AUSTRALIANS are not, as they sometimes joke, the only people to eat their iconic national animal. Swedes munch on moose; in Spain, bull-tail stew is a delicacy. But the culling of kangaroos divides opinion Down Under. Many view the marsupials as pests which destroy pasture and cause crashes by hopping in front of cars. Animal-rights types counter that killing them is inhumane, and that kangaroo meat is rife with bacteria. Both sides are hopping mad about a new film, which shows botched slaughters and suggests that hunting is diminishing the population. “We’ve learned how polarising the subject is in Australia,” Mick McIntyre, one of its makers, told a local paper.
Annual aerial surveys suggest that there are more than 47m kangaroos bounding through the outback, making them some of the most abundant large vertebrates on earth. Their natural predators, such as dingoes, are scarce, so when the vegetation they eat is abundant, their numbers jump. State governments have long set “harvesting” quotas to keep the four most populous species in check. But some ecologists suggest that the culls are damaging, and that the population estimates are over-optimistic.
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Those in favour of culling point out that Australia earns $175m annually from the carcasses, which are butchered in struggling rural towns. Some scientists argue that kangaroos are a more sustainable source of protein than cows or sheep. Yet the industry is under pressure abroad. Cuddly campaigns have turned shoemakers such as Adidas against kangaroo leather and sapped foreign appetite for the meat. In 2016 California reinstated an embargo on kangaroo products. Russia, once the biggest consumer of kangaroo meat, has imposed an intermittent ban out of concern for food safety. In the eight years since it first did so, the value of Australia’s kangaroo-meat exports has fallen by more than half.
As a result, professional hunters receive a lower price for every carcass they deliver. They killed 1.4m kangaroos in 2016, a fifth of the permitted maximum. But a higher kangaroo population simply means that more will die in the next drought, says George Wilson of the Australian National University. Worse, he says, if skilled hunters lay down their arms, rookies will take over. In Queensland, landholders have been accused of poisoning kangaroos and erecting fences to prevent them from reaching water. The back and forth is endless. As Mr McIntyre says, “A good way to destroy any dinner party is to bring it up.”