After dark they kill
The misinformation and brutality of the Canberra kangaroo cull
From the 7th of May until the end of July, the Australian Capital Territory plans to slaughter 4,000 kangaroos (and untold numbers of pouch and at-foot joeys). For people residing outside of Australia this likely seems unfathomable — why are they killing their native icon that is so beloved the world over?
Most likely? For votes, donations and land sales. The ACT government relies almost entirely on sales of land and new property to maintain revenue and available land is fast running out. Keeping the rural landowners on side may sweeten future sales, and the income generated by construction giants with poor records dominate ACT politics. We are not the first to suggest this link, nor will we be the last. This is not the reasoning given publicly but as we will discuss, the ever-shifting justifications don’t hold water.
Firstly we must be clear, we oppose the cull on moral grounds — kangaroos are sentient beings deserving of protection. The killing of them is at odds with the animal welfare act amendments to recognise non-human animals as sentient beings and those participating in the cull, as well as those approving it, should be made to face the penalties outlined in the animal welfare act. Even if there was evidence to suggest kangaroos had impacts on other species, we do not believe that simply being born into a more prevalent species justifies brutal slaughter — especially when any impacts faced are the result of human activity and degradation of habitats for vulnerable species.
The rhetoric employed by the ACT government directorate responsible for the slaughter, however, attempts to paint this cull as being necessary on conservation or biodiversity grounds and it is our duty to dispel the misinformation used to maintain social acceptance.
The specific reasons used by the directorate are varied — this year it is potential for starvation of the kangaroos themselves (i.e. “mercy killings”), other years it is supposed impacts on other native species. Last year there were murmurs by the directorate over concerns over water security despite no research having ever been done to suggest this as an issue (and this reasoning has been quietly retired).
An overview of issues with the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate
To provide context for those outside the ACT, the local public service has been plagued with poor management since self-government (and realistically, well before). Vital services have been mismanaged as the local government attempts to act as both a city council and a state-level government. This poor model of service provision is largely the result of the poor transition from federal government control of the territory, the high wages required to attract and maintain specialist staff, and the smaller pool of potential employees than say a major city however these issues have not been rectified and are reflected in most directorates despite the best attempts of staff.
Poor decisions within the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate specifically have been made public, with recent reporting into the death of all released bettongs providing a clear example of a directorate without sufficient knowledge nor oversight to act in the best interests of the sentient beings they are tasked with protecting and the ecosystems upon which they rely.
This raises serious questions in regards to the competence and integrity of policy and practices of this directorate, and this has been reflected in kangaroo ‘management’ policy. A previous representative of the directorate stated in the 2013 Tribunal that the biodiversity argument supplied to support the culling of kangaroos was merely “PR”, alongside the provision of erroneous population growth estimates (ACAT AT 13/41, 2013).
This tribunal was held following legal challenge by animal rights groups over the licence granted to the directorate to carry out the cull. In response to the near loss to the animal rights group, the directorate managed to have legislation implemented which removed the need for a licence to be granted, and also implemented substantial penalties for protestors. Essentially, all legal avenues have been removed.
Further, Dr Tennant-Wood, then Director of the Canberra Environment and Sustainability Resource Centre and a Visiting Fellow at the ANU, was harassed and pressured to withdraw her report to the ACT Office for the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (OCSE) after it became apparent that her findings were at odds with the ACT government’s position. In a bizarre twist, Dr Tennant-Wood was also contacted by a gun lobbyist who’s line of questioning was echoed by the Commissioner themselves.
This lack of transparency and tendency towards authoritarianism, and potential pandering to questionable stakeholders, has also been reflected in requests for information pertaining to the 2018 cull. Requests for information including body condition assessments of kangaroos killed during the cull, concrete numbers and the calculation of cull quotas for each site have been repeatedly ignored by the directorate.
Issues with the research itself
This poor governance of the directorate has also allowed poor research to proliferate, and this has been used to justify the continued killing of kangaroos.
For example, Howland 2014 (Eaten Out of House and Home: Impacts of Grazing on Ground-Dwelling Reptiles in Australian Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands) does not assess direct relationships between kangaroo grazing pressure and ground dwelling reptile populations and indeed, does not assess other factors such as soil moisture or temperature, presence of African lovegrass on ground dwelling reptile populations, despite their impacts being well established. The study instead hypothesises that because these reptiles prefer grass cover, and if you remove all grazing herbivores there is more grass ergo removal of kangaroos would improve reptile populations. This is patent nonsense.
Indeed, even the endangered earless dragon population across the border in the Queanbeyan Nature Reserve was found to have bounced back in 2014 due to easing of drought conditions and increased soil moisture — a critical factor in egg incubation. The senior threatened species officer responsible for the site has states that the density of kangaroos present did not impact the earless dragon, as so frequently claimed by employees of the ACT directorate, rather presence of weeds (a fact that has been recently raised by the directorate themselves as African lovegrass has taken hold of the only remaining habitat in the Jerrabomberra Valley).
