It was 2002, and soccer superstar David Beckham was, for the first time, leading England into the World Cup as team captain. At each match he wore a different pair of personalized, champagne-colored cleats, embroidered with his children’s names on the red fold-over tongue. Though England lost in the quarterfinals, Beckham, and his shoes, went on to lasting fame, landing a $160.8 million lifetime deal with Adidas the following year.
For all the adulation Beckham inspired in his fans, animal-rights activists had an equal amount of anger: His iconic Predators were made of kangaroo leather.
Described as soft and flexible yet very strong, “k-leather” is used for soccer cleats by many companies, including Adidas, Nike, and Puma. For several years leading up to that World Cup, activists with the pro-vegan animal-advocacy group Viva! had been protesting the kangaroo industry. Their efforts were aimed at high-profile targets like Beckham, who had become the face of the Predator, arguing that Australia’s kangaroo hunt was inhumane and unnecessary.
In 2006 Beckham, who had moved to California to play with the L.A. Galaxy, switched to synthetic Predator cleats. That was just months before the California Supreme Court reaffirmed decades-old legislation banning the importation and sale of kangaroo products in the state. Their sale was first banned 1971, three years before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put several kangaroo species on the Endangered Species Act list because of severe population declines from overhunting.
While Aborigines have a 40,000-year-long history of eating kangaroo, it wasn’t until European colonists arrived Down Under in 1770 that kangaroo slaughter caused the animals’ numbers to begin dropping—the creatures were food to the colonists but also pests, with a government-funded bounty on their heads. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Australia began regulating the commercial harvest and export.
A lot has changed since then. Kangaroos were removed from the U.S.’s endangered-species list in 1995; California briefly lifted its kangaroo products ban from 2010 to 2015 after successful lobbying by the Australian government and Adidas; and this September Adidas and Beckham announced a new Predator cleat featuring kangaroo leather.
At last count nearly 50 million kangaroos were bounding about Australia, according to the government, a number that’s been described as “plague proportions.” While some Australians still see kangaroos as pests—grazers that compete with livestock for food, trample crops, and cause traffic collisions—others picture sweet Kanga and her baby, Roo, from Winnie the Pooh. Or Skippy, the pet kangaroo in the 1960s Australian TV show, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Still others see kangaroos not as pests or pets but as a promising alternative to cows and sheep, whose hard hooves and grazing put pressure on rangeland habitat.
The decades-old process of managing kangaroo populations through hunts and by selling the meat and skins is controversial. Australia’s state governments set annual quotas to regulate how many kangaroos can be killed each year, arguing that culling is critical to ensure kangaroo populations don’t grow too big and damage sensitive grasslands. But some ecologists and animal-advocacy organizations say the hunts are inhumane, not sustainable or necessary.
Despite the controversy, the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia continues to promote the expansion of the kangaroo skin and meat industry internationally. The industry generates some $133 million a year—only a tiny portion of Australia’s nearly $1.2 trillion GDP—in raw products, according to data the association provided to National Geographic.
COUNTING AND CULLING ROOS
In 2016 the cull quota was about 7.8 million kangaroos, according to data from the Department of the Environment and Energy, but fewer than 1.5 million were shot.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding the hunt is whether kangaroo populations should be controlled by humans—and if so, how sustainable the current kangaroo cull is. In the past, dingoes helped manage kangaroo numbers, says ecologist Christopher Johnson, a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Tasmania. But their numbers have been greatly reduced by culls. Without these natural predators—and with the additional waterways and pastures that have been cleared for agriculture—kangaroo numbers have grown.
“We could decide that we are happy for kangaroo abundance to be limited by climate and availability of water and food, rather than predation or hunting, at population levels much higher than in the past,” Johnson says. “However, that situation does lead to damage to habitat.”
The issue of sustainability boils down to how many kangaroos there actually are. But counting animals spread over three million square miles is no small task. The government conducts an annual census using ground and aerial surveys, but some ecologists and animal-advocacy groups have taken issue with the way the data from them is extrapolated.
Ecologist Ray Mjadwesch, who published a 2011 report called “Kangaroos at Risk,” contends that because the surveys include protected areas such as national parks—which have more kangaroos than, say, farmlands—hunt quotas are based on inflated population estimates.
“Surveys are conducted according to rigorous scientific methodology that has been refined over more than three decades,” wrote a spokesman for the Department of the Environment and Energy in a statement to the Investigative Reporting Workshop and National Geographic.
Mjadwesch questions the reliability of the government’s data, pointing out that implausible growth numbers are regularly reported. One year the state of New South Wales estimated that the grey kangaroo population in the town of Coonabarabran had grown 313 percent—a figure Mjadwesch calls “biologically impossible.” At times other local estimates have been similarly outsized. Mjadwesch says a high growth rates for kangaroos would be around 15 to 17 percent under good conditions, and a few studies have calculated a growth rate of 30 percent, feasible only under exceptionally good seasonal conditions and not taking into consideration mortality rate and other corrective factors.
