Conservation benefit from harvesting kangaroos: status report at the start of a new millennium: A Paper to stimulate discussion and research
Gordon Grigg, 2002. "Conservation benefit from harvesting kangaroos: status report at the start of a new millennium: A Paper to stimulate discussion and research", A Zoological Revolution: Using native fauna to assist in its own survival, Daniel Lunney, Chris Dickman
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Over the last twenty years, kangaroo harvesting has gained much greater public acceptance and risen in monetary value. However, most landholders still regard kangaroos mainly as pests, and are a long way from making enough money from kangaroos to encourage any shift away from their focus on sheep. Yet kangaroo meat is now sold legally for human consumption in all Australian States and is common on restaurant menus, while its export is rising steadily. Extensive aerial surveys have established the abundance of the three large kangaroo species and their resilience to harvesting. A small number of landholders are benefiting from kangaroos, either by selling access to shooters/processors or through direct involvement as licensed operators. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has supported the concept of achieving conservation benefits from the sustainable use of wildlife, and this has been incorporated into kangaroo management programs (for leather and meat) by most Australian governments. Despite all these positives, the low price of kangaroo meat, which has still not found the place it deserves on the international game meat market, is a major impediment to implementing “sheep replacement therapy for rangelands”, and only when prices rise significantly will landholders choose to reduce sheep numbers and invest their hopes in kangaroos. Meanwhile, land degradation continues unabated and low prices for coarse fibre wool, while encouraging woolgrowers in the sheep rangelands to overstock, also provide a stimulus to landholders to diversify. Alarmingly, many landholders are choosing to diversify into goats which, though profitable in the short term, will extend the damage done by sheep.
Low prices for wool from the sheep rangelands also amplify the clamour for kangaroo control, and governments are responding by researching or implementing programs designed to significantly reduce kangaroo numbers. South Australia now has a program which, if implemented fully, would reduce kangaroos by 60%. In Queensland and NSW, research projects are examining more effective ways to reduce kangaroo numbers. These goals reflect an acceptance of the folklore that competition from kangaroos compromises wool production and markedly reduces sheep carrying capacity, even though scientific evidence for this is lacking.
But reducing kangaroos will not bring the anticipated benefits to woolgrowers, because kangaroos at typical densities are a much smaller component of the total grazing pressure (TGP) than is generally assumed. This is because the factor of 0.7 DSE (dry sheep equivalent), by which kangaroo numbers are translated into forage lost to sheep, is an overestimate. Taking body weights into account the factor should be about 0.4 and, taking measurements of field metabolic rate into account, may be as low as 0.15-0.2. Hence, even if the desired reductions in kangaroos could be achieved, there would be little or no difference to the economic viability of woolgrowers in the sheep rangelands. Furthermore, if governments decide to institute significant reductions in kangaroos without data to confirm the conservation and economic benefits of doing so, there will probably be strong criticism from conservation and animal rights organisations as well as from Australians at large, and this approach may have to be abandoned.
For these reasons, the focus of kangaroo management as pest control aimed at improving wool productivity is doomed to failure. I still support the alternative view that the best way to reduce grazing pressure on the rangelands is by reducing sheep, and that the best way to achieve this is to develop a market for a high-value kangaroo industry and to sell its monopoly product on the world market for game meat. A significant increase in the value of kangaroo meat could make the harvest of free-range kangaroos for skins and meat a profitable and ecologically desirable enterprise for landholders. This would harness economic incentives in the service of ecological sustainability and rangeland rehabilitation and thus provide another example of achieving conservation goals through the sustainable use of wildlife. Furthermore, the development of a high value, sustainable kangaroo industry stands in sharp contrast to the fatalism of some ecological commentators who can only prescribe mass closure of Australian rural communities and essentially evacuating marginal country. What is needed to achieve these desirable social, economic and conservation goals is a strong marketing effort and I provide some suggestions about the attributes of kangaroo meat and the benefits of kangaroo harvesting which could feature in a marketing campaign.