The regeneration of Australia’s food and farming systems
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16 March 2023
16 March 2023

Let's Talk Kangaroo

The availability of kangaroo meat through butchers, supermarkets and restaurants has increased over a number of years. Most Australians, however, know very little about how kangaroo meat is harvested and what environmental, ethical, cultural and health implications our growing taste for kangaroo meat may present.

Below we dig into the complex story behind kangaroo meat and the journey it takes to end up on your plate.

Kangaroo Management

Since colonisation, decreasing populations of dingoes and other predators and increased availability of pasture land has led to rising kangaroo numbers. Droughts reduce kangaroo numbers, but favourable seasons increase them. In reaction to local rains, they move from property to property and into and out of national parks in search of the best pastures.

Excess numbers of kangaroos pose a major threat to endangered animals and plants, as well as revegetation efforts. The ability of farmers to manage their land is also jeopardised. Kangaroos, for example, feed on precious grass during droughts, making it difficult for farmers to keep cattle alive.

As there are so few kangaroos harvested commercially, landowners take precautions to avoid the animals from causing damage. Farmers erect fences around estates to keep kangaroos out of pastures and drinking holes, often with government support. To control kangaroo populations on their properties, they utilise amateur shooters and even illegal poisons. According to research, the number of non-commercial kangaroo culling licences is on the rise and has recently overtaken the commercial harvest.

Without proper management, unchecked populations of kangaroos can wreak havoc. Governments have introduced culling quotas to reduce numbers but other non-lethal solutions are gaining ground.

The Commercial Industry

The commercial kangaroo industry is active in four of the mainland states: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia and represents the largest commercial kill of land-based wildlife in the world. Between 2018 and 2021, approximately 5.6 million kangaroos have been killed for the commercial industry.

The species that are currently harvested for commercial purposes are:

  • Red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) in areas of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia
  • Eastern grey kangaroo (M. giganteus) in areas of Queensland and New South Wales
  • Western grey kangaroo (M. fuliginosus) in areas of New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia
  • Common wallaroo or euro (M. robustus) in areas of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia

Red, eastern grey and western grey kangaroos make up about 95% of the commercial harvest. In 2021, over 1.3 million kangaroos were harvested across the four active states equating to 30% of the national quota.

Who Governs the Commercial Kangaroo Trade?

The commercial kangaroo industry is guided by a national code of practice (last updated in 2020), which is incorporated into state-based nature conservation legislation. Both the Australian Government and state governments have a role in the conservation of kangaroo populations. The states have responsibilities for regulating the harvest and processing industry, while the Australian Government controls the export of kangaroo products through the approval of kangaroo management programs and the granting of export permits.

Culling and Quotas

Kangaroo culling quotas are set annually and reflect a proportion of estimated populations, established through surveys undertaken by each state’s wildlife agency. Survey methods vary between and within states depending on the geography of the survey site, and are outlined in the state management plans. Survey methods and frequency also vary between species. The Australian Government considers that annual harvest levels in the order of 15% of the populations for grey kangaroos and wallaroos, and 20% for red kangaroos are sustainable. The rationale for culling is to manage grazing pressure and to encourage the maintenance of indigenous plant diversity.

Culling is carried out by accredited, licensed shooters using high-powered spotlights and guns to kill kangaroos in the field at night. Kangaroos must be shot in the head and killed instantly, according to the national code of practice.

Authorities evaluate the industry's adherence to welfare standards when kangaroo kills are brought in for processing. With amateur culling, such monitoring is impossible. Kangaroo carcasses not killed with a headshot are rejected by abattoirs. Commercial shooters avoid females with visible young in their pouch or on their feet. Joeys must be killed using approved procedures if a mother is shot.

Beyond Culling – Other Solutions

To be clear, kangaroos are not the enemy. When their population grows, they, like other grassland species, suffer because there is no unoccupied or available habitat.

It's more important than ever to have a plan in place to transition Australia into a biodiversity sanctuary where species may thrive, even where their habitats cross paths with our suburbs and cities. Activities that help our community care for the land and conserve and enhance our ecosystems may include introducing a network of wildlife corridors, hiring more conservation professionals, and funding more First Nations-led conservation efforts.

The ACT is investigating the feasibility of limiting kangaroo population increase through contraception rather than culling. While targeted shootings will continue in Canberra's nature reserves, the ACT government says that the contraceptive program is a more humane method to deal with the ecological consequences of an overabundance of kangaroos. The ACT has tested the contraception by injecting the medication GonaCon into mature female kangaroos. According to the Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti, GonaCon is long-lasting with over 80% of female kangaroos staying sterile five years after injection. By making this practice more broadly accessible, the need to kill kangaroos would be reduced.

"In terms of kangaroo management, this is not a 'set and forget," Ms. Vassarotti said. "What we are trying to do is ensure that we have sustainable populations. As we do proactive kangaroo management, we hope to see a reduction in the need to use lethal methods of kangaroo management."

