By former Voiceless Legal Counsel, Emmanuel Giuffre and Voiceless Legal Intern, Sarah Margo
Australia’s mass slaughter of kangaroos is the largest commercial killing of wildlife on the planet 1 and has become an accepted form of institutionalised cruelty. The rationale for this slaughter (or “cull”, as it is euphemistically called) is largely for ecological purposes – based on the assumption that kangaroos are over populated such that they should now be considered a pest.
Emerging science, however, does not support the position that there is a problematic overabundance of kangaroos in open landscapes. Further, scientific research indicates that kangaroos do not compete with livestock for resources and economic data indicates that the cost of kangaroos to Australian farmers is grossly overestimated.
In reliance on this scientific and economic data, significant opposition to the legalised mass killing of kangaroos has emerged, particularly from protestors and animal advocacy groups like Voiceless and THINKK. This opposition can be seen most recently in the ACT, in the case of The Australian Society of Kangaroos v the ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna (AT13/00041).
The Australian Society for Kangaroos v The ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna
Last month, the ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna publicly announced plans to kill 1,455 eastern grey kangaroos in seven nominated reserves.
In legal terms, kangaroo management is the combined responsibility of Commonwealth and State Governments. Classified as wild fauna, the non-commercial kangaroo trade technically falls within Commonwealth jurisdiction, and though each State and Territory must develop non-commercial kangaroo management plans, these must be approved by the Australian Government Department of Environment and Water. As part of these plans, the ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna is permitted to develop nature conservation strategies and issue conditional shooting licences.2 The number of kangaroos to be killed is determined by localised counts, which is subsequently compared to State Government findings of how many kangaroos are considered ecologically sustainable.
Last month, the ACT’s planned slaughter was delayed, when the Victorian-based Australian Society for Kangaroos (ASK) won a last minute stay to commence legal proceedings in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal. ASK claimed that figures used by the government to justify population management were grossly exaggerated and therefore challenged the decision by the Conservator to issue licences to cull the 1,455 kangaroos.
ASK questioned the validity of the government’s counting method. Expert witness, Raymond Mjadwesch, said that growth and mortality rates had been incorrectly applied, resulting in a gross overestimation of kangaroo numbers. A further challenge was made to the government’s management strategy outlining how many kangaroos per hectare are ecologically appropriate in local nature reserves. While the government’s findings indicated one per hectare, Mr Mjadwesch found that a more appropriate figure was between four and five kangaroos per hectare.
Having already spent $190,000 this year on maintaining kangaroo populations, the ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna decided the mass kill was necessary to successfully minimise the impact of overgrazing and to preserve endangered ecosystems. In response to the contested scientific method, the government alleged that ASK’s expert witness did not have the required expertise or data to adequately challenge the government’s findings.
The Tribunal’s decision
On Wednesday 10 July, the Tribunal handed down its decision to allow 1,244 kangaroos to be killed by the end of July. As the Tribunal is yet to issue a written judgment, it is unclear exactly why the Tribunal reduced the slaughter by 211 animals. During the delivery of the judgement, it was said that the scientific reasoning of the government was preferred to that of Mr Mjadwesch and the decision was based on the consideration that kangaroos can rapidly repopulate following a mass kill. The reduction in numbers, which seems inconsistent with the Tribunal’s reasoning, has been speculated to be an act to simply ‘throw the applicants a bone’.
In a last minute legal bid, ASK filed for interim orders with the aim to temporarily suspend the shooting. On Friday, 12 July the application was dismissed. Following that dismissal, a large group of protesters gathered in the ACT, threatening to interfere with the shootings. Any protester caught trespassing in closed reserves could be fined up to $5,500 under the Nature Conservation Act 1980 (ACT), s63(3).
The Government’s claims that kangaroos are in overabundance is challenged by a growing body of scientific and economic research. According to a 2011 report by THINKK, the current research indicates that kangaroos do not exist in pest proportions. Shooters often attempt to defend cull quotas on the basis that previous years’ quotas were not met; however, this is likely due to the fact that the numbers of kangaroos are grossly overstated.
The Government has traditionally relied on the argument that kangaroos compete with farm animals for resources and also are costly to farmers, and accordingly, kangaroo numbers need to be cut down. However, THINKK’s 2011 report indicates that the Government’s projections are grossly overestimated, with the cost to farmers closer to $44 million as opposed to $200 million, or approximately $1.67 per kangaroo per year. Further, scientific research indicates that kangaroos do not compete with livestock for resources. In particular, a six-year study by Dr Steven McLeod (NSW Agriculture) – the biggest ever undertaken – found that there was no competition for food between sheep and red kangaroos and that the presence of kangaroos had no negative impact on the number of lambs born to the flock, nor their size.
While the Government commonly claims that animal welfare is ensured through the National Codes of Practice (Commercial and Non-Commercial) for the Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies, these codes are simply not adequate in protecting the welfare of kangaroos. The codes are rarely enforced and permit practices that are inherently contrary to positive welfare outcomes, such as the bludgeoning of joeys to death with a blunt instrument. Further, a number of the provisions, such as the necessity to shoot a kangaroo in the brain and the requirement of an instantaneous death, are almost impossible to comply with – particularly given hunts are typically conducted at night. As a result, misfire is common and injured kangaroos and their young are often left to die slowly from starvation, exposure or predation. Further information about kangaroo suffering and an account by a former commercial kangaroo shooter is available here.
In Voiceless’s opinion, the deemed scientific and economic rationale for the mass slaughter of kangaroos is not sufficiently substantiated by evidence. While ASK’s application was successful in saving the lives of 211 kangaroos, the Tribunal’s decision is disappointing. Judicial decisions galvanise public opinion, and the message that the Tribunal has sent to the community is concerning: that the mass slaughter of sentient life forms is sometimes appropriate. This message is entirely at odds with the animal protection movement.