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Time after time: ACTs obsession with Kangaroo killing

Life on land

“We always get a sense of bleak emptiness when we think about yet another wildlife slaughter in Australia and the thought of the extreme cruelty that is about to descend on these beautiful and unique animals. The killing, always dressed up with an elaborate range of excuses and justifications”.

Peter Hylands

May 27, 2024

I have been a frequent visitor to Canberra since 1975, in the recent period my attention has turned to the fate of Kangaroos in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Over this time and regarding this matter I have met with Greens MP Jo Clay and her staff, along with animal organisations who share my concerns. I have also met with ACT Parks and Conservation Service Director, Daniel Iglesias, and held a lengthy discussion with now ACT’s now Attorney General Shane Rattenbury (ACT Greens). We have made visits to our friends Professor Steve Garlick and Dr. Rosemary Austen at Possumwood Wildlife, who work so hard to rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife.

Andrea Hylands and I have also visited the Canberra Park reserve system with various locals who have extensive knowledge of these places and the wildlife that lives in them including Frankie Seymour.

We were in the ACT and NSW during the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020 and witnessed the vast scale destruction of the natural world.

The Environment Minister, Rebecca Vassarotti has not met with me but is an influential supporter of the ACTs significant scale Kangaroo killing, Minister Vassarotti did organise a meeting (zoom) with Chris Glennon, Senior Director - Resilient Landscapes, EPSDD Environment, Heritage & Water Division, the transcript of which is at the end of this analysis.

In the case of the ACT, with a few refinements, it mirrors what goes on in other parts of Australia regarding the attempts to justify the killing at such scale and such extreme cruelty.

Across Australia, two things are evident, population estimates are overstated and likely to be in the region of 2.5 to 4 times greater than actual populations, and the situation is far worse in some regions where Kangaroo populations have been destroyed. The second point is that in its totality, the killing methods for Kangaroos and the scale of what is done are among the cruellest of all.

When I see the Codes of Practice for the humane killing of Kangaroos and Wallabies quoted in reports, by politicians and public servants involved in the killing process, that sets alarm bells ringing.  

Government’s, including the ACT Government, spend a great deal of money enabling and trying to justify the killing. The work of government’s has a propagandising effect on the Australian population, many of whom believe that Kangaroos, I will use that dreadful word, are overabundant.

The way Kangaroos are treated by many in the community reflects that prejudice. There are also now many in the community who understand the situation and want to do something about it. In the ACT, as in other states and territories in Australia, their voices are ignored.

This idea is described so beautifully by Jane Robinson and John Grace as they went about conducting their Kangaroo population estimates.

“After hours of searching a vast nature reserve in Canberra's south, we encountered a lone walker. 'Seen any wildlife?' we asked. 'Just kangaroos' was the response. 'Where?' we enquired, having seen only two that day, we were keen to find more. 'They're everywhere' he emphatically responded”.

Science and ethics

As a general comment, not directed at any specific report or review, what I can say is that reports regarding Kangaroos are numerous.

In relation to the commercial exploitation of Kangaroos, Victoria has six reports per annum that I know of, other states have at least two and sometimes three. Other reviews, and in NSW, a government inquiry, that cover off on non-commercial ‘management’ add to the number of documents published each year.

All of these reports and documents say very similar things and claim large and sometimes growing populations of Kangaroos, while it is far more likely that precisely the opposite is true. Some reports have very obvious errors and nobody checks.

So we have an echo chamber that reverberates around this continent. When it comes to Kangaroos, in academia there is no place for dissenters, where they exist they are all too often ignored. If similar processes were to occur in say medicine or aviation, a blinkered approach with no deviation, then this would be dangerous for us all.

But in the Kangaroo world nothing can shift the ‘science’.

There is also a confusion that allows science and ethics to operate in separate silos. ‘I am concentrating on the science is the typical response’ when defending the mass killings / methods of killing, of these animals.

This culture of separation is particularly concerning as it neutralises responsibility for extreme cruelty. If you look at all the material, reports etc, over a long period of time and across the continent, what is evident is that the inviolate ‘science’ relating to Kangaroos is highly questionable and yet it is never questioned by governments who are flooded by complaints from the public, who do not believe the rhetoric either.