Other research by the ACT Parks and Conservation directorate do not demonstrate any correlational relationship between the floristic density of identified grassland species (Themeda, Austrostipa –Rytidosperma, Yellow Box — Red Gum), native species richness (i.e. presence of desirable species in plot). and kangaroo population densities (Armstrong, 2013).
A relationship between two variables is considered to be strongly correlated when the coefficient of determination has a value of 0.9 or greater, or a weak relationship when the value is between 0.6 and 0.9.
The ACT Government’s data demonstrates coefficients of 0.19, 0.04 and 0.06 for floristic value scores and kangaroo density (i.e. no relationship) for Themeda, Austrostipa-Rytidosperma, and Yellow Box-Red Gum respectively. For native species richness, the coefficient ranged from 0.32 in Themeda grasslands to 0.03 for Austrostipa-Rytidosperma grasslands, again demonstrating no correlational relationship.
Further analysis and a third year of data (2013) by the CSIRO confirmed this finding and demonstrated the strong role that kangaroos play in maintaining biodiversity (Vivian and Godfree, 2014). The CSIRO report also states that the nature of this study makes the isolation of kangaroo grazing as an influential factor difficult, with land-use history, livestock and other species grazing excluded from analysis despite their known influence on ecosystem health. To quote, the CSIRO report “could not identify any upper limit of kangaroo density beyond which vegetation richness, diversity and overall condition declines”.
Despite the methodological issues and straight out failure to establish correlational relationships, these are used to justify killing kangaroos. Strangely enough, livestock are permitted on reserves to graze with the excuse that they are needed to ‘reduce fuel for bushfires’. It is Schrödinger’s nature reserve — simultaneously overgrazed and undergrazed. The directorate argues that the presence of Phalaris on these reserves justifies the presence of livestock (as it is toxic to kangaroos) however this does not address the impacts of hard-hooved animals in fragile ecosystems on the very same endangered species kangaroos are slaughtered in order to ‘protect’.
A flawed Kangaroo management plan
This poor research, combined with broader development expansion aims, is at odds with habitat and ecosystem protection and this is reflected in the Kangaroo Management Plan — a plan designed to justify and implement controls on kangaroo populations in the region.
The goals of kangaroo management, as detailed in the Nature Conservation (Eastern Grey Kangaroo) Controlled Native Species Management Plan 2017 (hereafter KMP), in the ACT are to maintain populations whilst manage and minimise the environmental, economic and social impacts of the population on other species and ecosystems, and primary production. This inclusion and explicit reference to maintaining adequate public reserve for the use by private businesses raises a serious red flag and comes in tandem with calls from rural land holders for increased culling, and ACT government support for these land holders to build exclusion fencing.
The KMP quotes Braid et al (2008) as a basis for the necessity of ongoing management following loss of dingo and wild dog predation and other natural mechanisms of population control. The KMP makes reference to threatened grasslands and animal species facing risk of local or absolute extinction due to overgrazing without reference to supporting evidence, and refers to the lack of animal rights campaigns for these threatened plants and animals — an irrelevant and childish remark which raises questions in regards to objectivity of the employees of the directorate and their perspectives.
According to the KMP The number of kangaroos to be culled in nature reserves and non-private or leased lands is determined as follows:
The target number of kangaroos to remain after culling (A), subtracted from the current population (B) with allowances for population growth (C).
“Expert ecological judgement” is then applied to determine these components.
A. The number of kangaroos to remain following the cull.
The KMP used a goal of approximately one kangaroo per hectare in grasslands. There is no reference to support this benchmark and the directorate’s own research, and the subsequent re-analysis and expansion by the CSIRO, into the relationship between kangaroo density and grass cover found that up to 2 kangaroos per ha had a beneficial impact on grass cover and were unable to determine the impacts of 3 or more per ha due to the lack of sites with this density. Individual research by employees of the directorate have suggested new benchmarks however the poor methodology employed severely limits capacity to make reliable recommendations.
The KMP then uses the following to calculate non-grassland habitats the following values apply, again without reference to supporting evidence:
- Open woodland = 0.9 per hectare
- Woodland=0.5 per hectare
- Forest/open forest=0.1 per hectare
B. Current population
This is determined through counting in areas bounded by features known to inhibit kangaroo migration — likely resulting in artificially high estimates across broad geographical areas. Further, inconsistent methodology employed by the ACT Parks and Conservation directorate prevents accurate assessment of population change over time and even between sites.
C. Predicted population growth
The stated limit to population size and population growth rate is food availability. Predators and motor vehicle collisions are also stated as influencing factors. The cull-calculator also states that post-cull growth rates are generally expected to be higher than un-culled populations due to the increase in food availability per remaining kangaroo which is implausible given slow population growth.
