four kangaroos on grassland

Australia’s beloved kangaroos are now controversial pests

They’re the nation’s hopping icons. They also destroy crops and cause car accidents. Is killing them the solution?

Red kangaroos thrive in arid grasslands like these in Sturt National Park. Australia is home to 25 million people and an estimated 50 million kangaroos, which some Aussies call “plague proportions.”
This story appears in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

A mother kangaroo and her joey hop across Main Street to graze on a scruff of grass growing near a gas pump.

It’s a cool spring evening in White Cliffs, a quirky opal-mining town in New South Wales. Locals live like hobbits here, in ventilated holes. Thousands of mine shafts pock the parched earth. But the two eastern gray kangaroos are the oddest sight around.

“I’ve never seen them in town like this,” says George Wilson, a professorial ecologist who’s been studying kangaroos for five decades. “I wonder if they’re someone’s pets.”

Tourists point and gawk. Children ooh and aah. When the sun begins to set, the “roos”—Aussie shorthand for the hopping animals—head out of town. A while later, a young man finishes his beer in the local saloon. He pays his bill, climbs into a white truck with hooks on the back, and drives off. His job that night: to kill as many kangaroos as he can.

Australia has a complicated relationship with its national symbol. Kangaroos are among the world’s most iconic, charismatic species—the living, bounding emblems of the country’s unique biodiversity. At once sublime and adorably absurd, they are evolutionary marvels—the only large animal that hops.

And Australians are demonstrably proud of them. Kangaroos star in movies and TV shows, poems and children’s books. Their images adorn the country’s currency, coat of arms, commercial airlines, naval vessels, Olympic insignia, and athletic uniforms.

To outsiders, the big-footed, fat-tailed, perky-eared creatures are a stand-in for the country itself: Australia means roos, and roos mean Australia. There may be no animal and nation in the world more closely identified.

But there are more than twice as many kangaroos as people in Australia, according to official government figures, and many Aussies consider them pests. Landholding farmers, called graziers, say that the country’s estimated 50 million kangaroos damage their crops and compete with livestock for scarce resources.

Australia’s insurance industry says that kangaroos are involved in more than 80 percent of the 20,000-plus vehicle-animal collisions reported each year.

In the country’s arid, sparsely populated interior, the common belief is that roo numbers have swollen to “plague proportions.” In the absence of traditional predators such as dingoes and Aboriginal hunters, the thinking goes, killing kangaroos is crucial to balancing the ecology.

And to boosting the rural economy. A government-sanctioned industry, based on the commercial harvest of kangaroo meat and hides, exported $29 million in products in 2017 and supports about 4,000 jobs.

Today meat, hides, and leather from four nonthreatened species—eastern grays, western grays, reds, and common wallaroos—have been exported to 56 countries. Global brands such as Nike, Puma, and Adidas buy strong, supple “k-leather” to make athletic gear. And kangaroo meat, once sold mainly as pet food, is finding its way into more and more grocery stores and high-end restaurants.

Four of Australia’s eight states and territories manage annual quota-based culls that supply the industry. (Small-scale trial harvests are also under way in Victoria and Tasmania.)

Advocates point out that low-fat, high-protein kangaroo meat comes from an animal more environmentally friendly than greenhouse gas–emitting sheep and cattle. John Kelly, former executive director of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia, says, “Harvesting our food and fibers from animals adapted to Australia’s fragile rangelands is eminently wise and sustainable. Many ecologists will tell you that there is no more humane way of producing red meat.”

Opponents of the industry are a vocal minority. Animal welfare organizations, celebrities, and a growing number of scientists call the culls inhumane, unsustainable, and unnecessary. Population estimates are highly debatable, they say, but “plague proportions” are biologically implausible. Joeys grow slowly, and many die, so kangaroo populations can expand by only 10 to 15 percent a year, and then only under the best of circumstances.

Dwayne Bannon-Harrison, a member of the Yuin people of New South Wales, says the idea that kangaroos are destroying the country is laughable. “They’ve been walking this land a lot longer than people have,” he says. “How could something that’s been here for millennia be ‘destroying’ the country? I don’t understand the logic in that.”

In many ways, the controversy boils down to an existential question: What is a kangaroo? To some, it’s a pest to be eradicated. To others, it’s a resource to be exploited. Still others see a beloved native animal to be conserved.

These conflicting views are pitting neighbor against neighbor, especially in rural areas. Australia, it seems, is a nation divided over a bounding marsupial.

“That’s kangaroo country down there,” says Wilson, the ecologist, pointing out the window of his Cessna at a patch of thick scrub 8,000 feet below.

“Down there” are dusty rangelands and the sunburned outback, a fragile landscape where fertile soil can quickly turn to dust and water supply never meets demand. Farming has always been a challenge on Earth’s second driest continent, and now climate change is exacerbating heat waves and droughts, intensifying pressure on agriculture and livelihoods.

Overgrazing is a constant worry, says grazier Leon Zanker. And kangaroos only make it worse. Sitting at his kitchen table in Laurelvale on an August afternoon, the burly farmer explains his plight. When there’s a drought, he can manage feed, water, and livestock accordingly. But kangaroos on his land aren’t his to manage—the government owns them.

