Kangaroo meat is widely consumed in Australia and available in most Australian supermarkets. It is also exported to over 55 countries. Kangaroo leather is recognized as the strongest lightweight leather in the world and extensively used in first class sporting shoes and gloves .
There are 48 species of macropods (kangaroos) in Australia. Of these only 6 can be commercially harvested. .
Over 99% of the commercial kangaroo harvest occurs in the arid grazing rangelands. The populations of kangaroos in these areas are estimated every year in each State by well developed aerial survey techniques. It must be understood that these are sparsely timbered, [savannah] type ecosystems. Hence it is possible to fly over them and count the large animals, such as kangaroos, seen. Using either low flying fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, flying at heights of 2-300 meters the National Parks Authorities count the numbers of kangaroos seen over fixed transects. Thirty years of such monitoring have allowed them to develop sophisticated and accurate techniques of extrapolating out to total population numbers . Kangaroos are one of only a very few species (including humans) who have an annual census of their populations.
Current populations stand around the 25 million mark. This means there are similar numbers of kangaroos in Australia as there are cattle . It is widely accepted that within the rangelands kangaroos are now more common than prior to European settlement. This situation has arisen due to the increased food and water supply generated by the activities of the sheep and cattle industry. Prior to European settlement these areas had very few places of surface water from which kangaroos could drink. The pastoral industry has tapped into below ground water supplies to the point where now very few points in the rangelands are further that 3 km from a permanent water source and no point is further than 10 km (Landsburg 1999).
For any kangaroo species to be harvested the States National Parks Authority must have a detailed Management Plan approved by the Federal conservation Department. These Plans must detail the population monitoring and quota setting controls, the controls over the take and they must be renewed every 5 years .
Each year after the population estimate is obtained, each Management Plan will set a maximum allowable take (quota) of between 10-20% of total population. The populations fluctuate depending on seasonal conditions, during droughts they can decline, or they can increase dramatically during good seasons. The States Authority will then issue individually and sequentially numbered plastic lockable tags. These tags are designed to ensure that once properly applied any tampering with them will be perfectly obvious .
Each kangaroo taken by licensed harvesters must have such a tag fixed to it and the harvester and processor must report back to the Authorities on a monthly basis the details of the exact number of the tags they have used, where the tags were used and what species, sex and weight of animal they were attached to. The Authority monitors the release and use of tags to ensure the harvest in any one area does not exceed the quota.
The complexity and detail of the controls in the Management Plans can be indicated by a brief examination of the NSW Plan. It divides the State into 15 different zones, 14 in which commercial kangaroo harvesting is allowed and one comprising over one third of the State in which no harvesting can take place. The population is estimated in each individual zone and a harvest quota allocated to it. An appropriate number of tags are then issued to the conservation authority Managers in each zone and these can only be obtained by kangaroo harvesters on two days of each month. The harvester must use and submit reports for all of his tags issued before more can be obtained and the issue of tags by zone is closely monitored. As soon as the harvest in any one zone approaches the quota it is closed to commercial activity for the rest of the year .
In order to purchase the tags issued by the Authorities an individual must be licensed as a kangaroo harvester. To do so they must undergo training delivered by government accredited agencies and approved by the Australian TAFE (Tertiary and Further Education) agency in the appropriate State. This training covers the regulatory controls and compliance requirements, the animal welfare controls and the hygiene controls each harvester must adhere to. They must then pass assessment in their knowledge and practices relating to these controls by two separate Government Departments. This will include assessment of their competency with their firearm. Only then will they be able to obtain the required licenses from the two Authorities concerned .
It is a condition of every kangaroo harvesters license that they adhere to the guidelines laid out in the Federal Government document ‘Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos’. This specifies the minimum high caliber firearms which can be used, it requires that all animals be head shot and documents procedures for the humane dispatch of any pouch young .
Any kangaroo or kangaroo product accepted by processors, be it for meat or skins, must have an approved tag applied to it and be supplied by a licensed harvester. Each processor must report on a monthly basis to the State Authority the numbers of kangaroos purchased, who from and the relevant tags numbers.
