A necessary evil – the kangaroo cull

April 3, 2013

Canberra, Australia

By David Gray

I met Steven O’Donnell at his house in the outer suburbs of Canberra just before dusk. He had agreed to take me on what can be described as one of Australia’s most unpopular and controversial activities – kangaroo shooting.


By day Steve is a professional plumber, but by night he is a government-licensed kangaroo shooter whose job is to annually cull the kangaroo population, which is estimated at over 50 million. When we met Steve was quick to explain why the thousands of Eastern Grey Kangaroos, known locally as “roos” in the Australian Capital Territory, had to be culled. Mobs of kangaroos can quickly damage the environment and compete with livestock for scarce food, impacting the livelihood of farmers.

But Steve’s main argument that stood out most in my mind was this: “After Europeans settled in Australia some 220 years ago, they chopped down millions of trees, and created much more grassland which the kangaroos have thrived on. As a result, their numbers have increased dramatically, and so in order to keep the natural balance for the environment to be sustainable (especially during a drought), their numbers have to be reduced. So actually, it’s our fault.”

I have heard many people say kangaroos are in “plague proportions”, but precise numbers vary dramatically depending on who you ask. According to government reports however, around 5 million kangaroos are culled or killed for commercial quotas each year, a small percentage of the estimated 50 million.

Discussing all these points as we drove into the night, we entered the paddock near Murrumbateman, located on the border of the Australian Capital Territory, on the outskirts of Canberra, where hundreds of roos are known to graze.  We needed to be ready, so he stopped the truck just inside the paddock gate and attached a large spotlight to a makeshift brace that he screwed onto the driver’s side door. This allowed Steve to drive and point the spotlight in search of grazing kangaroos in the dark. Safely resting in his lap was a .223 caliber rifle, its barrel pointing out the window, for fast and easy access.

It didn’t take long before we spotted a group of around a dozen roos. But there was just one problem, the kangaroos were on the passenger’s side (my side) of the truck. Steve climbed onto the back of the truck and used a sandbag to steady his rifle on the roof. Pointing the spotlight directly at the mob, the kangaroos all stood upright, dazzled by the light. My gaze was aimed directly at the kangaroo standing at the end of the beam of light. I felt a horrible, weird anticipation as I waited for the inevitable sound and result that would shortly follow. CRACK!! The distinctive, piercing sound of a rifle shot finally broke the silence. I heard a thud immediately after the shot, as the bullet entered the roo, and it slumped down, hitting the ground without a struggle. Steve repeated this process three times within the space of just one minute and all three were kill shots.

As the mob of kangaroos hopped away they found Steve’s spotlight irresistible and stopped out of curiosity — a fatal move. Steve hit all his targets precisely and quickly, proving to me that what he told me earlier was true. Every licensed kangaroo shooter goes through a rigorous set of tests to make sure they are not only crack shots, but that they know precisely what target they are hitting. They must also abide by very strict rules and conditions, with the number one rule being that a “headshot” must be obtained so as to minimize the animal’s pain and suffering. Of all the roos Steve shot that night, of which there were seven in total, he managed to make a “headshot” every time. An impressive example of marksmanship.

Once the kangaroos had scattered and were out of range, Steve tagged each dead roo. This meant walking across the dark paddock and fixing an official tag to their bodies that rangers would inspect later so that the quota of roos for that area was not exceeded. After 3 hours, Steve was satisfied with his night’s work. We drove out the gate and were soon back in suburbia.

I couldn’t help but feel a little saddened by what I had just witnessed, and reflected on what an unusual experience it had been. I have never liked guns, nor the thought of killing anything. But what kept ringing through my head as we drove through the quiet suburban streets at midnight was Steve’s argument – that all this was actually “our fault.”

Sadly perhaps, a necessary evil. But definitely, and always, controversial.


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As an Australian living in New York I’m often asked why it is we kill and even eat our national emblem. This offers a different perspective – one of environmental preservation that I will definitely share next time I’m asked!

Posted by NYCaroline | Report as abusive

Each night in remote areas of the Australian outback thousands of kangaroos graze peacefully, stand up on hearing an approaching vehicle, stare into a blinding spotlight, and are shot for their meat and skins.