“If I let my cattle and sheep die of starvation, I could end up in jail” for animal cruelty, Zanker says. “But I can see my country degraded by kangaroos, and I can do nothing about it myself.”

He does have a few options. One is the commercial harvest. Graziers can allow licensed shooters to cull groups of kangaroos, called mobs, on their land. But as demand for kangaroo products has waned—in part because of publicity efforts by animal welfare organizations—the industry has been taking only a fraction of the annual cull allowed. In 2017 Australia’s total quota was about 7.2 million, yet fewer than 1.5 million kangaroos were shot.

Another option is cluster fencing. Graziers with adjacent properties can band together and erect a government-subsidized fence around their farms. But critics say the barriers cruelly snare kangaroos, illegally hinder their access to water, and disrupt the migratory routes of other native animals.

The final option is simple execution. A grazier can apply for a permit that authorizes killing a specific number of animals. At the time of my visit, Zanker had one to cull 500 roos. But many graziers with permits hire amateur shooters with no training or accreditation, unlike the marksmen employed and monitored by the industry. That creates its own problems, including thousands of maimed roos each year.

“If you own a property,” Zanker says, “you’ve probably got a mortgage. And the bank wants its money. But there’s one animal you’re not allowed to manage, and you’re seeing your whole livelihood getting eaten out from under you. What would you do in that situation? Go and give the keys to the bank manager? Or go and buy a box of bullets?”

As the sun goes down in rural Queensland, Brad Cooper goes to work. The stout kangaroo shooter pulls his truck off the road and into a paddock about 20 miles east of Mitchell.

“We’ll get as many as we can tonight,” he says. “But I don’t like this wind. And neither do they.”

“They” are the eastern grays he’s come here to kill. When wind gusts, mobs cluster warily, which makes it harder for shooters to pick off the adult males they’re legally allowed to harvest.

Commercial shooters have to pass a marksmanship test and receive training on animal welfare and hygiene. Each month they have to report the details of their work to ensure that no harvest exceeds the quota.

Cooper is 41 years old. He shot his first kangaroo when he was five. Today he works three nights a week, for six to eight hours at a time. His goal this evening is to kill 30 roos. His single-night record is 104.

As ragged clouds scuttle overhead, the half-moon plays peekaboo in the night sky. A sharp smell of saltbush fills the air. Cooper sweeps the lights on his truck back and forth, back and forth.

A minute later he finds what he’s after. An adult male stands 300 feet away, six feet tall, staring at the truck’s lights as though hypnotized.

Boom! The report from Cooper’s rifle rends the night. The kangaroo crumples in a heap.

Cooper drives to the fallen roo. He yanks the carcass onto the truck bed and hangs it by a rear leg. Working with practiced efficiency, he bleeds the animal, then eviscerates it, inspecting the carcass for lesions or parasites that would compromise its market value. He hacks off the kangaroo’s forepaws, decapitates it, and slices off its tail—a delicacy to Aboriginals that’s left in the red dust.

Next comes paperwork: Every shooter must record the date and time of each kill, the name of the property, the species, and all the other information required by the food processor and the state authority. The red tape can be a pain, Cooper says, but it’s worth it. He gets paid 70 cents per kilogram for field-dressed carcasses. Some nights he can make a thousand dollars.

When he’s done, he climbs back into his truck and drives on. Two males appear. Boom! Boom! The process repeats.

A little before midnight the wind kicks up in earnest, and Cooper calls it a night. His final tally: 10 kangaroos.

“There’s nothing normal about this job,” he says on the way back to Roma, where he’ll deposit his haul in a “chiller box”—a refrigerated depot where carcasses are stored before they’re processed. The hours are strange, the work brutal. Urbanites look down on his profession.

“To them, we’re the lowest of the low,” Cooper says. “But city people are cut off from the animals in their lives. If a dog or a cat needs to be put down, a vet does it. They’re not directly responsible. But we are.”

Howard Ralph, a tall, trim doctor, sits in his drafty waiting room and describes another kind of responsibility for kangaroos.

Ralph and his wife, Glenda, turned their land in Braidwood, an hour’s drive from Canberra, into a wildlife sanctuary 18 years ago. Today, aided by a small army of volunteers, Southern Cross Wildlife Care treats more than 2,000 animals a year. Over half are kangaroos.

“Our main objective in life is animal welfare,” Ralph says. “We try to help these critters and get them to a state where they can be released back into the wild. We don’t discriminate among species. And we don’t give up easily.”

That means treating pain and managing stress, which can be fatal issues. Kangaroos, especially eastern grays, get stressed easily and can develop kidney failure and heart disease. “We see it all the time,” Ralph says.

They also see a lot of cruelty: kangaroos that have been shot in the face, hit with an ax, deliberately run over by a truck. Some can’t hop because of compound fractures to their legs.

“In this so-called civilized country,” Ralph says, “things are done that shouldn’t be done. Sadly, a lot of it goes on not because there’s some population explosion. It happens because people think it’s funny or enjoyable to torment little creatures. We should be beyond the point where cruelty is acceptable. Under any circumstances.”