Signs of resistance

On 23 November 2023 the Canberra Daily reported that:

The Canberra Liberals will commission an independent review into the Kangaroo cull if elected next year and will put in place a moratorium on the cull until the outcome of the review is completed. Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee said the review will investigate a number of areas related to the cull, including counting methodology and possible alternatives, environmental impacts such as bushfire fuel reduction, and preservation of biodiversity.

“Canberrans are uncomfortable with current practices that involves the clubbing to death of pouch joeys along with joeys at foot,” Ms Lee said.
“Many have also disputed the methodology used by the Kangaroo Management Unit within the [Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate] EPSDD to count the number of Kangaroos with population estimates from the ACT Government referred to as highly questionable".

An independent review will look at the current program and assess potential better practice methods than what is currently in place.

“The Canberra Liberals will ensure a thorough independent review takes place into the controversial Kangaroo cull and that the practices used are the most effective and in line with community expectations".

Nicole Lawder, Shadow Minister for the Environment, said wildlife rescue groups need to be allowed greater flexibility to care for joeys and other injured or orphaned wildlife in the ACT.

The Environment Minister responded:

Ms Vassarotti said the Canberra Liberals’ announcement was redundant in light of an independent review, already underway, into the Eastern Grey Kangaroo Management Program.

“If the Canberra Liberals actually wanted a review into kangaroo management, they would know that the Government has already commissioned an independent reviewer to look over the program,” Ms Vassarotti said.

The killing in 2024

“Leading scientists and land managers with decades of experience in ecology, land management, and Kangaroo management have calculated an operational target of 1,336 Kangaroos to be removed across seven priority reserves in 2024”. ACT Government

Seven nature reserves across the ACT will be closed from 9 June until 1 August 2024 for the ACT’s annual Kangaroo Management Program.

In 2024, Kangaroos will be killed on the ‘reserves’ listed below under the ‘Nature Conservation Act 2014'.

  • Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve;
  • Gungaderra Grasslands;
  • Mt Ainslie Nature Reserve;
  • Mt Majura Nature Reserve;
  • Mulanggari Grasslands;
  • Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve; and
  • Red Hill Nature Reserve.

Killing History

“The most egregious thing about the ACT Government’s Kangaroo killing program is its Nature Conservation (Eastern Grey Kangaroo) Conservation Culling Calculator, dubbed Robo-kill by people who care about biodiversity and the wellbeing of animals on ACT reserves”. Frankie Seymour

The killing of Kangaroos in Canberra’s public parks and reserves sine 2015 (not including joeys to 2021) is as follows:

  • 2015 Target 2,466 / Actual killed 1,689
  • 2016 Target 1,991 / Actual killed 1,989
  • 2017 Target 2,603 / Actual killed 2,592
  • 2018 Target 3,550 / Actual killed 3,253
  • 2019 Target 4,076 / Actual killed 4,035
  • 2020 Target 1,958 / Actual killed 1,931
  • 2021 Target 1,568 / Actual killed 1,505
  • 2022 Target 1,650 / Actual killed 1,645 plus 608 joeys
  • 2023 Target 1,042 / Actual killed 1,041 (533 were females) plus 362 joeys
  • 2024 Target 1,336

Given information obtained under FOI, the species identification test used to identify target and non-target species, Eastern Grey Kangaroos (the main target), Wallaroos, Red-necked Wallabies and Swamp Wallabies,  appears lacking in any depth. For example locals report that there were populations of Wallaroos and Wallabies on Isaacs Ridge Nature Reserve. None are now present since major culls in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Eastern Grey Kangaroos are also very scarce and not observed.

The myth that Kangaroo populations have increased because of European settlement and the destruction of natural predators appears to be alive and well in Canberra. The industrial scale killing of 8 species for commercial gain (including joeys, currently around 1.5 million animals per annum Australia wide). Harms permits, authorities to control wildlife, protection permits and other similar mechanisms add hundreds of thousands more deaths. Foxes are still very active in the Australian landscape and prey on small at-foot-joeys. From the independent review, road kill alone in the ACT is estimated to be:

"The survey data can be used to estimate the approximate number of Kangaroo vehicle collisions each year accounting for the growing population size of Canberra the collision rates translate to an increasing number of collisions over time to 12,300 and 14,800 per year between 2019 and 2022".