The commercial kangaroo kill ‘quota’ for 2009 (the number permitted to be killed) is just under 4 million kangaroos. In addition many kangaroos and wallabies are killed under State non-commercial ‘permit’ systems. Due to the remote locations where the commercial kangaroo shoot takes place there is no effective monitoring of animal welfare. No statistics are available for the animals that are wounded and escape only to endure a long painful death. Even conservative estimates suggest that at least 4% of adult kangaroos commercially ‘processed’ each year, or around 100,000 carcasses, show evidence that they were not humanely shot in the head as is required by the kangaroo industry Code of Practice (ref RSPCA Report 2002).
The fate of orphaned young, too small to be of any commercial value to hunters, is equally grim. ‘In pouch’ joeys of shot mothers are either decapitated (if very small) or killed with a blow to the head. Dependant ‘at foot’ joeys often escape, and suddenly face a life alone, often falling victim to predators, exposure or starvation. The mother and joey bond is immensely strong. Red kangaroos are not weaned until a year after birth and Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos are not weaned until they are nearly 18 months old. It is estimated that 300,000 ‘at foot’ joeys die each year.
Don’t be fooled by protests that kangaroos are shot because they compete with grazing animals – this mass slaughter is purely and simply a commercial kill of Australian wildlife. Some skins and meat products are used domestically (60 to 70 % of kangaroo meat goes into the Australian pet food market), and the rest is exported to 55 countries as leather or meat for human consumption. Kangaroo leather is widely used in the manufacture of sporting shoes and gloves as well as in dress shoes and accessory manufacture.

Animals Australia and all other Australian animal protection groups strongly oppose, on welfare grounds, this mass slaughter of Australian wildlife. Aside from the obvious welfare problems, this annual slaughter is also putting the future of this unique species at risk. A two year investigation of the industry presented evidence that, coupled with the drought, the annual hunt is seriously affecting the future viability of the kangaroo populations targeted by shooters.

In shooting areas, since the commencement of the drought kangaroo numbers have fallen some 59% – from over 57 million (2001) to an estimated 23.6 million in 2006 (based on aerial survey of the killing zones).

Slaughtered KangaroosA recent two-year investigation – conducted by the Wildlife Protection Association of Australia (WPAA) and Animal Liberation NSW and based on information provided by a kangaroo industry ‘whistleblower’ – found evidence of unsustainable and damning practices in the kangaroo industry. Some 24 chillers (holding facilities for carcasses) around NSW and Southern QLD were inspected and samples from carcasses taken for testing. This investigation revealed that:

A large proportion (70-80%) of stored carcasses were non-preferred female kangaroos, indicating a likely current population imbalance, and indicating that there are only low numbers of (the larger preferred) males available to shoot. This is of great concern as these strong adult males are needed to maintain an ongoing healthy gene pool.
Many of the carcasses were barely above the (NSW) minimum permitted ‘human consumption’ weight of 13kg, and those females were unlikely to have even had a single joey – revealing once again an absence from the population of the larger adult kangaroos.
Carcasses swabbed by investigators were contaminated by dangerous bacteria, including E.coli, Streptococcus and Staphylococcus.

Animal Liberation NSW representatives have traveled around Europe and Russia to provide factual reports and hold press conferences alerting import country authorities and consumers of kangaroo meat to the plight of these animals in Australia and to the innate cruelty in the industry.
A new report ‘A Shot in the Dark – a report on kangaroo harvesting’, commissioned by Animal Liberation (NSW) was released in May 2009 outlines problems of hygiene in the kangaroo meat industry, sustainability of kangaroo populations and animal welfare. The report estimates some ‘440,000 dependent young kangaroos are either clubbed to death or left to starve after their mothers are killed’. See the full report (written by wildlife ecologist Dr Dror Ben-Ami*, which also includes material on contamination of kangaroo meat and sustainability issues).

Once again we have a cruel animal industry which continues only because it can operate without public scrutiny.

