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The Magnificent Kangaroo

Life on land

“Kangaroo ‘fever’ had also spread to France, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck was appointed to one of two newly established chairs at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1793".

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

May 10, 2024

Back in 1791, it was understood that the most Australian of all things was the beautiful, the magnificent Kangaroo.

The wonderful Kangaroo from Botany Bay, a most beautiful and healthy Kangaroo, in a ftate of perfect tamenefe and entirely free from any blemifh, is now exhibiting at the trunk makers, No 31, Top of Haymarket, at one shilling each Perfon. From NINE o’clock in the Morning, till SEVEN in the evening. LONDON 1791.

Early marvel

"Our eighteenth century advertisement goes on to say “It is not eafy to describe that peculiarity of attitude, and uncommon proportion of parts, which fo ftrickingly diftinguith the KANGAROO, from all other quadrupeds, and it may be perfumed, that few who poffefs a tafte for fcience, or a laudable curiofity of infpecting the wonders of nature, will omit embracing the only opportunity hitherto offered in Europe, of viewing this fingular native of the Southern Hemifphere, in its natural ftate of vigour and activity".

By the end of the 1700 hundreds public interest in natural history, both local and from distant lands, was growing rapidly. It was indeed a world of discovery.

The Kangaroo was prominent in this enquiry. Interest in the natural world was stimulated by the opening of the British Museum in 1753, some 65,000 years after the discovery of the Australian Continent by its original inhabitants.

Britain began its relationship with the Kangaroo in a painting by S T Edwards, published as an engraving in Museum Leverianum in 1796. The painting with its four Kangaroos, two in foreground, two in background, shows Joseph Banks and his Greyhounds chasing the magnificent Antipodean animals.

The opportunity to learn about the new discoveries, and we can just imagine what marvels, what absolute surprises animals like the Kangaroo presented to the public in Europe. There was in fact a growing identification with the Kangaroo. The Haymarket Kangaroo had stimulated the curiosity about our magnificent and complex Kangaroo.

The first Kangaroo to be born in England emerged from its mother’s pouch in October 1793, informing Joseph Banks of the birth, the keeper of the Royal Gardens at Richmond reported the head of a young Kangaroo emerging from the pouch. By 1795 three female Kangaroos had raised young. Within a few years Kangaroos had become a feature in the great estates of British nobility.

The most eagerly sought after attractions of the time were Kangaroos, Rhinos and Armadillos. The Kangaroo was very much the centre of attention because of its gentle and endearing nature, watching a mother with her young is one of the most beautiful of all things to watch in the natural world.

The magnificent Kangaroo is also a marvel of nature’s engineering. This from Dr George Shaw at the time:

“The middle toe is most uncommonly large, and furnished with a claw of proportional magnitude, the side toes are much smaller, and the claw of the interior one, if closely examined, will be found to be double, or to consist of two claws very close to each other, but in reality, the hind feet are tetradactylous, or have four claws. This peculiarity is both curious and important, as it seems to show how very near the animal is allied to another anomalous species of quadruped….”.

Kangaroo ‘fever’

Kangaroo ‘fever’ also spread to France, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck was appointed to one of two newly established chairs at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1793.

At this time the thinking was that Australian animals were important within a whole system of classification of life, this idea more or less coincided with the discovery of the Monotremes, the egg laying Echidnas and Platypus. France’s leading zoologists of the time were convinced that Australia’s extraordinary animals were indeed worth attention.

With this in mind the expedition led by Nicolas Baudin set off in the ships Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste from Le Havre in 1800, there were many differences between the 23 scientists taking part in the expedition, a number leaving the expedition at Mauritius, and returning to France. Of the remaining scientists, Francois Péron, was one who had the study of Kangaroos high on his agenda. The expedition returned to France in 1804 with certainly the largest collection of natural history ‘knowledge’ yet to reach Europe from distant lands.

In what is now Western Australia, a species of Macropod originally described by Francisco Pelsaert in 1629, the Banded Hare-wallaby Lagostrophus fasciatus once again came to the attention of Europeans and was illustrated by the artist Charles Alexandre Lesueur, who accompanied Francois Péron on the 1800 expedition.

The Banded Hare-wallaby, which once had a population stretching from the Victorian and South Australian border to the West Australian coast, was last seen in the wild on the Australian mainland in 1906. It remains on the Islands of Bernier and Dorre off the Western Australian coast and a small population has been established on Faure Island, another at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary on the Australian mainland.