These staggering numbers are far greater than predation by native species (and hunting by indigenous people) ever was. The large scale death of young animals, the next generation, is also a feature of the killing. Our citizen scientists in Canberra estimate that around 10,000 joeys have been killed since the killing in Canberra's nature reserves commenced. In 2022, stark evidence for which was discovered by a walker on Red Hill Nature Reserve when he came across the headless carcasses of two fully furred  joeys.

While the commercial exploitation of Kangaroos does not occur in the ACT, the Australia wide data describes the population decline Australia wide. The historic data clearly shows that Kangaroo populations across Australia began to collapse in the early part of this century, in the mid 1990s the actual commercial take was around 3.3 million animals, now it is down to around 1.3 million, while commercial quotas have remained at similar levels over time, hovering around 5 million per annum (say 6 million including joeys).

In the four year period 2020 to 2023 the commercial target for Kangaroos Australia wide was 20,104,692 animals. In the period, 5,210.449 animals were killed for commercial gain, just 26 per cent of the commercial quota. The quotas are not met for the simple reason, the population estimates on which the quotas are based, are far too high. In other words the animals they are targeting do not exist.

Carcass utilisation

“Most carcasses from culls on conservation and rural land in the ACT are disposed of in burial pits or left in situ (for nutrients to recycle). A very small number of carcasses have been used in conservation programs (to feed native carnivores at wildlife holding facilities, or to make poison baits for foxes or dogs)”. Independent Review

It appears that butchering sites were set up in at least three of Canberra’s nature reserves and this meat was used to make around 3,400 poison baits to kill Dingoes and feral dogs / foxes within the ACT.

Report card

Independent Review of the ACT’s Eastern Grey Kangaroo: Controlled Native Species Management Plan

The report, a legislated review required every five years, is dated 12 March 2024 and was published at the time of the announcement of the 2024 cull (15 May 2024).

“Today the ACT Government has released an independent review into the Eastern Grey Kangaroo Management Plan which praised the effectiveness and animal welfare standards of the government’s program as ‘extremely impressive’. Minister for the Environment, Parks and Land Management, Rebecca Vassarotti, ACT Greens, said the review was a strong endorsement of a program which gets the balance right, protecting our natural ecosystems while prioritising animal welfare.
A good Kangaroo Management Program is a program that undertakes the best animal welfare standards, while making sure we manage the impact of species on the precarious balance of our natural ecosystem”.

Meanwhile:

“The ADO condemns an ‘independent’ review of the ACT Government's Kangaroo killing program, which the Government released this week and which unsurprisingly endorses the program. At the same time the Government announced that 3 weeks from today it will start this year's program to kill at least 1,336 Kangaroos in ACT nature reserves. By endorsing the review, the ACT Environment Minister (ACT Greens) has simply re-adopted an outmoded approach to conservation of purporting to protect some native species while inflicting violence and harm against others. Such an approach is neither ethically justifiable nor ethically excusable. It is particularly disappointing when endorsed by a party whose first objective is ‘to further a vision of the world characterised by peace and nonviolence’ (ACT Greens Constitution, 5.1.1)”. Animal Defenders Office, Canberra

The summary of the independent review describes the killing and other ‘control’ (note that the numbers of animals targeted in this analysis are from the park reserve system only and killing in the ACT is more extensive than stated here). The killing continues despite catastrophic bushfire events and other climate impacts.

Population estimates

The review states:

"There are about 6 million Eastern Grey Kangaroos in NSW west of the Divide. The Review estimates that there are about 122,000 Eastern Grey Kangaroos in the ACT, of which most are in the large protected areas in the west and south of the ACT (43%) and on rural lands and government horse paddocks (26%). Canberra Nature Park and other lands managed for conservation contain about 26% of the population, and 5% is on Commonwealth land and in plantations (1%). Conservation culling therefore kills less than 2% of the ACT Kangaroo population every year, road kills around Canberra affect around 3%, and rural culls affect 7%. (stressing these figures are very approximate)".

