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Cities and dreams: Understanding animal population numbers

Life on land

"In just four states on mainland Australia we are saying that (population equivalents) somewhere in these four states there should be the equivalent of eleven cities the size of Sydney plus one around the size of Brisbane, cities populated by just four species of Kangaroo. That is nuts”.

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

September 17, 2022

This is a story about Kangaroos, about cities and how we visualise and understand numbers. Indigenous people around the world will talk about seeing patterns, patterns on the land. This is a way of thinking about numbers and thinking about what is there in the landscape. It is a way of knowing and understanding. A beautiful way of thinking, evolved in wisdom, to create a constant state of balance, not a state, which is our state, of continual destruction.

Our Tokyo home

Now we think about numbers, so we think about the patterns on the land. The first thing I am going to do is to take you to Tokyo. A city we love, immense in its energy, intellect and creativity. Flying into Tokyo in the evening light is something we do often, I never lose the thrill of it. The setting sun, the greenness as we cross the coastline, the dimmed and gentle city lighting, a feature of so many Japanese cities. This is the place where our hearts live.

The UN estimates show that the population of the Greater Tokyo area is around 38 million covering an area of around 13,500 square kilometers. This is also the largest metropolitan economy in the world.

Next to our home in Gifu

To Gifu

Our first stop after leaving Narita is always Shinagawa on the western edge of Tokyo. We spend the night here before heading to Gifu. Up high and outside the window the skyscrapers stretch in every direction. High-rise apartments, cosy little streets with houses and shops, a great assemblage of humanity, of activity and life. Shinagawa is a crossroads and down below the continual flow of people, like a river, as people go to hotels, catch super-tech and super-efficient trains, all in this complex web. It is the sheer number of people that is always so amazing. We have our favourite places here, restaurants, galleries and walks. The landing image above are taken from our window in Shinagawa.

To the south and Sydney

Now we take a flight south, across the equator to the City of Sydney with its population of 5 million people. A vast city housing 20 percent of Australia’s human population, again with its endless traffic jams and energy.

This is also a place we have known for a very long time, we first arrived here on Christmas Day in 1974. During the time it had taken to fly from Singapore, the most densely populated country on Earth, to Sydney, Cyclone Tracy had destroyed Darwin. By the time we landed the cyclone had unleashed its power, engulfing us in the drama.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, NSW

And so to Kangaroos

I am going to begin in 2001 when the Australian Government claimed that for just four ‘harvest’ species (species of Kangaroo subject to a commercial trade in wildlife are declared ‘harvest’ species) the population in the four major mainland states where these species exist and were part of the commercial trade in wildlife in the zones where they are exploited was 57,430,026.

The species were the Red Kangaroo, the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, the Western Grey Kangaroo and the Wallaroo. Doing a quick sum and counting subspecies there are or were around 80 species in the broader families of related animals (seven species are extinct and many more are endangered, some critically). So the four ‘harvest’ species that made up the population total of 57,430,026 animals in 2001 represented just 5 per cent of this broader group of species.

Of those four harvest species, out of the total population estimate for 2001 for Australia of 57,430,026 animals, 37,574,300 were from Queensland, of which 22,891,800 were Eastern Grey Kangaroos. That is a lot of Eastern Grey Kangaroos in one state and Queensland’s share of the total Kangaroo population for these four ‘harvest’ species was 65.4 per cent.

The strange case of the Queensland numbers

Despite the endless claims of booming populations and the ever increasing places in which Kangaroos were being killed as a result of these claims, by the time we get to 2011 the Australian Government estimates for these four species in the four states was 34,303,677, again Queensland’s reported share of these animals was high at 59 per cent. This leaves a total population for the rest of the three Australian mainland states ‘harvesting ‘Kangaroos for these four species at 13,958,434.

