Kangaroos are Australia’s Key to Surviving the Ecological Crisis – Here’s Why
Kangaroos have lived in Australia between five to fifteen million years and are a symbol of our unique continent. They are perfectly adapted to their native habitats, and even provide advantages to other plants and animals that also live in those areas.
Despite this, Australia is home to the world’s largest land-based animal slaughter, and its our kangaroos that are in the firing line.
Every year, our Federal Environment Minister signs off on state-based Kangaroo Management Plans. This gives the green light to the slaughter, with conservation of the environment being the justification.
But are kangaroos actually bad for the environment?
Not according to Australian ecologist Simon Mustoe, author of the critically-acclaimed book, ‘Wildlife in the Balance – Why Animals are Humanity’s Best Hope’. He argues that kangaroos can play a huge role in humanity’s survival, and that if left alone, could help us achieve more balanced ecosystems and restore valuable farmland.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Simon and ask him to share some thoughts on Australia’s kangaroo cull.
"Why do kangaroos matter?"
Why indeed, do any animals matter? We tend to think of animals as like the icing on the cake, the pleasant (or inconvenient) byproduct of an ecosystem. In fact it’s the opposite. Animals work as a collective, stabilising plant matter into ecosystems that are habitable for other animals. Kangaroos andhumans alike, depend on each other, for soil, food, fresh water, fair climate and disease control. When wild animal populations are suppressed, these services break down and our economy and livelihoods suffer a slow death.
"What do native animals actually do for us?"
Native animals are often the wildlife that retains the closest connection to established ecosystem processes.
Animals and humans alike, develop cultures and ways of moving and communicating, that synchronise with seasons. That process might take 25,000 years to reach a steady state. Most remarkably it’s animals that often engineer these very conditions they need to survive.
Therefore, preserving animals in situ is essential.
We don’t know for sure which native animals might be essential for our future so, we cannot presume to kill any. The consequences of our kangaroo culls will be predictably dire though. Megafauna like kangaroos systematically transfer, concentrate and amplify energy -giving nutrients that underpin entire rural economies based around farming.
"Why do you think there is this perception that kangaroo populations are exploding?"
As ecosystem function declines, energy (in the form of nutrients) becomes more thinly spread. All animals, humans included, need access to food that is at reliable concentrations – or we die from using more energy finding food, than we get from eating it.
On land, we’ve spent most of our accessible natural resources e.g. soil and soil-moisture, and replaced it with watering points and fertilizer. Kangaroos do what they need to survive. They spend longer where the food is plentiful and less time where it isn’t. Farmers fortunate enough to have fertile land might end up with more kangaroos and a perception they are in plague proportions.
As costs and tensions rise, it’s no surprise that conflicts occur between people and animals. It’s happening all over the world. But killing more animals is not the solution, because we need them more than ever, to rebuild what we’ve lost. In fact, if we kill kangaroos where they are most abundant, the worst effects will be felt on surrounding farms with fewer kangaroos. It’s not just or fair and it makes no sense.
"Why do you think so many conservationists still resort to promoting kangaroo culling to restore land?"
Few conservation scientists think in terms of whole-of-landscape or ecosystems. Research, nonetheless, is critical to our understanding of biodiversity (this means the structure, function and processes of all life – it does not mean number of animals!). Ecosystems and biodiversity are so complex we will never be able to describe or understand them completely though. The traditional way to do ecological studies, therefore, is to break a problem down into manageable units. This can, however, lead to conclusions that are easily misinterpreted by the layperson, leading to the opposite of what we need to know at the landscape scale. For example, it’s common for ecologists to do ‘exclusion’ studies. This is a controlled experiment where you might, for instance, create an area with no herbivores and compare that to an area with herbivores. Naturally the area without herbivores flourishes. This is a linear study that could be used to conclude that herbivores reduce vegetation cover. This is far from true however, as vegetation is not an ecosystem.
"What is the danger of linear thinking when it comes to biodiversity?"
We are currently faced with some farms that are being over-run by kangaroos and studies that show removing kangaroos, reduces pressure on vegetation.
Those are incontrovertible facts. However, the cause of the problem can’t be the number of kangaroos because kangaroos are declining. If kangaroos are declining overall, how can they be responsible for more damage to ecosystems? After all, they used to be more abundant in the very same ecosystems on which we built our farming economy.
Conservation scientists rarely consider that these animals were solely responsible for creating stable ecosystems in the first place. The same places that delivered soil, water and climate for humans for tens of thousands of years. The reason why we must supplement land with water and fertilizer today, is because of a decline in ecosystem health.
The soil that existed when Europeans settled was created by native wildlife and kangaroos were among the most notable of our country’s fauna (people also had a very significant role too of course). We need kangaroos and other wildlife to rebuild and sustain soil across the whole continent and the sooner we start, the quicker we will see results.
"Why do you say kangaroos are among humanity’s best hope?"
Australia is unique in still having an extant megafauna more populous than humans: kangaroos. We have the space to repatriate our wildlife and quickly reconnect critical biodiversity processes for our future and our economy. The wildlife loss we have allowed to occur already in the last 50 years has contributed heavily to the destruction of cities on the east coast as soil disappears and atmospheric imbalance ensues. Killing kangaroos doesn’t solve any problem because kangaroos were a notable part of what made farming possible in the first place – being heavy-bodied and abundant, they contributed hugely to creating the soil processes on which we depend, even today.
Kangaroos, and other animals, are key to recreating viable farmland. We already know what a balanced ecosystem looks like, and with their help, we can restore this, probably within 20-30 years.
The only thing that is stopping us from achieving this, is that we have allowed ourselves to become convinced that we will be better off without kangaroos. This vendetta against wildlife is not a good situation to put ourselves in when animals are the only mechanism that can restore whole ecosystems fast and affordably. Unless our leaders help create a change in human values and call for more protection of wildlife we may have little time left to recover our recent losses.
"If you had one message for the Australian Government regarding its management of kangaroos, what would it be?"
Any politician today who wants to lead us into the future should consider how wildlife conservation can be used to empower people with real hope. Wildlife-driven restoration works – fast. We know this already. To start with, kangaroo culls must stop until there is a proper discussion about what we are losing. This ill-conceived notion that they are a pest means we allow our iconic kangaroo populations to disappear while we resign ourselves to a future not very far away, where rural industry collapses further, and our cities become less habitable.
Interview by Linda Paull, National Advocacy Director.