of Practice that regulates the culling states that joeys, taken from their dead mothers’ pouches may be euthanased in situ with a water pipe or iron bar until dead (Australian Wildlife Protection Council, 2007; Nicholls, 2007). The rude bashing of these joeys is akin to that of seal pups in Canada. A third joey, the at-foot young are left to die of starvation, often having fled the scene in chaos (Australian Wildlife Protection Council, 2007; Nicholls, 2007). Only the female counts towards the quota numbers (Animal Liberation, 2007; Nicholls, 2007; Office of Environment and Heritage, 2012). Her joeys are never considered for national quotas.

Legalised culling in NSW is conducted by registered hunters, however, despite public perception, culling methodologies and practices are not monitored by any government or ethics organisation to ensure that the industry remains cruelty free. Eye witness accounts detail the cruelty as wounded animals are often allowed to flee to die later of their injuries and joeys are clubbed to death (Australian Wildlife Protection Council, 2007; Nicholls, 2007).

Meat quality issues and export bans

Questions over health concerns regarding kangaroo meat are raised regularly. Have you ever noticed how kangaroo meat sold in supermarkets is always in bulging packaging? Harvesting takes place during the evening and carcasses are left un-refrigerated for up to 8 hours in heat up to 30oC (Australian Allied Press, 2009). From a 2007 inspection of 24 kangaroo production meat rooms in NSW and Southern Queensland, E coli, Strepococcus and Staphylococcus contamination was identified on kangaroo carcases (Animal Liberation, 2007). It also identified that 70 – 80% of carcasses were female, of minimal consumption weight and probably too young to have bred (Animal Liberation, 2007).

Critical reports regarding product quality have plagued the industry for years. In 2007, Europe banned all kangaroo meat import over concerns of meat quality and harvesting issues (Australian Allied Press, 2009; Siegel, 2011). The ban still exists in Russia, which represents a 50% decrease in the market demand (Gage, 2011; Siegel, 2011).

Illegal hunting activities

Illegal hunting is widespread, unregulated and largely ignored by governing authorities and law enforcement. Just in the last few days, several articles regarding illegal hunting activities have been reported in national papers. A man was accidentally shot only two days ago while hunting kangaroos with friends (King, 2012). Four days ago, claims were made that a military base exceeded the cull quota in NSW (Beyers, 2012). Disturbingly, a man from Wodonga faces charges after having killed a kangaroo and its joey before dragging it through the towns main street for sport (Deery, 2012; Dow, 2012; Unknown, 2012).

Additionally, an activity known as “pitting” is known to take place where farmers illegally kill kangaroos. The carcases are buried in pits on the property, unutilised, while the skins are sold into the fur trade. There is no way of accounting for the numbers of animals killed in this way, and do not count towards the annual culling quota (Australian Wildlife Protection Council, 2007).

As a wildlife carer of several years, I have witnessed first hand the aftermath of illegal hunting activities. I remember clearly one joey that had been pulled from its dead mother and give to some children to raise. It was carried around in a bucket by the kids for days before it finally was turned in to a wildlife carer. The joey had suffered horrendously as oversized human baby bottle teats were forced into its mouth, breaking its jaw in he process. It had been force fed cows milk which gave it diarrhoea, causing dehydration and starvation. Its legs were broken from being forcibly jammed into and restrained in the bucket. Mercifully, it was euthanased by the carer who handled the case.

While I agree that the meat is unique and even appealing in flavour, I can not ethically agree with an unregulated and unsustained practice such as the kangaroo industry. Hunting methods still employ brutal execution of barbaric practices by inexperienced people. I can not condone the activities that I know will cause the slow, painful death of millions of animals. Despite these emotional concerns, I refuse to partake of an industry with such critical health concerns as reported throughout this article.

References

Animal Liberation (2007). Kangaroo Campaign  Retrieved 4 March, 2012, from http://animal-lib.org.au/campaigns/120-kangaroo-campaign.html

Australian Allied Press. (2009, 15 May). EU might ban kangaroo exports, Online Newspaper Article, Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/eu-might-ban-kangaroo-exports-20090515-b5t3.html

Australian Wildlife Protection Council (2007). Kangaroos  Retrieved 3 March, 2012, from http://www.awpc.org.au/awpc.php?crm=1&australian_wildlife_protection_council=7

Beyers, B. (2012, 29 February). Claims military base exceeded kangaroo cull quota, Online Newspaper Article, The McIvor Times. Retrieved 3 March 2012 from http://www.mmg.com.au/local-news/heathcote/claims-military-base-exceeded-kangaroo-cull-quota-1.11536

Deery, S. (2012, 8 February). Uproar at kangoroo torture, Online Newspaper Article, Herald Sun. Retrieved 3 March from http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/uproar-at-kangaroo-torture/story-fn7x8me2-1226265185517

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2008). About Australia: Kangaroos  Retrieved 4 March, 2012, from http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/kangaroos.html

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Population and Community (1999). Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). Department of Sustainability, Environment, Population and Community  Retrieved 24 April, from http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc/

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2009). EPBC Act List of Threatened Fauna  Retrieved 1 March, 2012, from http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicthreatenedlist.pl?wanted=fauna

Dooley, C. (2004). Macropodology: A guide to raising and releasing kangaroos and wallabies (2nd ed.). Sydney, NSW: WIRES.

Dow, A. (2012, 17 January). Revealed: Roo drag accused, Online Newspaper Article, The Border Mail. Retrieved 3 March from http://www.bordermail.com.au/news/local/news/general/revealed-roo-drag-accused/2423071.aspx

Gage, N. (2011, 4 August). Industry hurt by kangaroo meat export ban, Online News Article, ABC News. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-08-04/kangaroo-meat-export-shooters/2824362

King, R. (2012, 2 March). Man shot by friend while kangaroo hunting, Online Newspaper Article, Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 3 March 2012 from http://www.smh.com.au/wa-news/man-shot-by-friend-while-kangaroo-hunting-20120302-1u6xw.html

Nicholls, D. (2007). [A Letter From an Ex-Kangaroo Shooter]. Office of Environment and Heritage (2012). Kangaroo Management Plan  Retrieved 4 March, 2012, from http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/wildlifemanagement/KangarooManagementProgram.htm

Siegel, M. (2011, 12 April). Kangaroo Meat Producers Weigh Chinese Market, Online Newspaper Article, The New York Times. Retrieved 4 March 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/business/global/13kangaroo.html?_r=1

Unknown. (2012, 1 February). 5 strikes so court takes driver’s car, Online Newspaper Article, The Border Mail. Retrieved 3 March 2012 from http://www.bordermail.com.au/news/local/news/general/5-strikes-so-court-takes-drivers-car/2439465.aspx

About Rhianna

Rhianna is a wildlife ecologist who is currently in the final year of an Environmental Sciences degree. She has a keen focus on living a sustainable, ethical lifestyle which is reflected in all aspects of her life. Of herself, Rhianna says: "I am a happily married 40 something mother of two. I have dark hair, olive skin, and brown eyes. The rest is subject to change without notice."
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