Why we should be eating more kangaroo meat

Lindsay the roo shooter at work. Picture: Tom Melville
Lindsay the roo shooter at work. Picture: Tom Melville

Lindsay isn't used to having people along with him at work, he says it makes him nervous, which affects his aim. But he let me come anyway because he wants more people to understand his industry.

Lindsay is a kangaroo shooter who hunts in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, not far from the Victorian border.

An electrician and farmer by trade, he says he started shooting because it means he can spend more time with his young family.

"You get quite a lot of freedom in this job to choose when you want to go to work and when you don't", he tells me.

Kangaroos explode in numbers in wet years then die off sharply in times of drought. Picture: Supplied

Kangaroos explode in numbers in wet years then die off sharply in times of drought. Picture: Supplied

We're driving in his specially modified Toyota LandCruiser through country covered with sharp rocks and big tussocks of grass.

It's rough going in the four wheel drive and Lindsay says they can be long, lonely nights. He tries to get 140 roos each week across three days.

Lindsay doesn't believe kangaroos are a pest. But he does think their population needs to be managed.

"I think any general person would be happy to see some kangaroos jumping around, but just not in the numbers that are causing a problem for farmers or for the stock," he says.

Kangaroos are everywhere -- literally and symbolically -- they're on our coat of arms and are a symbol of Australia used to market this country all over the world.

The state of kangaroo management is so poor that we can't answer the simple question: Do we want more or less kangaroos?

Wildlife expert George Wilson

They're unique to this country, but some people argue that they're uniquely mismanaged -- slaughtered on farms with little oversight or regard to animal welfare. Kangaroo numbers explode during wet years then die by the millions from starvation in the dry years. One minute they're being culled, the next minute, protected.

There are people who reckon that we should be eating them, and that that would help the kangaroo in the long run.

The commercial kangaroo industry that Lindsay works for exists, but even that is controversial and a fraction of the size it could be.

"It's been known for a long while that the changes that were made to landscapes to benefit sheep and cattle have led to an increase in kangaroo numbers," says George Wilson, a wildlife expert from ANU.

George Wilson tracking kangaroos with radio transmitting collars. Picture: Supplied

George Wilson tracking kangaroos with radio transmitting collars. Picture: Supplied

Roos are grass eaters, and there's a lot more of that around. We've also improved access to water.

George has been tracking roo numbers since the 1970s and says there's been a constant increase. But he doesn't consider them a pest either.

"Well, I could equally argue there's a plague of sheep and cattle," he says.

There are thought to be around 30 million roos out there right now -- that's of the four main commercial species. In 2007 at the height of the Millenium drought that number was 20 million. The population peaked in the early 2000s then tens of millions died off in the following years.

A rack of kangaroos stored in a chill-box similar to the one Lindsay shoots into. Picture: James Wiltshire

A rack of kangaroos stored in a chill-box similar to the one Lindsay shoots into. Picture: James Wiltshire

"Australia should not be a party to these wild fluctuations in the national emblem," says George

"Millions of kangaroos died in the drought and caused immense damage to the landscape. They've interfered severely with the capacity of land holders who have livestock on these properties."

This is what leads to people describing kangaroos as a pest. Farmers see roos compete with their own livestock for feed, or eat crops destined for market.

George has a solution: maintain a balance of roos and livestock.

We're not out here to do a cruel thing; this is my job. This is what I do. It is no benefit to me to be cruel to an animal

Roo shooter Lindsay

"Why not increase the kangaroo numbers and use them to produce low emission meat rather than increasing the cattle numbers?" George asks.

Kangaroo management in Australia is opaque. The commercial industry -- which operates everywhere but Tasmania and the ACT -- takes a few million roos each year, usually only a fraction of the allowable quota which is based on annual population estimates.

Millions more are culled on private land -- we don't really know how many.

"The state of kangaroo management is so poor that we can't answer the simple question: Do we want more or less kangaroos?" says George.

One of Jack's employees in the chill box inspecting kangaroos. Picture: James Wiltshire

One of Jack's employees in the chill box inspecting kangaroos. Picture: James Wiltshire

Jack* runs one of the largest commercial kangaroo processors in the country -- buying roo carcasses from shooters like Lindsay and preparing them for us, and our pets, to eat. There's a lot of controversy around the commercial industry in Australia, so we're not going to use his real name.

"We see the commercial industry as being a really humane method of control," says Jack.

Jack obviously has a commercial interest in seeing the industry prosper, but he's convinced that there has to be kangaroo management, and that his industry should be shouldering the burden -- not farmers.

"If commercial shooting stops, that'll mean that farmers will take their own action and just shoot them. And a lot of farmers shoot them in the gut."