The Kangaroo Management Plans have been operating under strict and intensive supervision for almost 30 years. Over this period the average harvest per year has been in excess of 2 million animals.
Despite long term harvests in excess of 2 million animals per year the kangaroo population has consistently increased. Even following the worse drought on record (2005-07) numbers in 2008 are still at what could be considered historically typical levels. Their current population of 25 million is only marginally lower than the 25 year average of 26.7 million (which is skewed by the very high levels reached during a run of highly favorable years in the late 1990’s) .
A project conducted by NSW Dept Agriculture, which employed extensive field study and highly sophisticated computer modeling techniques, has cast light on why kangaroo populations are so resilient to harvesting. The project examined harvester activity and modeled it in response to terrain and prices paid for kangaroos harvested. It demonstrated that in the areas investigated and at current prices, 20-40% of any one property will rarely be visited by a kangaroo harvester because the terrain is too rough or other limitations make it not economic to do so. These areas then become ‘refugia’, areas in which the resident kangaroo population is never harvested and from which the population expands to re-populate areas which are harvested .
The authors conclude:
“Models presented here suggest that kangaroo populations may be more resilient to harvesting than we had previously thought” (McLeod et al 2001).
The argument is often mooted that kangaroo harvesting selects the largest animals and will therefore affect the genetic fitness of the species. The scientific data strongly refutes this argument. Four separate reports have recently provided considerable evidence to discount these claims.
1) An examination of the question submitted to the NSW National parks and Wildlife Service in 2001 concluded:
“Currently, there is no evidence of real or potential genetic ‘deterioration’ due to harvesting, nor any reason to suspect it. Indeed, indications are that kangaroo numbers would have to be reduced to extremely low levels for genetic impacts to become important and by then other impacts, such as demographic disruption, would be overridingly important” .
2) A extensive report into factors affecting genetic makeup in kangaroos by the University of Queensland concluded that:
“The effects of the commercial harvest are therefore unlikely to produce genetic changes in the population. First, the heritability of the characters in question is low. Second, the selection differential is low because differences in fitness between younger and older adult males is small, older males do not appear to monopolise matings, only a small proportion of older males are selected against (so most animals are in the selected group), and only a small proportion of the population is harvested.” .
3) A study of Queensland kangaroo populations harvested at rates of 0 to 30% has shown no differences in the genetic diversity of the various populations. That is, intensively harvested populations show no reductions in genetic diversity compared to unharvested ones (Pople 1996). This study also cites information showing virtual uniformity of genetic codes across widely dispersed kangaroo populations, suggesting the extensive harvesting to date has had no effect on the species.
4) A study conducted by the NSW Dept. of Ag. has applied extremely sophisticated computer modeling techniques to kangaroo population’s dynamics. It has demonstrated that even after several hundred years of intensive harvesting there would be no impact on the genetic makeup of the population. A large cause of this being that there are always areas of rugged terrain in which kangaroos are never harvested (refugia) and migration of animals and their genetic material out of these areas offsets any selection which may occur through harvesting (NSW Dept. Ag. 2002)
Several trials have indicated that an uncontrolled kangaroo numbers present a risk to plant biodiversity. Kangaroos can not be commercially harvested in National Parks, as a result their numbers often rise to staggering levels which sometimes require culling programs to be used. In biodiversity monitoring done following a cull at Hattah-Kulkyne National Park in Victoria increased abundance of 20 rare or threatened plant species was recorded in areas where kangaroo were culled compared with unculled areas (Sluiter et al 1997).
All kangaroos taken for commercial use are harvested by professional shooters. State and Federal Government controls ensure that no kangaroo can enter the commercial industry unless they have been taken by a licensed kangaroo harvester who has passed an accredited training course which includes training in the animal welfare aspects of kangaroo harvesting. In addition anyone wishing to harvest kangaroos for human consumption must undergo assessment of their accuracy with their firearm. The accreditation and competency assessment are controlled by State Government regulations in each State .
All kangaroos must be taken according to the guidelines laid out in the Federal Government document ‘Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos’. This specifies the minimum high caliber firearms which can be used, it requires that all animals be head shot and documents procedures for the humane dispatch of any pouch young .