Across Australia, dozens of roo refuges have popped up in recent years. Like Southern Cross, most are charities in the purest sense: Virtually every cent goes toward medicine and utilities.

Ralph says he’s realistic about people’s views toward kangaroos, but hopeful that things may be getting better.

“I think the general population is gradually changing,” he says. “Twenty years ago, few people thought these critters deserved to be respected. But there’s a growing awareness that they suffer pain. And we need to understand that and treat them accordingly.”

Ray Mjadwesch agrees.

A hundred sixty miles to the north, in the Capertee Valley, the scruffy freelance ecologist is standing in a thickly wooded plot, feeding a scrum of kangaroos on a nippy spring night. Twenty juveniles are jostling for the horse feed in his open hand.

“Come on, guys!” says Mjadwesch. “No fighting. You’re all herbivores.”

Six weeks earlier these roos lived 50 miles away, in Bathurst. That’s where Mjadwesch lives too, with his wife, Helen Bergen. Two years ago the couple led a massive volunteer effort to relocate hundreds of kangaroos from Mount Panorama, the site of a major international racetrack. Officials there wanted to kill the animals, but after years of bitter wrangling, Mjadwesch and Bergen gained permission to relocate them.

Time will tell if it worked. The translocation may have disrupted family groups, and it’s unclear whether the roos will stay in their new home. Some have already dispersed, causing residents to complain about the new neighbors.

Mjadwesch, a critic of the kangaroo industry, says the methodology for counting the animals is flawed. Annual surveys include areas where kangaroos abound. But Mjadwesch says those numbers are extrapolated to places with few if any roos, resulting in inflated population estimates—a claim the industry disputes.

“We have all these studies saying there are twice as many kangaroos as humans,” he says. “But look around—they’ve disappeared from the landscape. People only notice where they are. They don’t notice where they’re not.”

Over the past 200 years, he says, “kangaroo management has meant kangaroo shooting. We need a reset on that philosophy.”

Can Australians’ conflicting attitudes toward kangaroos be reconciled?

George Wilson says that if roos were privately owned, then graziers—working independently or through wildlife conservancies—would protect the animals, treating them as assets. They could feed them, lease them, breed them, and charge hunters a fee for access. They just need an incentive to do so.

“If you want to conserve something,” Wilson says, “you have to give it a value. Animals that are considered pests don’t have value.”

Privatization could also help reduce grazing pressures. If kangaroos were more valuable than cattle or sheep, farmers would keep less livestock, which could be good for the environment. Under this scenario, landholders would work with the kangaroo industry on branding, marketing, and quality control. The government’s role would be oversight and regulation.

Leon Zanker is all for it. “For us, the best outcome is to have a well-managed commercial industry that can keep kangaroo numbers in line with pasture and water conditions. But you’ve got to have the management tools, the ability, to keep things in balance. That’s what landowners right now are screaming out for.”

On a balmy September afternoon in Woronora, half an hour from Sydney, 82-year-old Yuin elder Uncle Max “Dulumunmun” Harrison is explaining the complex relationship that indigenous Australians have with kangaroos—a cultural, social, and spiritual connection that stretches back at least 50,000 years.

Native Australians have always eaten kangaroos, but they’ve done so according to strict protocols. Uncle Max says indigenous law permits hunting, but only seasonally and not during times of breeding. Nor should anything be wasted. Every part of a kangaroo should be used: meat for eating and sharing; sinew for making thread; skin for warm, waterproof garments, sewn with needles made from the bones; fur for bags and clothing.

But the relationship is about more than utility. Kangaroos are central players in the rich symbolic world Aboriginals call the Dreamtime—stories that explain life and creation. Songlines are part of this—paths across the outback that mark the routes traveled by ancestors. Uncle Max says kangaroo culls are damaging these tracks.

Despite their long association with kangaroos, indigenous Australians have little say in how their country treats its national symbol. While there may be no single indigenous stance—groups are too geographically and culturally diverse—most agree that culling is a big concern.

Sitting in his office at Macquarie University in Sydney, a hefty Gomeroi elder named Phil Duncan says Australia is an odd place: “The only country that eats its coat of arms.”

Like Uncle Max, he’s aghast at how kangaroos are treated. “Culling,” he says, “is getting in the way of our ability to teach our next generations about the connection to our country—to our totemic species.”

His solution is simple: Let Australia’s first people have the last word on kangaroo management. After all, they did just fine for thousands of years.

“If you’re going to cull kangaroos,” says Duncan, “then there should be an industry. But that industry should be monopolized by Aboriginal people. We’d do it humanely. Give us the licenses. Let us do this.”

Of course, getting there “would take a huge generational shift in ideologies. It would require a lot of champions within the parliamentary systems. But it could be done.”

In the meantime, Duncan has a more immediate message.

“When tourists come to Australia, they want to hug a kangaroo, hold a koala bear, meet an Aboriginal person. All three are interconnected in our lore. Understand that connection. Don’t come out here to kill. Come out here to embrace.”

Jeremy Berlin wrote about Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park for the February 2015 issue. Photographer and zoologist Stefano Unterthiner specializes in telling the life stories of animals.

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