We're talking thousands of little baby Joey's that are bludgeoned to death or shot or escape from their, from their mother's dead body and run into the bush to starve.

NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann

Jack gets frustrated that the activities of non-commercial shooters are unfairly conflated with the professional industry.

"The commercial reality is shooters can't afford to [be non-compliant], they can't deliver animals that are incorrectly shot and they're not going to waste bullets," says Jack.

Lindsay says shooting should be left to the trained and accredited professionals, like him.

"If the harvesting can't be done by a commercial shooter then everyone has to be held accountable to the same standards because they're the standards that are deemed necessary for the animal welfare," he says.

Lindsay's work is clinical. Each roo must be killed cleanly with a single shot to the head. He can't sell it otherwise.

Jack inspects part of his facility. When full, hundreds of kangaroos will hang from the racks in this climate controlled room. Picture: James Wiltshire

Jack inspects part of his facility. When full, hundreds of kangaroos will hang from the racks in this climate controlled room. Picture: James Wiltshire

After he takes down a roo, Lindsay hooks it onto the side of his ute and dresses it in the field. That involves tagging it with where it was shot, and getting rid of the head and the guts. If it's a female he'll check the pouch for a joey and quickly cut it's head off, killing it instantly.

The image I had in my mind of a roo shooter was something similar to a cowboy -- a rugged bushman patrolling the night -- but that was not what I saw. Lindsay is practiced and methodical. At the chilled shipping container where he stores the roos, he spent more time doing the paperwork than he did gutting and dressing each one.

The commercial industry is worth about 200 million dollars to the economy. Compare that to the over 17 billion dollars red meat is worth and it's clear roo meat is a tiny industry in Australia.

George Wilson thinks we ought to get graziers involved, get them to see roos as an asset and something they can make money off, rather than as a pest.

"I'd like to see [kangaroos] be worth a lot more money and regarded as another red meat industry. That's a much safer situation for Australia's kangaroos in the long term.

"If Australian wants kangaroos widely distributed in 50 years time, then they cannot continue to be regarded as a pest by graziers. It's crazy," he says.

NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann thinks cruelty to joeys is unacceptable. Picture: Supplied

NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann thinks cruelty to joeys is unacceptable. Picture: Supplied

A NSW upper house inquiry into the treatment of kangaroos in the state recently handed down its findings.

It found that there was no transparency around how roos are counted in NSW, there is no monitoring of non-commercial culling, and that there is no point of kill monitoring of the commercial industry.

NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann led that inquiry and she says that the population estimates were unreliable.

"The department was questioned and grilled about those numbers and could not defend those numbers," she says.

George Wilson, who worked on the early kangaroo population surveys and has spent decades working in the field, says that the numbers we have are robust and indicate trends, both up and down. He also says that previous surveys have actually under-estimated populations.

But, Cate says that the situation we have now, where landholders are able to cull kangaroos with little oversight needs to change.

If Australian wants kangaroos widely distributed in 50 years time, then they cannot continue to be regarded as a pest by graziers. It's crazy.

Wildlife Expert, George Wilson

"it's pretty much the wild west now," she says.

A big issue for Cate is the treatment of joeys. A lot of professional shooters often don't go for female kangaroos,but there's really no oversight in the non-commercial cull.

"We're talking thousands of little baby Joey's that are bludgeoned to death or shot or escape from their, from their mother's dead body and run into the bush to starve.

"I don't consider myself a really hardcore animal rights activist. But this is just absolutely unacceptable that we are allowing that here in Australia," Cate says.

The NSW inquiry highlighted the lack of policing of roo shooting. There's no inspector out on the property to make sure the shooter is being compliant. But Jack, who runs the kangaroo processor, says he's seen no evidence of commercial shooters doing the wrong thing.

"These blokes are true marksmen. They'll take 20 shots and shoot 20 Kangaroos in the head."

Lindsay told me the thing he loved most about his job was the sunrises. Picture: Supplied

Lindsay told me the thing he loved most about his job was the sunrises. Picture: Supplied

There's international pressure on the industry too, particularly from the United States where there's a push to ban the import of kangaroo products, citing animal cruelty reasons. Big names Nike and Adidas are being lobbied to stop using kangaroo leather in their products. This would be devastating for the industry and shooters like Lindsay.

"I've got huge amounts of money invested in it," he says, "so it is concerning that lobbyist type groups can get together and just make enough racket to get things banned."

There's a big divide in Australia over this issue. It seems proponents and critics of the industry are reading from completely separate sets of facts.

"We're not out here to do a cruel thing; this is my job. This is what I do. It is no benefit to me to be cruel to an animal," Lindsay says.

This story A recipe for kangaroo management first appeared on The Canberra Times.