Habitats

“On conservation land, culling to protect the ecological health of lowland grassy ecosystems occurs within some of the Canberra Nature Park reserves (in up 18 of the 39 reserves, covering~8300 ha), the Molonglo River Reserve (~1300 ha), and on some Commonwealth land (~4500 ha). Kangaroo populations in other ACT protected areas such as Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (~120,000 ha) exist without regular culling interventions. Other actions to influence kangaroo grazing at small scales, such as planned burns and exclusion techniques (fencing, logs), are increasing in frequency. Kangaroo culling is also carried out by landholders on rural lands (~39,500 ha), to reduce impacts on the economic viability of livestock production”.

Findings in the review (examples)

Summary assessments of the environmental impact of the killing in the independent review state that:

“The Kangaroo management program in the lowland grassy ecosystems of Canberra Nature Park is an outstanding example of adaptive management. The program is informed by a large body of research, some of it instigated or encouraged by the ACT Government, covering Kangaroo ecology in temperate grassy ecosystems, grassy ecosystem ecology, the ecology and conservation of grassy ecosystem species, grazing impacts (on plants and animals), and fertility control for Kangaroos. The program monitors Kangaroo density and grass layer condition and uses these data in conjunction with the Conservation Cull Calculator to derive annual cull targets. These elements are well conceptualised and linked and are being constantly refined. Monitoring data show that the grass layer structure is being maintained within thresholds, as Kangaroo densities are managed closer to their targets. ACT Government staff have collaborated widely with the research community to achieve these outcomes. The data gathered during the program have been peer- reviewed by the scientific community and shared with the Canberra public.
The operation and management of the conservation culling program is effective and has put Kangaroo welfare at the heart of activities: the ACT conservation culling program far-exceeds the requirements of the national Code for non-commercial Kangaroo shooting, and the contracted shooters and ACT Government staff involved in culling strive to improve standards continually”.

Killing joeys

The review states

“During consultation for this review, some stakeholders voiced concerns over the methods outlined in the non-commercial Code for killing pouch young. The recommended methods are a concussive blow to the head or stunning and decapitation for unfurred young; and a concussive blow to the head for furred young”.

The review goes on to suggest the 2020 code represents an improvement in the way young animals can be killed humanely. This is certainly not the case.

Citizen science

The independent review gives a population estimate with high certainty in reserves with culls over last 5 years at 11,250 Eastern Grey Kangaroos (in those parks and reserves where Kangaroos are ‘managed’). The report also gives a population estimate for Kangaroos in Canberra Nature Park and reserved land where Kangaroos are not managed at 20,300. The discussion at the end of this analysis regarding the lower number of Kangaroos being targeted than what was previously the case, raises some questions here.

The reports states for the ACT as a whole that:

"These estimates for Kangaroo population sizes across the ACT are uncertain, because of the paucity of data on Kangaroo densities from rural lands and the large, protected areas that are not Canberra Nature Park (i.e., Namadgi NP, Tidbinbilla NR)".

In May 2022 Jane Robinson and John Grace published the report Eastern Grey Kangaroos in Canberra Nature Park: Population estimates and a culling history, 2009-2022.

“Following the cull of 2021, when another 1,505 Kangaroos and 621 pouch joeys were killed, the authors decided to undertake extensive field studies to ascertain the population densities of Kangaroos in the nature reserves. Canberrans have been advised over many years that there is an overabundance of Kangaroos in the nature reserves and that culling is the most humane method of controlling their population. The Directorate has stated that their preferred density of Kangaroos in box-gum grassy woodland and natural temperate grassland is one Kangaroo per hectare and that this ratio will preserve the grassy layer. We also undertook an analysis of the Directorate's methodologies, population estimates and their culling data from 2009 until 2021”. Jane Robinson and John Grace

John and Jane go on to state:

“Approximately 27,950 Kangaroos have been shot and killed in Canberra nature reserves (and Googong Foreshores) since 2009. An estimated 7,000-9,000 pouch joeys have been bludgeoned to death or decapitated. It is unknown how many at-foot joeys have died, but death resulting from starvation, dehydration, hypothermia or predation is likely once joeys lose the protection of their mothers.
Over the past eight months, after an extensive, systematic search of all 37 accessible nature parks on multiple occasions, we directly observed 4,074 Kangaroos remaining in Canberra nature reserves.
On 20 May, 2022, the ACT Minister for the Environment announced a further cull of 1,650 Kangaroos, to commence on 23 May, despite admitting on 13 April 2022, that the Directorate 'did not know' what the population of Kangaroos actually is".