Tonight, when you are sleeping peacefully, in the Australian outback the peaceful existence of thousands of gentle animals who have harmed no-one will end violently – for the sake of the mighty dollar.

source: http://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/k angaroo_shooting.php, accessed 4/4/13)

* ‘A Shot in the Dark, A Report on Kangaroo Harvesting’ Prepared by Dror Ben-Ami, PhD:
http://www.kangaroo-protection-coalition .com/support-files/a_shot_in_the_dark.pd f

Posted by alanPR | Report as abusive

We note the standard old misconceptions – that land cleared after European settlement led to a dramatic increase in kangaroo populations. However in chopping down ‘millions of trees’ we actually took away their habitat, kangaroos don’t live on an open paddock; they live in wooded and treed areas.
Several scientists (Auty, Mjadwesch) have written that there were actually many more kangaroos before European settlement than now, but through habitat loss and hunting we are looking at a decrease in original kangaroo populations of up to 90%. But the catch cry “we have cleared land creating more kangaroos” has been sold to the public and used for years to justify killing them in the millions and profiting only a few.
Interesting to note this shooter is also a plumber, there are very few full time kangaroo shooters in Australia, and it’s usually done to make some extra money on the side, this has been confirmed by several kangaroo shooters the Australian Society for Kangaroos have spoken to. We don’t see a problem with the lack of feed in this paddock, the grass looks long, a permit may have been issued for grazing competition with the property owner’s domestic stock, or they may not have had to have any real reason at all, and that is the ultimate tragedy of all. Dont be fooled NYCaroline above, kangaroos are not killed to ‘preseve the environment’ there is no science or credible research that proves this its just more propaganda to justify their death. Seriously do you believe the Japanese have credible research to justify whaling??

Posted by ASKangaroos | Report as abusive

Dave I think you may have been blind sided. The perfect show just for you. You didnt mention if there were any females with at foot joeys as well as one in the pouch. Did they shoot the biggest so that the genes would be destroyed. You should go out on other shoots and check out those that have been gut shot and left to die. I am sorry but I do not believe in culling, if we created it we should fix it the same way that we created it. A gun is not the answer. There is plenty more to say but I get too angry so will leave it at this. Long live our native wildlife.

Posted by roe01 | Report as abusive

Actually, kangaroos in Australia are in great trouble, with the government’s own data showing inexorable and serious decline since data collection began.

The science does not bear out any of the claims made in the article about sustainability or environmental need, and given kangaroo reporting is paid for by the industry, that should be no surprise.

Kangaroos have been nominated to the NSW Threatened Species list based on the science and the data – see www.kangaroosatrisk.net where that nomination has been duplicated for public availability.

Shooters are not ecologists. Great environmental harm is being perpetuated by unquestioning repitition of such invalid claims.

Posted by hbergen | Report as abusive

ps. If plumber Steve knows more about kangaroo behaviour and ecology than a leading expert in native wildlife and conservation management I’d be surprised. 3 hrs to shoot 7 kangaroos? hardly sounds like a plague!

Please refer to www.kangaroosatrisk.net.

Posted by hbergen | Report as abusive

correcting typo – “repetition”!

David, the author of the said nomination would be happy to chat with you. You can contact him via the KaR website as per above. Note his work as appeared in German New Scientist, and is being taken seriously by the NSW Scientific Committee.

Apologies for 3 postings.

Posted by hbergen | Report as abusive

I cant believe they actually let you hunt after dark. It relay isn’t a sport then is it.

Posted by ErnieScarr | Report as abusive

It really isn’t a sport and it really is a tragedy for Australia’s iconic Skippy. The above comments have said what is really happening, how wildly inaccurate Dave’s article is. I would like to add that a regional paper in NSW has been following both the declining numbers nationally and also the very peculiar ‘cull’ engaged in the national capital Canberra which likes to call itself the bush capital but has slaughtered large numbers of kangaroos annually for ever-shifting reasons. find kangaroo archives a online.districtbulletin.com.au

Posted by mj7oz | Report as abusive

It certainly is! Kangaroo meat is super lean, being 98% fat free, and most importantly it’s low in saturated fat. It’s also rich in high-quality protein, a good source of omega-3 fats, a good source of zinc and an excellent source of iron. Furthermore, it contributes B-group vitamins to the diet, including riboflavin, niacin, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12. Kangaroo meat also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a ‘desirable’ fat which research shows has antioxidant properties and may help reduce body fat in humans.

http://www.expatdeli.com/categories.php? catUID=77&section=0

Posted by aditisham | Report as abusive