Kangaroo populations have risen recently, thanks to good rainfall, but young kangaroos, called joeys, have a relatively low survival rate and are particularly susceptible to drought and other environmental changes. During the 2000s Australia faced one of its worst droughts on record, causing kangaroo numbers to drop to 23.8 million. When the drought broke, around 2010, more food became available, and their numbers began to grow again, to 2017’s estimate of nearly 50 million.
But dry weather in the summer could bring another kangaroo famine. In that case, says Trudy Sharp, a researcher at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, the hunt is essentially humane euthanasia. “Management by harvesting takes animals that would die anyway during drought and reduces the number that would die a prolonged death,” Sharp wrote in an email. Many wildlife managers and conservationists share this sentiment: An immediate death is better than dying of thirst or hunger.
Rosie Cooney, a zoologist and expert in sustainable use of wild resources, says it’s important to note that the kangaroo hunt is not only about controlling the population. “These kangaroos are valuable renewable resources that humans can use carefully and sustainably,” she says.
But the coupling of the cull with a commercial industry is where things can get fuzzier, says Marc Beckoff, a behavioral ecologist who has spoken out against the kangaroo hunt. “They claim that they’re trying to keep the population of animals down, but they get paid to do it.”
It’s critical that when considering any wildlife cull, policy-makers consider the views and needs of everyone involved, from commercial hunters, processors, and retailers to tour operators to those focused on the long-term sustainability of wild lands and wild animals, says Mary Pearl, the former president of the Wildlife Trust and a dean at the City University of New York.
“For a cull to be ethical,” Pearl says, “it must involve removal of the least number of animals to achieve a sustainable population objective, with the least possible pain and trauma to the individual animals targeted.”
HOW HUMANE ARE THE HUNTS?
Commercial kangaroo shooters must adhere to standards of humane killing, set out by a national code of practice. It requires them to kill each kangaroo with a single shot to the head and, to prevent prolonged suffering, making certain the animal is dead before targeting another one. Hunters are also required to take a shooting skills test to ensure they have consistent, accurate aim. Many ecologists have pointed out that shooting a wild animal in its natural environment is more humane than the conditions under which livestock are often raised and slaughtered.
But because kangaroos are nocturnal, hunting takes place in cover of darkness, which makes getting a clean single shot to the head more challenging.
John Kelly, the executive officer of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia, says that compliance with the code—based on random audits by state inspectors in the field as well as mandatory exams by veterinarians performed when the carcasses are delivered to processing centers—is “extraordinarily high.”
A 2002 report prepared for the Australian government by RSCPA Australia, an animal-welfare organization, found that 95.9 percent of kangaroos examined had been shot in the head. The report commends the industry for that level of humane kills but adds that that level of compliance still means that more than 112,000 kangaroos were not shot in the head. “Given the size of the commercial harvest,” the report says, “This is still a matter of considerable concern.”
The report also notes that its findings don’t account for kangaroos shot but left in the field, those that escaped after being shot, and the effects on dependent joeys whose mothers were killed. It adds that the random field audits by government inspectors are not always routine and that because hunters are most careful when being observed, the results might not reflect reality.
A particularly contentious issue is what happens to joeys when their mothers are killed. Hunters are encouraged to avoid females that clearly have joeys in their pouches, but if they do kill a female with a joey, the code recommends that joey be killed as soon as possible by “single forceful blow to the base of the skull.” That prevents the vulnerable joey from a slow death of dehydration, starvation, exposure, or predation.
RSPCA Australia says, however, that “the relative humaneness [of these slaughter methods] is not fully known” and that “research is urgently needed to determine the most humane method of killing small pouch young.” They note that hunters are not given training on how to quickly and humanely kill joeys, even though they are required to receive such training on how to kill adults.
“The word ‘humane’ is very loosely used—they’ve sanitized what they’re doing,” Beckoff says of the hunt. “With the large number of animals involved, there’s no way that it’s going to be uniformly humane.”
Viva! had been campaigning for years to get soccer players to stop wearing k-leather cleats by the time Beckham gave his up in 2006. As animal-advocacy groups pressure sports equipment manufacturers, including Adidas and Nike, the use of kangaroo leather seems to have declined.
From July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, Australia exported some $11.8 million worth of kangaroo leather, but the following year, exports dropped by more than half, to about $4.8 million, according to data from the market research firm IBISWorld. The reason is unclear.
In 2012 a U.K.-based ethical-investment company called Cooperative Asset Management (now Royal London Asset Management) said it had reached an agreement with Adidas to reduce the use of kangaroo leather in its products by 98 percent over the next year. Cristina Maillo Belda, a spokeswoman for Adidas, told National Geographic and the Investigative Reporting Workshop that Adidas never actually committed to that goal and that all the company’s top-priced cleats do use kangaroo leather.
