Boo-hoo, emotion trumps science say critics as California reinstates a ban on kangaroos products

A response from Dr David Croft, to Bans on kangaroo products are a case of emotion trumping science- The Conversation, 5 October, 2015

David B Croft

David B Croft

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Red kangaroo mixed group_Ulrike Kloecker (2)

Red kangaroo mob in Sturt National Park after good rains. Super-abundant – I think not! (Image by Ulrike Kloecker)

Two Professors of Conservation Biology (Johnson and Woinarski) and an advocate for conservation through sustainable use of animal products (Cooney) have had – so it seems – an emotional response to the news that California will reinstate a ban on kangaroo products (meat and hides). This follows the imminent elapse of a moratorium that saw a resumption of trade from 2007 after an initial ban in 1971. The three authors rallied for rationality through a scientific method in our interpretation of whether this ban should be upheld in an article in The Conversation ( posted October 5 2015).

In my view, the article is naive as to how challenges (often emotionally charged) have shaped the management policies of the kangaroo industry that they find so laudable. Their remonstrance that compassion and concern for common species is misdirected, when many other species are threatened with extinction and are more deserving of attention is likewise naive and disappointing. Is there scientific evidence that compassion (and the donation to conservation) is so quickly exhausted?

The various wildlife acts of states and territories assert the rights of native fauna to be protected from harm. We often read and hear that animal rights activists (cast as extremists and conspirators by the kangaroo industry and its supporters amongst scientists) are the ones asserting rights but here it is in long-standing legislation. Given the supposed protection from harm, it is no surprise that debate ensues in the community when four states and the commonwealth collaborate to offer a combined quota of 5,856,200 (in 2013) kangaroos of four species to be killed for commercial gain. Regardless of whether this quota is typically met, this is harm to: the several millions of individuals that are killed, the unaccounted dependent offspring that are killed or orphaned,the mobs that are disrupted by the killing and, the lost evolutionary potential of individuals comprising the population (see Ben-Ami et al. 2014).

The commercial kangaroo industry and other licences to do harm (usually executed by land managers) are presented as solutions to conflicts with kangaroos (and wallabies) that are cast as pan-specific and pan-continental. Kangaroos may live in a land of sweeping plains but unfortunately this seems to be a licence to make equally sweeping generalisations amongst many scientific commentators. In reality these conflicts are localised and species-specific. If a mob of eastern grey kangaroos graze a fairway to the height of a putting green to the chagrin of some golfers, it does not imply that a common wallaroo in the nearby high country so exhausts native (or improved) pastures that a livestock enterprise fails. Furthermore, the four species in the commercial kill are demonised as in ‘plague proportions’ (in proportion to what?), over-abundant (and a harm to themselves), more numerous than the human population (one species versus the sum of the populations of four species!), and most ludicrous of all super-abundant. This is in spite of well-documented evidence that their average metabolic biomass is well below that of the livestock with which they are said to compete, and the humans whose interests with which they may conflict. We need to compare like with like, not apples with oranges. Here an estimate of field metabolic rate (the energy an animal extracts and uses for it daily needs in its environment) multiplied by abundance, not simple abundance, enables us to achieve some scientific rigour.

Yet the authors focus on abundance. That a roo-shooter still has roos to shoot is evidence of sustainability. Management policies protect their populations from over-exploitation by a proportional quota that rises and falls with estimates of abundance.However, until recently there was no stopping point. Previously if as few as ten individuals remained in a management zone, then two could still be killed. Furthermore, such estimates of abundance are made with an error. This error is not presented in the Australian government’s summary reports on the population estimates for the commercial industry. Likewise it is missing in the figure for red kangaroo abundance in South Australia presented by the authors. It only may be found in State quota reports as scientific rigour would demand. The authors contend that the four species are more numerous than at first settlement. I am mystified how this baseline has been established and how such estimates could possibly have equal scientific rigour given the technologies of the current management programs. The estimates of the population of red kangaroos in commercial harvest zones has varied from about 8 to 18 million in a mere 14 years (1999-2012). Therefore were there less than 8 million in 1788 or less than 18 million? The baseline at or near settlement is often derived from ‘selective’ reference to explorers’ diaries. I am drawn to Oxley’s accounts of the central west and mid-coast of New South Wales. At first mention the low abundance case garners support:

John_Oxley

On May 25, 1817 near current-day Goulburn, Oxley writes: “We have seen so few animals, either kangaroo or emu, and the country seems so little capable of maintaining these animals, that the means of the natives procuring food must be precarious indeed” (p. 46). This statement is married with one about the poor condition of the country and on May 31 he writes “No herbage of any kind grew on this abandoned plain, being a fine red sand, which almost blinded us with dust.” (p. 50). From these writings you could argue that there were few kangaroos but that under the same conditions today (no herbage) there would likewise be few, if any kangaroos. Oxley was in fact an excellent observer of what we would now call the ecology of this system.

But wait, and read on and abundant kangaroos and (now extinct) rat-kangaroos and bettongs abound:

August 8, 1817: Oxley now enters country along the Macquarie River with abundant kangaroos (likely eastern greys). He is near the current-day town of Fifeld, NE of Condobolin. “Kangaroos of a very large size abound in every direction around us: our dogs killed one weighing seventy or eighty pounds…” (p. 160).

EasternGreyKangaroo

(image: Kangaroos at Risk www.kangaroosatrisk.org)

August 15, 1817: Oxley describes this country with abundant kangaroos in much more favourable terms and deems it fit for sheep; i.e. abundant kangaroos before the presence of sheep. Note also that it was well-watered before livestock watering points were created. “We never descended a valley without finding it well-watered, and although the soil and character of the country rendered it fit for all agricultural purposes, yet I think from its general clearness of brush or underwood of any kind, that such tracts must be peculiarly adapted for sheep-grazing;…” (p. 175).

August 6, 1818: “We killed this day the largest kangaroo we had seen in any part of New South Wales; being from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty pounds weight. The animals live in flocks like sheep; and I do not exaggerate, when I say that some hundreds were seen in the vicinity of this hill; it was consequently named Kangaroo Hill: several beautiful little rills have their source in it, but are soon lost in the immeasurable morass at its base.” (p. 258). {Oxley is just to the west of the current-day Warrumbungles National Park which is noted for an abundant population of eastern grey kangaroos. The description of size and sociality clearly marks Oxley’s species as eastern greys. Again he also notes the country is well-watered prior to any establishment of livestock enterprises (or cropping).}

Oxley’s accounts also address another contention of the authors that current kangaroo abundance is a function of release from water constraints through human enterprise. The kangaroo industry does operate in arid parts of the rangelands where bores have been sunk, which thereby added additional water to natural mound springs and soaks. But much of the industry operates in well-watered areas like the landscapes Oxley describes. These landscapes are more likely to become water-constrained than when ‘pristine’ because of additional demand in human settlements, irrigation, agricultural and livestock enterprises compounded by climatic extremes. This is more likely to contribute to the high variation seen in kangaroo populations than to a sustained ‘abnormal’ abundance. Furthermore, the scientific evidence cautions about exaggerating the water dependence of species such as western grey kangaroos, red kangaroos and common wallaroos.lo

Oxley may support the authors’ contention that the populations of large kangaroos were once suppressed by dingoes:

June 7, 1817 {in the ranges around present-day Goulburn}: “These ranges abound with native dogs; their howlings are incessant, day as well as night: as we saw no game, their principal prey must be rats, which have almost undermined this loose sandy country.” (p. 59).

Perhaps they can provide the evidence that the millions killed by the kangaroos industry, destruction permits and vehicle collisions are commensurate with or less than the pre-settlement predation regime of indigenous hunting, dingos, marsupi-carnivores and raptors. I am also puzzled as to whether dingoes (re-introduced or released from persecution) in the sheep rangelands will be competitors or companions with the kangaroo industry. I think the former. Perhaps the authors will prove me wrong in the unlikely event that dingoes are allowed to prosper within sheep or goat-based enterprises.

