Kangaroos are on Australia’s coat of arms and the tail of the national airline, but every year state authorities allow licensed hunters to kill millions of them.
The government and wildlife experts say some species of kangaroos are so plentiful they need to be regularly culled to protect the land, other native species, and the animals themselves from starving during times of drought.
But the legal culling of a national icon has enraged some activists, who for years have campaigned for an end to a practice they say is cruel and driven by commercial interests.
Under government programs, licensed hunters earn a fee for each kilogram of kangaroo and the carcasses are processed for meat, skin and hides for export to around 70 countries – an industry worth 200 million Australian dollars ($133 million) each year, according to the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA), the main commercial industry body.
For decades, kangaroo leather has been the material of choice for manufacturers of high-end soccer cleats due to the material’s suppleness and strength. But this month, US sports company Nike and German rival Puma announced they were phasing out kangaroo leather, or k-leather, in favor of synthetic alternatives.
Neither company mentioned animal rights issues in their press statements announcing the decision and did not respond to requests for further comment.
But animal rights groups claimed it as a win after years of lobbying.
“It’s a great day for kangaroos,” said Mick McIntyre of campaign group Kangaroos Alive, part of an international network of activists lobbying for import bans on kangaroo products in the European Union and United States.
A bill was introduced in the US House in 2021 to ban kangaroo imports but it failed to pass. This year, similar bills were introduced in Arizona, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon – where Nike is based – and Vermont, but so far, none have become law. Protesters have also lodged petitions with the European Parliament, so far with little impact.
The campaign against kangaroo products has caused frustration for many in Australia, not only within the government, but also among wildlife experts who say licensed culling is necessary to maintain sustainable numbers and to prevent the animals’ own suffering when they compete with livestock – and each other – for scarce food and water.
“The subtleties of this, I think, are probably lost from a distance,” said Jim Radford, a landscape ecologist and conservation biologist from the Research Centre for Future Landscapes at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
“If there isn’t an industry for kangaroo leather and kangaroo meat, kangaroos are still going to be shot, I promise you. Landholders are still going to shoot kangaroos and it’s going to be a worse animal welfare outcome than if it was done in a regulated, controlled manner.”
Kangaroos were once hunted by the country’s Indigenous population for food and by dingoes, native wild dogs whose numbers have been vastly reduced by baiting, trapping and shooting. European British colonizers also built new dams and waterholes for livestock, giving kangaroos ready access to water. Now one of the only natural caps on numbers is drought, according to Radford. “You get mass starvation and mass death,” he said.
Due to the vast areas they roam, kangaroos are notoriously difficult to count, but every year state officials conduct surveys using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, sometimes aided by inspections on the ground. Annual quotas are then set for the types and numbers of macropods that can be killed – in some states that’s no more than 20%, and in Victoria, it’s strictly less than 10%.
According to the latest government figures, 36.5 million of the kangaroos and wallaroos subject to population control roam the five states that allow commercial harvesting – New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
This year, quotas in those states allow around five million to be killed.
In recent years, annual quotas have not been met, and only 4% of the total population has been eliminated, according to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.
Culls are carried out at night by licensed hunters who shine a bright light into the kangaroos’ eyes, temporarily blinding them, before taking their shot. The animals’ carcasses are collected and taken to a processing center, where they’re inspected, processed and prepared for sale, according to government fact sheets.
The government also sets non-commercial quotas to allow licensed farmers to kill a certain number of kangaroos on their properties, but those carcasses aren’t collected or recorded.
Beyond the cruelty of shooting an animal, activists dispute population estimates and say anecdotal evidence suggests that kangaroo numbers are falling, a claim wildlife experts say is not true.
“Many of them are of conservation concern, but they’re not the ones that are harvested for leather products,” said Radford, from La Trobe University.
Of 60 species of kangaroos and wallabies, only six are approved for meat exports, according to the government, though in most states only four types are hunted: the red kangaroo, eastern and western grey kangaroo and the common wallaroo, a smaller marsupial in the macropod family that includes kangaroos.
Mark Pearson, a former elected member of the NSW Parliament representing the Animal Justice Party, has made it his mission to end the trade.
He appeared in a documentary “Kangaroos: A Love-Hate Story” produced by McIntyre’s Kangaroos Alive in 2017, and in 2021 successfully pushed for a parliamentary inquiry into the “Health and wellbeing of kangaroos and other macropods in New South Wales.”
The inquiry heard more than 400 submissions, but ultimately the state government only accepted two of 23 recommendations – to work more closely with the Indigenous community over kangaroo management and produce more information to educate the public on how it estimates kangaroo numbers and sets harvest quotas.
As the report noted, a key argument is whether kangaroo populations need managing at all – wildlife experts say yes, while campaigners like Pearson argue that without culling, their numbers would self-regulate, and with culling – based on anecdotal surveys – numbers are falling. Pearson doesn’t trust the government methodology.