The expedition discovered yet another small species of Macropod on Kangaroo Island, the Tammar Wallaby Macropus eugenii, among the smallest species of Wallaby and now and disgracefully, a species exploited commercially for pet food.

Of abundance Péron wrote:

"This abundance of Kangaroos on the island made their hunting as easy as it was profitable.”

Twenty-seven live animals were collected and taken aboard.

“A third ship joined the French expedition in Port Jackson, when Baudin decided to purchase a locally built schooner, which was 30 tons, and 29 feet [8.85 metres] long. Built of Australian casuarina wood, it was aptly named Casuarina. Louis de Freycinet was placed in command of the ship and in it, conducted the close inshore survey work not possible in the larger ships.”

Lavish publications about the curiosities of the newly discovered natural world were in great demand and these expedition reports were published with the assistance of government sponsorship. In 1816, Louis Claude Freycinet, a commander in the Baudin expedition set out on a circumnavigation of the Earth in his ship L’Uranie. Visits to the Pacific and the Australian continent were central to the expedition.

Among the specimens collected by the expedition was a skin from a new species to French eyes, a reddish coloured and very large Kangaroo.  Back in France, the expedition returned home in 1820, the species was declared new to science and described in Desmarest’s Mammologie as Kangurus rufus. The animal is now known as Macropus rufus, the Red Kangaroo.

Other French naturalists were to follow, René Primevère Lesson, were also active in their investigations of Australia’s remarkable wildlife on expeditions under the command of Jules Dumont d’Urville.

Jules Dumont d’Urville’s second expedition departed France in 1826 and as well as the usual publishing bonanza, this time a five volume record of the species encountered on the journey, also included the first formal listing of the diminutive and utterly entrancing Quokka. Its current population now mainly restricted to the Western Australian Islands, Rottnest and Bald Islands. A diminishing and tiny population remains on the mainland, the species was common across the south west of Western Australia.

These Kangaroo histories describe animals once common across vast regions of Australia, now like most other Australian species, clinging on to existence with their populations declining. It is a great tragedy for us all. The evident lack of intellectual interest in Australia, for its remarkable species, is a sadness that we find hard to contemplate.

"That 24.5 million humans (that is minus a million or so Indigenous people) can have such a catastrophic impact, on what can only be described as vast continent, in such a short period of time, should concern all of humanity".

It is a lesson for us all to think about very carefully indeed. We would call what has been done to the continent, careless in the extreme.

Sydney Cove 1790

“At Sydney Cove quayside, Kangaroos occasionally changed hands for £5 each when a ship's captain decided to buy one for resale in London to an animal dealer. As often as not, ocean going Kangaroos survived the voyage, and at least one became the model for a ships Carpenter who decided to carve a life sized figure.”

You will note that the Europeans (the French were also good at it) could relocate Kangaroos half way around the world all those centuries ago, while the pretence in Australia today is that that cannot be rescued by relocation as they do not survive. That is completely untrue.

“Before long a few of the young Kangaroos brought in managed to survive. They grew into pets that added a touch of cheerfulness to an otherwise ungracious scene. Yet, with meat, in short supply in the settlement’s early years, the Kangaroo continued to be eyed as a source of food rather than cherished as an object of affection. Philip maintained his interest in macropods, and when he sailed to England in 1792, five Kangaroos were included in his miniature menagerie aboard the Atlantic”.

British interest in natural history, developed over decades through the work of the Royal Society, provided a favourable setting for the Kangaroo to be hailed from the early 1770s as a most worthy addition to the 'pantheon of beasts'. The strange animal found at the Endeavour River in 1770 while Cook’s ship underwent repairs was announced to the world at a most propitious time. It came to attention after a lull in the expansion of the list of the world’s known animals, and at the moment when Londoners were eager to extol Cook’s remarkable achievements in charting the east coast of New Holland.

Victoria 2021

“In January 2021, we decided to go for a drive in the hills surrounding Melbourne. Amid claims of booming populations of Kangaroos from Victoria’s then Agriculture Minister, amid new claims (for Victoria – more marketing spin) that Kangaroos were pests, we decided to check for ourselves. Well, we found two Kangaroos (we are very good at finding them if they exist) on our journey and a very large number of Alpacas. For those politicians among you who can’t tell the difference between an Alpaca and a Kangaroo – here is a bit of help – Alpacas are prized as pets and 'cattle' around the world. There are no wild Alpacas. Alpacas are domesticated from the Vicuñas, South American ruminants that live high in the Andes”. Peter Hylands