Serial declines of Queensland populations

“None of the three commercially exploited species has shown a consistent decline in abundance since 1992 (which would necessitate a reassessment of the commercial take and species conservation status)”. Queensland Government 2021

The total Queensland population of the three commercially exploited species as given by Queensland and Commonwealth Governments is as follows:

  • 2021 – 12,959,400
  • 2020 – 16,663, 850
  • 2018 – 20,999,900
  • 2013 – 32,803,900
  • 2001 - 37,574,300

In 2020, 18 percent of the quota was filled, in 2019, 24 per cent and in 2018 it was 26 percent. The year-on-year declines should tell us a lot and the commercial Kangaroo industry will kill every animal it can find to maintain the viability of the industry. Evidence suggests that chiller boxes in which Kangaroo carcasses are stored (sometimes for lengthy periods) are being moved from Queensland to Victoria.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

Climate and numbers

Despite some of the most appalling drought conditions on record and the mass slaughter of Kangaroos across a range of ‘legal’ and illegal mechanisms the 2018 population of these species was estimated at around 42,000,000. 

What follows is an extract from the Guardian of 13 October 2019 by journalist Calla Wahlquist.

“In the drought-affected dustbowl of inland Australia, the Kangaroos are starving. Just five years ago, the annual aerial survey of the four largest Kangaroo species, conducted to assess their abundance for commercial harvest, put their combined population at almost 50 million.
But now the rain has gone, and so has the feed. The population, as of 2018, had dropped to 42 million. Big Kangaroos are boom-and-bust species, breeding up when times are good and dying in equally large numbers when they are not. As drought spreads across mainland Australia, those Kangaroos that are able to are descending on farms and competing with cattle and sheep for water and scraps of remaining feed.”

Silly science

I hope I have started to make you think about the methodologies used to count Kangaroos. Along with that goes a great deal of well-planned media hype with carefully chosen language to match, which is highly questionable and denigrates these species. Kangaroos do not descend from anywhere as the Guardian journalist suggests, they are a native species of Australian wildlife that have an immensely important place in that country’s ecosystem. The drought has been a long and persistent feature of large parts of Eastern Australia with little room for these so called booms and busts.

Just serial declines

So the reality of boom and bust – not bust just a serial decline – changing methodologies, new shooting zones opened up, new species added to the harvest species list, all play their part in boosting the estimates of Kangaroo numbers.

Central shooting zone in Queensland: A landscape destroyed

Now for a reality check.

At the beginning of November 2019 the Queensland Government announced that it would stop Kangaroo harvesting for 2020 for the Eastern Grey Kangaroo in the central (shooting) zone, both northern and southern parts of this zone (this is a vast area in western Queensland stretching 1500 kilometers from above Richmond in the north to the New South Wales border in the south and stretching west along the New South Wales border to the South Australian border). There is also a ban for the gentle and persecuted Wallaroo, which has now been driven to the edge of extinction in Victoria.

The ABC does not like Kangaroos

“A serial offender over a very long period, the question of why the ABC continually produces this misleading nonsense about Kangaroos, without considering the human harms and great cruelty to wildlife, is a question that is going to have to be answered. We all expect a great deal more from Australia’s national broadcaster”. Peter Hylands

An ABC article of 5 November 2019 had a headline that claims Kangaroo harvest halted in Western Queensland as millions starve in drought. We know from the latest Queensland Government figures that there are not millions and that is why the shooting has been stopped. All very odd.

The Queensland Government says that populations have fallen below the predetermined trigger point, for the Eastern Grey Kangaroo in the zone, that is 983,316 animals and for the Wallaroo 126,483, hardly the millions claimed in the media. So remember we were talking about a population of Eastern Grey Kangaroos of almost 23 million in 2001 across three main shooting zones in Queensland, that is western, central and eastern zones which cover most of the state excluding parts of Cape York.

Comments on Facebook suggest that the shooters are going to keep shooting these Kangaroos despite the ban.

Not the knowledge economy

The claim from the people killing Kangaroos in Queensland is that the ban will cripple small towns. This is a bit like cutting down the last tree as it is the only asset left, think about Easter Island here.

I am sure the Queensland Government can do better than that when it thinks about the economic development of its regions. In a similar way, one former Australian politician and would be PM, resident in the USA at the time, claimed that the Californian Kangaroo products import ban would damage the Californian economy. There was a lot of laughter in Silicon Valley that day. It all sounds very silly to me.

Number crunch: More bad maths

My maths tell me that Kangaroo populations across Australia are vastly exaggerated - an indicator species in Victoria is the Red Kangaroo, a species for which there is a high probability that the Victorian Government has attempted to exaggerate its population very substantially. It has now been taken off the ‘harvest’ species list in Victoria and needs further protection.