The Kangaroo management plan outlines methodology for determining population growth, however these rely on commercial harvest estimates which far exceed the known reproductive and survival rate of kangaroos. Eastern Grey kangaroos are shown to have, on average, 1.03 joeys per year however the joey is dependent on the mother for 18 months and survivorship to one year of age is lower than 23% as based on research in research into the Western Grey kangaroo by Arnold et. al. (1991). A female kangaroo will often only raise a single female joey to sexual maturity (3–5 years) due to high mortality of offspring, strongly limiting population growth capacity. This gives a theoretical population growth of 9 — 11% per annum, which contrast starkly with the 73% growth stated by a representative for the ACT Government in ACAT proceedings in 2013 — a statement that was later revised after being challenged by the consulting ecologist Ray Mjadwesch.
The calculator also states that a reduction in kangaroo population to still allow livestock grazing may be desirable, reiterating previous commitments to primary production over wildlife. Wildfires, back burning or slashing may also result in variations to cull targets.
In short, the true quota for culling depends on a number of factors applied at the discretion of the directorate and these are not provided transparently. Indeed, numerous requests for information have been ignored by the directorate.
A concerted propaganda effort
Despite the lack of scientific support for the cull, the ACT government has managed to maintain sufficient public support to continue the practice. Part of this is repeatedly referring to “the science” with the knowledge that very few people will actually read and critique this for themselves. They have also employed the use of canned surveys to assure the public that there is wide-spread support. These surveys ask the question “Do you support the culling of kangaroos for conservation reasons” which pre-assumes that there are indeed conservation benefits in kangaroo culling. Leading questions such as these are not a valid measure of public support and they have the impact of reinforcing government policies through the illusion of overwhelming support by fellow citizens.
The annual release and reporting on wildlife collisions with motor vehicles has also been weaponised — indeed ask any uniformed Canberran about how much of a risk kangaroos pose to drivers and you will be told of the “plague proportions” leaping out in front of cars. In reality, collisions with wildlife represents a very small proportion of crashes (around 1% of reported insurance claims in the previous 12 months) however misleading reporting amplifies the perception of risk. For many years now, headlines such as Canberra named roadkill capital of Australia have exaggerated the threat, and reporting that “Drivers were more likely to hit a kangaroo while on the road, with the animal making up 96 per cent of insurance claims.” failing to qualify that they are referring to only the collisions with animals (1% of all insurance claims) and not all insurance claims.
This year, ACT Parks and Conservation have released glossy videos extolling the necessity of culling kangaroos in an effort to control the narrative as opposition continues to grow. Efforts to contact ministers now receives a canned response which references the “scientific” basis for the cull, despite this basis having been repeatedly questioned by not only animal rights activists, but ecologists and plant scientists.
The ACT government has made concerted efforts to smear and discredit those who oppose the cull — from the “irrational” label they assign to activists, to attempts to tarnish the reputation of respected scientists who’s work and findings are at odds with those of ACT Parks and Conservation. This is deeply ironic given that the Kangaroo management plan is based upon an unpublished PhD and uses counting methodology that has never been subject to peer review or validation.
The ACT government has continually failed to preserve habitats of our native species in order to build sub-par apartments and have fractured the minuscule remaining area with high speed roads preventing animals from being able to migrate effectively. The Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate is patently incompetent to carry out their legislated duties as demonstrated by their repeated failure to abide by best practice, and their lack of transparency surrounding questionable decisions. The fact that the number of kangaroo killed each year is rising so substantially also demonstrates clearly that culling is not “maintaining appropriate densities”, and indeed undermines any credibility that the cull occurs for the good of biodiversity or conservation.
Substantial opposition from other informed groups exists, including that of long standing animal rights groups, legal bodies, political representatives, scientists (including ecologists specialising in kangaroo ecology), and the general public both within Canberra and internationally. Petitions started last year have garnered more than 90,000 signatures in less than 12 months, and previous years have attracted for than 100,000 signatures in opposition. There is also strong opposition from First Nations who hold the kangaroo as totem.
“Kangaroos are Skin Totem to many Indigenous People, they are the Dreaming of Country & they are essential to the survival of Song Lines & DreamingTracks thus ensuring the interconnectedness of Country remains strong. Without Kangaroos Country will die as will the spirit of Country.
These Sacred Totem Animals are also essential in the Story of Country”
— Aunty Ro Mudyin Godwin, Palawa Woman, Initiated Teacher
The role of the kangaroo in maintaining songlines on Country is important to many nations, and the slaughter of kangaroos reflects the colonial violence that permeates every facet of our society.
We must change our colonial relationship with the land and life. We have ravaged the ancient landscapes, with almost all of the grasslands of the ACT developed and destroyed, and instead of reflecting on our own actions and shortcomings, we employ violence. It’s time for this supremacist ideology to be done away with, and compassionate care for the land and all creatures within to emerge.
Want to help?
-Go to http://stopthecull.net.au to find the petition and contact details of the ministers responsible.
-Join the ongoing boycott of the city of Canberra — and email, call or write to the Chief Minister Andrew Barr to let him know you are joining this boycott
-Share the below image on social media with the hashtag #dontvisitcanberra