“If they’re being managed properly, apparently, then we wouldn’t be seeing dramatic drops of kangaroos in areas which aren’t even particularly rural farmland,” Pearson said. A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Planning and Environment says a review of the methodology used to count kangaroos in NSW is due to be completed this year.
Campaigners also point to the killing of joeys found to be in the pouches of shot female kangaroos. The “National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroo and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes” states joeys should be killed with “a concussive blow to the head.”
Pearson says older joeys who’ve left the pouch are also vulnerable.
“Often the one at foot will hop away because it’s terrified as its mother has just been shot. Now the chances of the shooter catching that little joey and killing it is slim, so it dies from predation, starvation and exposure,” Pearson said.
“The whole picture is very, very ugly.”
Dennis King, the executive officer of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA), sounds exasperated when asked about activists’ efforts to ban kangaroo exports.
“If they took the time to understand and look at what the reality is, they would see that this is a very well-managed and highly regulated industry,” he said. “They’re a wonderful animal. They are a national icon … but these government conservation programs are in place to ensure a better outcome for their wellbeing and health.”
He said the kangaroos aren’t killed for their skin – it’s a byproduct of the much larger meat trade, and according to King that isn’t going to stop because Nike and Puma are no longer buying k-leather.
King warns that if the trade disappears, farmers may struggle to hire professional shooters, who he says, contrary to activists’ claims, are highly trained and can be relied upon for a clean shot.
“The harvesters are professionals. They’re not there to waste bullets,” he said.
The Australian government is backing the KIAA’s counteroffensive, sending top Australian officials to Washington DC last month to meet with senior officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the US Trade Representative’s Office to convince them of the industry’s sustainability and animal welfare standards.
Australian Consul-Generals in the US have also taken the message direct to legislators in Arizona, Connecticut, New Jersey and Oregon. King says he’s planning to go to some of those states next month to speak with local lawmakers.
Kangaroo products are also included in negotiations for an Australia-EU free trade deal, and Australian Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says officials are trying to expand the industry to new markets, including Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand.
“Under government oversight, commercial operators make use of a natural resource that would otherwise go to waste during culling. This industry provides jobs and generates money in rural and regional Australia,” he said in a statement to CNN.
According to AgriFutures, a government-funded research and development corporation, the most recent figures put the gross value of production of Australia’s macropod industry at 30.5 million Australian dollars ($20 million).
The home of the nation’s capital, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), culls eastern grey kangaroos, but it’s doing things a little differently.
Last year, the local government started trialling GonaCon, an immunocontraceptive vaccine developed by the US government to control some wildlife and feral animals, including deer.
So far in the ACT, government officials say it’s been administered to around 60 female kangaroos in two reserves through a labor intensive process that sees the animals darted with an anesthetic before being injected with the vaccine.
“They’re then monitored and cared for until the anesthetic wears off at which time they’re free to return to the reserve,” said Bren Burkevics, the ACT’s Conservator of Flora and Fauna.
He said that over time, wildlife officials hope that fewer kangaroos will need to be culled – but he doesn’t expect the vaccine to ever fully eliminate the need to manage numbers.
“Any culling through the use of firearms is a confronting topic,” Burkevics said. “It almost goes against everything that we aim to do from a conservation perspective. The welfare of the animal and any young are at their highest priority for us in undertaking what is a confronting program.”
Unlike other Australian districts, the ACT doesn’t have a commercial kangaroo industry. Last year, 1,645 kangaroos were culled, with a small number of skins distributed to traditional custodians, Burkevics said.
According to the ACT’s Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti, numbers have to be controlled to protect other endangered species.
“The only reason that we do kangaroo management is for ecological and environmental imperatives,” she said. “We have mouthless moths, we have earless dragons and we have legless lizards, and they are very important for the ecosystem. So we do have to undertake management of those systems and particularly make sure that we maintain a sustainable kangaroo population.”
However, fertility programs aren’t a viable option in most states where kangaroos roam over large distances, according to Radford, from La Trobe University.
“Where there’s a relatively small but contained population, sterilization procedures are feasible, but they’re very expensive. And they’re not really going to work at a large scale,” said Radford, who also ruled out other methods of control, such as poisoning, as less humane than shooting individual animals.
He said the answer to Australia’s vast number of kangaroos is for Australians to eat more of them.
“A lot of people in the conservation sector eat kangaroos, and they won’t eat other meat,” he said. “From an Australian perspective, we’d be much better off from a land condition and environmental perspective, if we replaced cows with macropods. The land would be in much better condition.”
Campaigners like Pearson and McIntyre say they’re not going to give up trying to convince consumers and companies to stop killing kangaroos. Emboldened by Nike and Puma’s move away from kangaroo leather, they say it’s no longer acceptable for major brands to be involved in the industry, despite the government’s assurances of its welfare standards.
“We expect the other big brands to follow suit pretty quickly because clearly it’s a market advantage to be ethical,” said McIntyre.