The authors find the management of the kangaroo harvest laudable – “one of the best-managed harvests in the world” – and proven to ensure its sustainability. I agree that any intervention to kill native wildlife needs robust regulation. A fur industry did once flourish for rock-wallaby pelts and this did cause local extinction of brushtailed rock-wallabies and yellow-footed rock-wallabies. Some pastoral properties prior the construction of the wild-dog barrier fence had their own exclusion fences and there is anecdotal evidence that kangaroos were shot out of these large tracts of land. This is contrary to the authors’ contention that hunting has not been a threat to macropod populations. A pet food industry flourished well before any formal management was introduced. In the 1960s, a time of drought and consequent under-employment in the sheep rangelands, this unregulated industry did endanger populations of at least red kangaroos. Some graziers in far-western New South Wales urged it on and remain embittered that kangaroos were not wiped from the landscape and locked up in Kinchega (fenced on gazettal in the early 1970s) and Sturt (to be excluded by a re-alignment of the wild dog exclusion fence) National Parks. We should keep this in mind when the inevitable call for a self-regulated for-profit industry comes in order to cut costs, and red and green tape in line with small government ideology. The need for an annual population estimate relative to modelling of a longer interval based on risk management has already been raised as a cost-cutting action and enacted in some management zones.

Are the pillars of the current management policy the result of a pro-active group of wildlife managers or one reactive to challenges from a loose collective of critical (and emotional) wildlife supporters? Well actually in the main, the latter. Various challenges to the approval of state kangaroo management plans by the Australian Government’s Minister of the Environment were made by organisations such as the ‘Wildlife Protection Association of Australia’, the ‘Australian Wildlife Protection Council’, ‘Animals Australia’ in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in 2003, 2004 and 2008.

Issues of contention included:

-the accuracy of estimates of populations (this resulted in many reports commissioned to and scientific papers published by Pople and colleagues),
the sustainability of the harvest (further reports and scientific papers with extensive modelling by Hacker, McLeod and others),

-the auditing of the aims of the kangaroo harvest (this lead to a change in purpose from solely damage mitigation which was not audited,to sustainable use which opened a human consumption market and –consequent regulation of hygiene),
the

-welfare of orphaned offspring of females killed (this lead to modelling of male-only harvests, revisions to the Code of Practice for the Humane Killing of Kangaroos, and much belatedly scientific assessment of such welfare concerns),

-the genetic impact of a biassed harvest of large males (scientific papers on the genetics of harvest stocks and genetic impacts of killing large males) and,

-quasi-extinction and a threshold for stopping killing in a management zone (this policy, subsequently revised, was a direct outcome of the AAT in 2008).

I emphasize that none of this science that the authors find so commendable was pro-active. I do acknowledge that some commendable revisions in public reporting in State quota and harvest reports has been promulgated subsequent to all the activism and emotion of these AAT challenges. The reader should note that Minister Garrett successfully legislated to block further challenges in the AAT and Ministers Burke and Hunt have furthered this blockade to criticism of their decisions.

Issues that were never addressed included auditing the actions of shooters at the point of kill. In the 2008 AAT, the then single compliance officer for New South Wales acknowledged that no audit was conducted. The shooters were self-regulated by compliance (or not) to a Code of Conduct and examined post hoc by ‘chiller’ inspections looking for untagged carcasses, carcasses of the incorrect species, underweight carcasses and carcasses with evidence of shots to the body. Those who find the kangaroo industry so laudable should also embrace the reality especially in the area of compliance. If they were to conduct a chiller inspection then they would need to crawl through the gore and blood under densely packed carcasses (eviscerated and decapitated), assess their size and species and thrust their hand up into the body cavity probing for bullet holes while often under the glare of armed onlookers.

The authors create a straw man in their criticism of the Californian decision since they only address issues of sustainability of the commercial kangaroo industry. As they cite in their article, cruelty towards kangaroos was also in contention.

