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In recent years, there’s been much buzz about the consumption of our national emblem, with kangaroo touted to have a lesser environmental impact compared to other red meats. Yet as time has worn on, other ethical issues surrounding this meat – including its long-term sustainability – have come to light, and are often carefully hopped around.
Kangaroos are wild animals that aren’t given antibiotics or drenches, so they’re chemical-free. Being native, they’re adapted to the Australian climate and their numbers bounce back quickly after periods of drought.
Roos have soft-padded feet, and unlike non-native cows and sheep, they don’t compact the soil (which causes dryland salinity) with hard hooves. As an added bonus, kangaroos and wallabies emit virtually no methane. Compared to the rest of the commercial meat industry in Australia, it’s a greener red meat that’s also cheap, lean and healthy. They’re unlikely to ever be farmed, says John Kelly of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia, “because they’re very easily stressed”.
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“The regulation of the manufacture of kangaroo meat is difficult because carcasses are dressed [gutted] in the field and transported in un-refrigerated trucks for hours on end in the heat of summer nights,” says Dr Dror Ben-Ami, from THINKK, an academic organisation that critically reviews kangaroo management practices.
On the other hand, Kelly says it’s one of the most regulated meats in Australia, and is hygenic; “In general they are both extremely healthy and have lower rates of infections which can be transmitted to humans than are commonly seen in the intensively farmed animals”.
“There is a potential risk of toxoplasmosis, which only really affects pregnant women, the elderly or the very young. You certainly have been infected with toxoplasmosis many times if you eat rare lamb or unwashed vegetables. And it’s killed by exposure to 65°C for three minutes, so it doesn’t take much cooking to kill it.”
Animal welfare issues
Research the production and slaughter of any meat and your findings will no doubt be brutal. But Dr Annemarie Jonson of Voiceless says kangaroo meat is a step beyond intolerable, being “the largest slaughter of land-based wildlife on the planet. The kangaroo industry is larger and arguably more cruel than seal culling – and seal products are banned by the EU”.
The kangaroo industry is regulated by a National Code of Practice to ensure that killings are conducted humanely. The code requires shooters are trained and licensed, and that any joeys found on shot females must be killed as soon as possible.
Shooters are trained to aim for males, but around 30 per cent of animals shot are female, resulting in about 855,000 dependent joeys being killed as collateral damage every year. The RSPCA Australia states on its website concern about the fate of pouch young, suggesting that females should not be slaughtered until this matter is resolved.
“While shooters are required by the codes to aim to shoot a kangaroo in the brain and therefore cause instantaneous death, non-fatal body shots are unavoidable and cause horrific and painful injuries,” says Jonson.
Only head-shot kangaroos are accepted for processing due to the code of practice, so there’s no incentive for shooters to go after body-shot roos. As an unavoidable result of a code that’s meant to prevent cruelty, these roos are often left to die a slow and painful death.
Kangaroo meat isn’t reliably stocked in supermarkets because environmental forces, not the market, dictate how many can be caught.
National parks authorities and state governments do an annual audit of kangaroo populations, and set quotas
on the maximum number of kangaroos that can be taken out of the environment; between 10–18 per cent of the total populations. While some years can be more or less with population fluctuations, this take has averaged at 2.78 million kangaroos every year since 1997.
“Kangaroos do have a lighter footprint on the environment but kangaroo meat is environmentally friendly only if it replaces traditional livestock,” says Ben-Ami.
Kelly says; “there are a great number more kangaroos now than there were prior to white settlement, when there was Aboriginal predation on kangaroos.”
But the reality is that no one can conclusively know if kangaroo numbers have increased, or how many were eaten before the arrival of Europeans.
Ben-Ami argues there’s only a limited number of free ranging roos that can be harvested sustainably. He calculates that if every Australian ate kangaroo once a week in keeping with the current quota takes, we’d need 130 million kangaroos. It would take 170 million kangaroos to replace all our sheep and cattle on a meat-equivalent basis, but there’s only an average of 30 million kangaroos in Australia.
Kangaroo management isn’t perfect. Landowners would need to make significant improvements to conserve both kangaroos and their habitat if the industry is going to become more sustainable. Kelly remains positive that in the future “pastoralists will have a real opportunity to perhaps reduce their sheep numbers, and maybe even devote a greater feed resource to allow the kangaroo population on their properties to grow”.