Q&A: Chris Glennon

Rebecca Vassarotti organised this interview with Chris who was very generous with his time and the trouble he took to answer my questions. Chris was very aware of my thinking and my knowledge spanning several decades in relation to these matters.

I asked Chris why the number of Kangaroos being culled was lower now?

At one point in time our culls were quite high but if you look at our last series of culls they were actually significantly lower. Just to explain why that is, our cull is targeted 100 per cent at environmental outcomes. We do have a licensing system where we licence certain rural lessees to cull (Kangaroos) on their properties and they are doing it for economic reasons on their farms. As far as the cull we do on PCS government land, that is purely for environmental outcomes.

The science that we have from our conservation research team is that you like to keep the biomass heights between 5 and 15 centimetres and that gives the threatened species and whatever other animals that live there a maximum chance of survival in their habitat. Our ecologists have a bit of a formula and they go out and do a biomass assessment. Then we do Kangaroo population counts and we have a process of working out the sustainable population to achieve the environmental outcome we want. That is what determines the target cull.

That leads to one reason why the number culled goes down over time. Some of the difference might be due to seasonal conditions but equally as you go over time you get to a point where when you start the cull numbers are quite high because you have to get the populations down. Then after a while the culls just become routine maintenance, rather than major culls.

In the beginning we did the easier sites as we were building up confidence in the science, now we are doing more difficult sites and you tend not to get as far.

The ACT is the only jurisdiction that has a window for culls. We pick a window that is least likely to impact on joeys. We limit of cull from May through to the end of June. Whatever we can’t fit in that window we don’t do, so those are the reasons our cull numbers are coming down.

I asked Chris if he had population estimates?

I have not got one for the whole of the ATC but we break up our areas in what we call Kangaroo management units which are the areas we cull on. I think we do, I will seek help from our experts, but we do them in the areas we are going to cull.

The original contract (with the shooters) was a five year contract and it does have provisions in it for extensions. The contract expires in 2025.

I asked Chris if other species of Kangaroos and Wallabies were being caught up in the killing as Canberra residents claim?

We provide a licence to cull Eastern Greys (Kangaroos) and that licence is approved under the Nature Conservation Act because by our definition they are overabundant. There are Wallabies and we also licence for Wallabies in some areas, for example Mulligans Flat Nature Sanctuary is one of them.

If animals are shot that are not Eastern Greys we call those off target impacts, yes it could happen. We have a number of provisions in place to limit the likelihood of that happening.

When we employ the contractor the need to pass a very rigorous proficiency test. To give you an idea of how rigorous the proficiency test is, a lot of people do not pass it. If they do not pass, they can’t participate in the cull.

The proficiency test covers a lot of things, one is marksmanship because we operate under a code of practice. That says that you must take every effort when you do the culling it needs to be humane.

This is confronting so I need to choose my words carefully. The culling needs to be humane and the way it does that is the animals needs to be unconscious or dead almost immediately. That takes you to a head shot so they must pass a proficiency test. The proficiency test also covers off on their ability to identify an Eastern Grey and a Wallaroo.

If you are a farmer and you can’t pass that test you do not get a licence. When you go into an area you will know if there is a likelihood of meeting off target impacts. Wallaroos, Wallabies and Kangaroos do not always occupy the same terrain. In some sites you are unlikely to meet Eastern Greys, in others we get a mix of species, I can email you the check list we go through.

When the operations occur you have a driver on the buggy and a shooter. They have got all the high tech gear of infrared sights and all that sort of stuff. You can identify the difference between a Wallaroo and a Grey Kangaroo because of the length of the hair, the ears, that sort of stuff. When they come across the site they go through a verbal identification test. The shooter might say what he has seen and the driver will confirm that. Are you sure? So they go through that sort of test.

We talked about joeys and this is one of the more confronting parts of what occurs. As I said before we pick a time of year where we don’t interact with joeys but we do from time to time and they are euthanised with a blunt instrument.

We are audited by a vet, we do an independent vet audit every five years. This is a random audit and not of everything we do. We are doing the fifth independent audit this year (2023) with this year’s cull. We think the off target impacts are less than one per cent of the cull.

