The European Union is under pressure to ban the import of kangaroo products following a push from a Dutch animal rights party, a move that if successful could collapse the kangaroo export market.
Europe is the largest market for kangaroo meat and leather products. But animal rights activists say that the trade is incompatible with the EU’s animal welfare requirements, and are building opposition to kangaroo products ahead of the EU-Australia free trade agreement.
It follows a push to ban the import of kangaroo leather to the US. Legislation to stop the import of kangaroo products was introduced to congress last year but has not progressed.
What is happening in Europe?
The push to ban kangaroo imports has been led by the Dutch Party for Animals, which is allied with the Animal Justice party in Australia.
In 2018 it hosted a screening of an anti-kangaroo hunting film in The Hague, and also hosted New South Wales Animal Justice party MP Mark Pearson, who addressed a group of about 80 people in the European parliament.
Last month the Dutch parliament passed a motion from Party for the Animals MP Frank Wassenberg calling on the government to “address the problem of access to the European market of controversial products such as kangaroo meat and kangaroo products with the European Commission.” Agriculture minister Henk Staghouwer supported the motion, saying that he “shares the concerns expressed” about the commercial kangaroo harvest, but warning that progress on a ban may be slow because it has to comply with trade regulations.
The department of foreign affairs defended the commercial kangaroo industry and said Australia was “negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU that will remove barriers to trade, not put more restrictions on exporters”.
All animal products imported to the EU from Australia must be produced in a manner that complies with Australian animal welfare standards and EU import requirements. The EU regularly audits the products, most recently in 2019, and found they meet all requirements.
What are the concerns with commercial kangaroo harvesting?
About 1.5m wild kangaroos are killed in commercial harvesting operations in Australia each year, although the number can vary due to demand and drought. The target species are eastern grey, western grey, and red kangaroos and common wallaroos, none of which are listed as threatened species and all of which are considered abundant.
States and territories set annual quotas for the number of kangaroos that can be harvested, which can be up to 20% of the kangaroos in a given region, but the actual number taken is much lower. The department of agriculture, water and the environment estimates that 3% of the country’s 50m kangaroos are used in meat production each year.
The harvesting is undertaken at night by commercial shooters, who are required to pass accuracy and competency tests and to kill with a single shot to the brain. The carcasses are then eviscerated and prepared for transport, which frequently involves removing the head. They must be delivered to a chiller truck by dawn.
Animal welfare advocates say that the removal of the kangaroo heads, which is not done by all shooters and not a requirement, makes it impossible to check the accuracy of kill shots. They have also raised concerns about the lack of on-the-ground audits, which would assess damage to animals left behind.
But the biggest animal welfare concern is the treatment of joeys. Most female kangaroos of breeding age will have a joey in their pouch or at foot, and those joeys cannot survive without their mother. They are killed by blunt force trauma.
RSPCA Australia’s Di Evans says that dealing with joeys is an “intractable” problem. If carried out skillfully blunt force trauma can provide swift and humane death. But it’s a task that relies on the skill of the hunter, and the size of the joey. Joeys which flee are predated upon or starve to death.
Even if you could address other concerns with the trade, says Evans, “I don’t know how you solve the issue of the joeys”.
Pearson is a long-term opponent of the commercial kangaroo harvest. In October, a parliamentary inquiry in NSW, of which he was the deputy chair, found issues with the transparency of the methodology used to estimate kangaroo and wallaby populations, and found there was a lack of monitoring and regulation at the point of kill for both commercial and non-commercial operations.
The inquiry also found that the NSW parks and wildlife services did not have adequate systems to monitor compliance with license conditions for non-commercial culling of kangaroos, usually carried out by landholders.
“They don’t know how many kangaroos are out there, they don’t know how many they have been killed, they don’t know how they have been killed, and they don’t know how many joeys have been killed,” Pearson told Guardian Australia.
He said the trade could not be conducted in a humane manner, because even if all commercial shooters were accurate they must still deal with the joeys. And he said the accuracy of shooters cannot be guaranteed without on-the-ground audits, which are not taking place.
“How can we be assured that these animals are being killed with a clean shot to the brain, when their heads are left on the ground for the pigs and foxes to eat?” he said.
Evans says the RSPCA’s concern with commercial kangaroo harvesting was that it was being managed as a renewable resource, not as an ecological measure designed to mitigate adverse outcomes like overpopulation, overgrazing and starvation.
She said there had been a lack of national leadership on kangaroo harvesting, leaving behind a complex, polarizing debate with few agreed-upon truths.
The RSPCA’s position is that an independent evidence-based review, conducted by a body like a national commission for animal welfare, should be tasked to determine the ecological and animal welfare concerns around macropod overpopulation and develop a mitigation strategy – which may involve commercial harvesting.
“That is what has got to happen first – you need to assess and provide evidence of the ecological and welfare harms that you are seeking to address, and then you can determine mitigation measures and assess whether those mitigation measures have had the desired effect,” she says.
“We are never going to address this problem if we do not get serious about bringing the right people together and working through this.”
Scientists who support commercial kangaroo harvesting say that if Europe were to ban the import, it would remove the most humane method of kangaroo population management, leading to more animals starving due to overgrazing or more animals being killed through non-commercial culls, which are carried out by less-skilled shooters.
But leading ecologists have also called for a national kangaroo strategy, which considers population management through the lens of managing the level of resources available in an ecosystem to support kangaroos, and not a quota based on how many animals the industry will take.
In January, a collective of Australian ecologists produced a special issue of the journal of Ecological Management and Restoration, focusing on the management of overabundant macropod species. It contained a joint statement, written by eight wildlife scientists, which said that overabundant kangaroo populations must be managed for reasons of both conservation and animal welfare, and that in the absence of dingoes, “regulated and accredited harvesting” was the preferred management method.
The statement was endorsed by 25 groups including Bush Heritage Australia, NSW Farmers, the Australian Veterinary Conservation Biology Group, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the Conservation Council of Australia.
Dr John Read, one of the eight authors, told Guardian Australia that commercial kangaroo harvesting was preferable to other outcomes when dealing with overabundant kangaroo populations.
He said campaigns by animal rights groups had created a “perverse outcome” for kangaroo welfare.
“There would be less kangaroos being harvested, but that doesn’t slow down the reproduction rate of kangaroos. That means there are more kangaroos than the country can sustain, and if they are not being harvested by commercial hunters then they are either being culled, or they are being poisoned or dying of starvation,” he says. “They will die a horrible, horrible death.”