“Adidas is opposed to kangaroos being killed in an inhumane or cruel manner,” Belda wrote in an emailed statement. “This is why we insist that our suppliers fully comply with the Australian government’s strict rules on kangaroo culling.”
As for Nike, a spokesman said in an email that the company has been phasing out “exotic skins”—kangaroo as well as snake, lizard, and crocodile—during the past few years. But he added that kangaroo leather is still used in a “small portion” of soccer cleats because of “its high tensile and tear strength and ‘feel’ for players that currently can’t be replicated by synthetic materials.”
A representative for David Beckham did not respond to requests for comment.
WHO’S EATING KANGAROO?
Kangaroo meat is promoted as lean (less than 2 percent fat), natural, and sustainable— and kangaroos produce less methane, a significant greenhouse gas, than cows and sheep. Kangaroo meat is widely available in Australian grocery stores and butchers, but it hasn’t really caught on.
“Many Australians seem to have an ingrained reluctance to eating an iconic animal that is encapsulated on their national coat of arms,” according to a 2016 research article on “unconventional meats” in the journal Meat Science. “Then there is the emotional deterrent of eating an animal that is perceived as cute, cuddly, and friendly.”
Kelly says about 40 percent of kangaroo meat is exported abroad,where companies like South Australia’s Macro Meats, the country’s largest retail distributor, are marketing it as an exotic delicacy. In 2016 Macro Meats participated in the SIAL Paris, the world’s largest food exposition.
Companies are also moving away from using kangaroo meat for pet food, which now accounts for about 10 percent of the industry, according to Kelly. The focus now is on promoting it as high-end food for human consumption.
In New York City diners at the Burke & Wills Australian bistro can order a kangaroo burger. The Thirsty Koala in Astoria offers kangaroo meat as an add-on to many of its burgers. Chicago’s Dog House has put an exotic spin on its hot dog menu, selling a “Kangaroo Jack,” composed of “hoppin’” kangaroo sausage, spicy mayo and cheese. And in Arlington, Virginia, the Westover Market’s butcher shop sells kangaroo meat alongside other exotic meats, which they advertise as “something special for a tasting party, or an adventurous Saturday dinner.”
Preventing bacterial growth is another issue for the commercial kangaroo industry. Guidelines say that after night hunts, kangaroo carcasses must be placed in a refrigerated unit within two hours of sunrise and that the internal body temperature must be lowered to and maintained at a temperature cool enough to prevent bacterial growth within 24 hours. According to Kelly, body temperatures are monitored by sensors placed in the carcasses and refrigeration units. Kangaroo processing centers are subject to the same standards as beef and sheep processing facilities.
But food safety concerns do crop up; regulating the processing of farmed livestock is easier than it is for animals hunted in the wild. And kangaroo meat is often served rare, so the risk of foodborne illness is greater still.
In 2009 independent tests performed by Biotech Laboratories and commissioned by the animal-advocacy group Animal Liberation found dangerous levels of E. coli and salmonella. While Kelly cautioned at the time that the results should be taken lightly, given the activists’ motivation, a former government food inspector—who helped draft the laws governing the kangaroo hunt years ago—has also raised questions about food safety in the industry.
Russia used to import 70 percent of Australia’s kangaroo meat, but it temporarily banned the importation in 2009, along with meat from several other countries, because of concerning levels of E. coli. More recent government testing also found violations of health and safety regulations.
Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands are the biggest importers of kangaroo meat, according to IBISWorld data, but meat distributors are increasingly focusing their efforts on Asia. Macro Meats has increased sales by 400 percent to Japan alone during the past year, and the company ships more than 25 tons of kangaroo meat to Hong Kong each month.
China is the next frontier. Meat consumption there has grown there in recent years, and consumers are on the lookout for affordable sources of protein, making the country an ideal consumer for kangaroo meat. Ray Borda, Macro Meat’s managing director, told The Lead South Australia in June that his company has been working to get access to the Chinese market for 12 years.
Some Australians don’t want that to happen—they’d prefer the hunt end altogether. In July 2015 Member of Parliament Mark Pearson, who belongs to the Animal Justice Party, which advocates for the protection of all of the country’s native wildlife, traveled to China with a delegation to lobby Chinese leaders not to import kangaroo meat.
China still has not approved kangaroo meat imports.
So what does the future hold for the kangaroo industry? Sam Johnson, a senior industry analyst at IBISWorld’s Australia office, says it’s comes down to getting people excited about kangaroo products.
“The culling rates don’t reach the quota, and that’s largely because the demand isn’t there,” he says. “There’s room for growth, but it just depends on how successfully industry participants are able to market the product.”
In the meantime, the 2017 hunt—and the debate—continues. This year’s quota is nearly 7.5 million kangaroos.
Catherine York, a senior at Duke University, interned at the Investigative Reporting Workshop in the summer of 2017. Follow her on Twitter.
Taylor Hartz, Ashley Balcerzak, Loic Samuel Youth, Fenit Nirappil, and Angela Swartz contributed to this report.