I then asked Chris about the use of the carcasses?

We don’t have any commercial use. Our standard is for non-commercial and we do not have any commercial arrangements for the waste of Kangaroos from our culls. The reason we do that is we want no suggestions that there is any motivation other than environmental outcomes. We are not motivated for commercial gain.

Having said that we do provide skins to the Aboriginal community for cultural purposes, that is around 20 per cull, so that is not a high number. We have provided meat, we use Kangaroo meat as baits for our wild dog program. Again relatively small numbers of the target. There is not a huge demand from the zoos (for Kangaroo meat) surprisingly. I have been in this job five years and I thought that would be the obvious thing, not a huge demand there.

We did provide free of charge, so no commercial arrangement, we did provide carcasses to a ‘wildlife sanctuary’, even then the demand is not high.

I asked Chris who looks after the rest of the carcasses?

I am sure you are familiar with the ACT Government, Transport City Services run a NetWaste service (funded by the NSW EPA and based in Central and Western NSW). We are working on ways to reduce our waste.

I then asked Chris about climate change and its impact on wildlife?

That is a really good question and goes to the idea that why do we think populations are increasing and need to be managed? Our Kangaroo Management Program is usually in urban and peri-urban environments in Canberra. We think there is no natural predator and that sort of thing.

We discuss climate change and how that impacts culling numbers.

There are a few things mucking the system up, climate change and development causing a reduction in the natural predator. If you work backwards, the size of the cull in the ACT is driven by biomass of 5 to 15 centimetres, so that drives the number to be culled. We would only be culling a population for the grass that was there.

If we had a drought and had high population numbers the cull number would be reasonably high. We like to think we are closer to an equilibrium now rather than doing those high culls. We are trying to make sure, in dry periods, that total grazing pressure does not denude the area. We would allow higher and sustainable numbers when grass is higher during wetter periods. You are correct, the killing is counter to climate (impacts).

I ask about ecological grazing, when cattle are put into reserves to eat down the grass where Kangaroos have been removed?

We use grazing licences to do this, yes it does happen when there is an overabundance of feed. Sometimes, not just for environmental purposes but for bushfire purposes as well.

There will not be a collapse of Kangaroo populations in the ACT, I am very confident. Cull is being done by conservation officers who have no motivation to destroy populations. Kangaroos are part of the landscape and part of the Australian culture. Canberra likes to market itself as the bush capital and people want to see Kangaroos out in the paddocks. So there is no motivation to take it down.

I asked about what happened when the quota was not met by the shooters?

We have specifically drawn up the contract so there is no penalty for the contractors not to meet their targets. When we set the target we do the vegetation assessment, we do the population counts and our ecologists come up with a number. That goes to our operational team they might lower the number. The reason they might lower the number is the window we have from May to June. Sometimes the operational team will say we can’t achieve that number in our window (May to June).

Also we might get out on site and the situation is too difficult to achieve the numbers, fog or rain as these factors make identification of species hard, so the number will come down again.

We play the long game, we know that as the culls go on the number keeps coming down anyway because we get close to that maintenance level. There is no financial incentive, the culls are done by a combination of our staff and the contract shooters. There is no penalty for the contract shooter not to reach the target and we tell them under no circumstances take any risk to achieve that, that is safety or welfare risks. Same with our staff, there is no financial incentive to them to achieve a certain number.

I asked about the shooting of native wildlife in close proximity to human populations and what the public response was?

We do community opinion polls and things like that which does not show up in polls. We do get enquiries when someone goes for a walk in the morning and sees blood in the grass, which is not nice for anyone. We go to all possible lengths to make sure there are no carcasses left in the field so that people walking through (the parks) don’t stumble across a carcass.

People living in an urban context are not familiar with the culling of native species so we do get enquiries about it. In 2023 these were more elevated. The vast majority who enquire are satisfied once we have a discussion with them, they seem more satisfied.

All reasonable attempts have been made, first of all the science of it and secondly the environmental impact and the welfare issues.

We have done the easy areas in the past and now we are doing the more difficult areas. We are closer to houses and they are hearing the gunshots at night. We can all understand how that might be a bit off-putting.