Sustainability of a stock for exploitation, and the management rules to ensure such sustainability, do not require any concern for animal welfare. The species’ persistence and the population, not the individual, is of importance. Welfare is a concept based on morals, empathy and emotional reactions to the suffering of other sentient beings. The authors thus presumably find this outside scientific rationalism even if there is much scientific endeavour to investigate this phenomenon. Here a frequent finding is that good welfare, superior production and superior taste and texture of meats are positively correlated. The kangaroo industry argues that individuals shot in the field are not stressed and suffer less that livestock mustered and transported to an abattoir. This may be true for the individual shot but we cannot disregard the suffering of those left behind such as orphaned dependent offspring and members of social networks. The kangaroo industry has responded to issues of the welfare of dependent offspring by a male-biassed harvest. The sexual dimorphism of the four species of kangaroos killed ensures more ‘buck for your bang’ and so there is an economic rationality to this decision. Modelling also supports a male-only harvest with a higher offtake (40% quota) than current as optimal for the industry. This somewhat aligns with the optimal, a male-only quota of 10%, of a conservation/welfare perspective supporting abundant kangaroo populations.. However, the quota through at tag system is issued to the landholder, few of whom are also engaged in the kangaroo industry. Landholders cede their quota to the shooters in the kangaroo industry but the goal of pastoralists and mixed farmers (the predominant landholders) is to reduce and suppress the kangaroo population (red and grey kangaroos being of most concern). Modelling suggests high quotas (>30% and upt to 90%) and 30% or more females best achieves their goal. Thus the industry is not a faithful servant of its clients.

It seems the authors also wish to see large population reductions (perhaps enhanced by dingo predation) to recover threatened fauna and flora which they say are at risk from overgrazing by the kangaroo fauna. A goal of science is to tease out cause and effect and to differentiate proximate from ultimate causes.

Surely cats and foxes ,and ‘marsupial lawns’, are proximate to the ultimate cause of ecological transformation through anthropogenic factors such as urbanisation, clearing, logging, livestock grazing, cropping, horticulture, hot frequent fires and/or climate change. Suppressing kangaroo populations is as unlikely to reverse such transformations and re-establish ecosystem function as removal of artificial watering points in the rangelands. Impacts accrued over a century or more are unlikely to be recovered in years or even decades in most Australian landscapes.

The authors in their quest for a focus and actions on threatened and rare fauna as opposed to common (and exploitable) ones seem to divorce themselves from the kangaroo industry that they find so laudable.Their goals to suppress kangaroo populations may well threaten the availability of its stock and increase the cost of production of their products (meat and hide). The Californian decision may not ally with the authors scientific rationalism, especially if you do not take all matters of contention into account. However, if the industry wants to engage with this market, it may at least lead to a kinder kangaroo industry as welfare issues are addressed. I suggest the authors enter or debate the movement towards compassion in conservation and leave the marketing of the kangaroo industry to its own body (KIAA) and RIRDC. If they believe the hipster in the trendy restaurant choosing kangaroo over the beef or the lamb, or the shopper clutching his/her copy of Roocipes in the supermarket meat aisle are their primary supporters in threatened species recovery then I want the Gruen team to dissect their market research! I contend that those with compassion for our wildlife who give time, money and reputation to its defence are their best allies and their naive article will do nothing but alienate them.

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author: Dr David Croft. UNSW, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences

David Croft’s primary interest is in the behavioural ecology of marsupials, especially the kangaroos, wallabies and rat-kangaroos. Field studies on the behavioural ecology of arid-zone kangaroos are conducted at the Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station and Sturt National Park, with further study of other species in the seasonally arid wet-dry tropics (Northern Territory).

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  • I agree with the points made by David Croft but there is another less explored area in this discussion. Why on Earth are the pro-culling authors supporting the export of kangaroos? Nations need to live within the capacity of their own countries not rely on the export and import of commodities. Sending kangaroo meat to places like the USA and Russia is an ecological travesty.

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