“The number of Kangaroos in Australia has nearly doubled in recent years, and we need to do something about it. KANGAROOS are overrunning Australia and the population of the marsupials is double that of humans. New government data shows Australia’s kangaroo population is close to hitting 50 million”. 13 September 2017

So in the year 2001 the ‘harvest’ species population in four states was claimed to be 57,430,026. So in 2017 were claiming that numbers had nearly doubled to 50,000,000.

Even if you don’t like maths much you will probably agree that 50 million is smaller than 57 million, right? So not double at all, but less. But from all that we know let’s divide that 57 million by a modest six and this gives us 9.5 million. This number has a much greater probability of being near the mark in terms of Kangaroo populations in these states. The situation now is likely to be much grimmer than that.

Population surveys should not be fishing expeditions

In its extensive and recent Kangaroo surveys the Victorian Government were able to count just 23 Red Kangaroos and 2,607 Grey Kangaroos (both Eastern and Western Greys) in 2017 and in a much more extensive survey in 2018 they counted just 91 Red Kangaroos and 4,609 Grey Kangaroos (again this figure includes both Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos).

We should also not forget that the Victorian Government is spending a great deal of tax payers’ money establishing and ‘managing’ (it is a disgrace) this commercial trade in Australia’s wildlife as well as its disastrous persecution of birdlife on Victoria’s dwindling wetlands. There needs to be proper accountability within government for the various scandals that have emerged in the last few years.


For the range of ‘harvest’ species Macropods in Australia, overall there is a very high probability that their populations are exaggerated in a range of four to sixfold. This is occurring as governments attempt to promote, what is both a cruel and unsustainable industry, turning Australian native species into skins, pet food and as is being suggested in New South Wales (where the slaughter of wildlife is at fever pitch), into compost. All of it entirely disgraceful.

Social and health issues in these landscapes of fear

The thoughtless and irresponsible behaviour of the Victorian Government does not consider the impact of its cruel policies on many people who live in regional Victoria and do not want to see the wildlife around them slaughtered in the many disgraceful and cruel ways in which this now occurs.

While at the same time a recent Federal Government Department of Health report promotes the health benefits to hunters of killing animals by hunting, which is nonsense of course, while not one thought is given to the danger, abuse, grief and loss, anxiety, damage to people and properties, done by the extraordinary act of allowing both shotguns and high powered rifles to be used to kill a range of native animals. This is now the case in Victoria (which has just introduced a Kangaroo harvest industry - 2019) in an increasingly‘ urbanised’ regional landscape, which by Australian standards, contain highly compressed landscape patterns.

Not a single thought is given in these matters to the people who represent the majority.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo with ear shot off, Victoria
A typical injury from commercial shooting, Eastern Grey Kangaroo with ear shot off

Cities of dreams

So what of our cities of dreams and the patterns on the land? So here is the way to think about all this, taking the 2001 figure of 57,430,026 of the four ‘harvest’ species Kangaroos.

For the four species and in four states we are saying that giving population equivalents (swapping people for Kangaroos) that somewhere in these four states there should be the equivalent of eleven cities the size of Sydney plus one around the size of Brisbane, cities populated by just four species of Kangaroo. Or as an alternative, we can imagine one greater Tokyo with its 38 million Kangaroos plus another 20 million or so in four Sydney sized cities.

Do you imagine this to be possible? If so, where are these mega cities full of Kangaroos?

"Given that we drive across the Australian Continent on our many and extensive journeys and we see very few Kangaroos, none at all in most places, I continue to imagine that these cities of dreams and Kangaroos are a mirage in the shimmering sands".

Target practice: Queensland, New South Wales border

The image from the barren and cleared landscapes devoid of life were taken on a drive between Charters Towers and the New South Wales border near St George, that is mostly in the central shooting zone.

National Parks in Australia will be next

Watch this space, given that Governments around Australia are running out of Kangaroos and they are being killed on mass in Victoria’s State and National Parks, the next move will be on those Kangaroos that still live safely in National Parks in other parts of the country.

I have a feeling that ‘safely’ will not be for long.