Is Eating Kangaroo Better for the Environment?

Overall, eating Kangaroo meat is more sustainable and better for the environment than most other meat consumption. As kangaroos are indigenous to the Australian environment they can get by on eating a variety of indigenous scrub and do not rely on the production of grain. Likewise, as they are wild animals they do not need to be farmed in the conventional way, which requires land clearing and the destruction of habitat.

Kangaroos also generally eat less than other grazing animals such as sheep and cattle, which places less stress on the land and requires no irrigation or use of potentially harmful synthetic inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. They are quite literally gentler on the land too, as they have soft, light feet and therefore do not cause damage or erosion to the earth like a large herd of cattle with hooves do.

In Australia, farming contributes around 13% of our greenhouse gas emissions each year. By weight, nearly half of the sector’s emissions come from methane produced by grazing systems that include cows, sheep, or goats. These animals produce methane in the process of breaking down plant food in their gut.

Cows and sheep are the biggest emitters of methane emissions and although kangaroos are also ruminant animals and emit methane as part of their digestion, they emit far less than cows due to their smaller size and metabolism.

Is Eating Kangaroo Better for Your Health?

Kangaroo is a lean meat with less than 2% fat, making it a healthier red meat option. It is also high in protein, essential B vitamins, minerals such as zinc, iron and omega 3 fats and omega 6 fatty acids. Compared to beef, kangaroo contains double the amount of iron and triple that of chicken and pork. Eating wild meats such as kangaroo is also better for your health as you can be sure there are no added growth hormones, antibiotics or chemicals.

The Ethical and Animal Welfare Concerns of Consuming Kangaroo

Consult with First Nations People

Given that Aboriginal people have lived on these lands for tens of thousands of years, our governments need to develop a consultation process to help assess and improve the sustainability of kangaroo management.

Kangaroos hold spiritual, cultural and social significance to our First Nations People, however, they have little input into management decisions. While they shoot and eat kangaroos as part of their traditional diet, they are subject to strict cultural regulations. Traditional methods are at odds with those employed in the commercial sector.

Poor representation of First Nations People in commercial kangaroo harvest is a result of numerous barriers to access, such as a lack of access to training. Programs and facilities that deliver the required shooting accreditation are often not available in regional and rural areas, which means the cost of becoming an accredited shooter can be up to $30,000. In recent years, just one Aboriginal individual in South Australia has been granted a commercial kangaroo harvesting permit.

First Nations People have diverse views on how kangaroo populations should be managed. Some are particularly concerned about culling. The Australian Alliance for Native Animal Survival (AAFNAS) was founded in 2010 in response to kangaroo culling in the Australian Capital Territory. AAFNAS has several goals, one of which is to re-establish safe areas for local species along dreaming tracks. 

THINK Kangaroos is a think tank set up to explore the, “..non-lethal management methods that are consistent with ecology, animal welfare, human health and ethics.” Expert Advisor, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, has raised issues with kangaroo killing for commercial and non-commercial reasons. He is concerned that the mass shooting of kangaroos is destroying Australia's dreaming trails. Uncle Max also speaks about a variety of Aboriginal strategies for ensuring the kangaroo's long-term viability.

Cruelty in Culling – kangaroos and wallabies

Some groups such as Voiceless and Animals Australia have called for the end of the commercial culling of kangaroos and wallabies mostly due to the way they are harvested.

One concern is that when female kangaroos are hunted they may have joeys who are still in the pouch or dependent young roos that will be left orphaned. To avoid this some producers will only hunt and kill male kangaroos, however, it is not always an exact science. In 2021, one third of the 1.3 million kangaroos commercially harvested were female.

When examining animal welfare it is important to look at how an animal is slaughtered. Under law, kangaroos must be killed with a single shot to the head. However, as they are in their native habitat in the wild and not in a contained area, this can be difficult. The concern is that some kangaroos may be shot on their body and then escape and die slowly of their injuries.

There are mixed statistics available on the number of wounded animals that later die however, it can be safely assumed that not all shots made are clean and accurate and thus there must be some suffering that takes place.

In its response to the proposed code of practice in 2019, Wildlife Victoria detailed their concerns, including the following:

  • Welfare - targeting of female kangaroos and the lack of compliance with addressing dependent joeys
  • Shooter training - need for standardised knowledge test from state to state, alterations to shooting accuracy tests and application to all shooters (not just commercial shooters)
  • Compliance with the code- widespread non-compliance and poor monitoring systems that vary from state to state that lead to poor welfare outcomes
  • Language used in the code - the need for it to be accessible for all literacy levels and the use of the terms harvester/harvesting over shooter/shooting

On the other hand, kangaroos that are slaughtered for meat have lived wild in their native habitat and are truly free-range until the moment they are shot. Many people would find this preferable to raising animals in industrial farming systems, where animals are often housed in sheds either in cages or close confines, never to see the light of day. Though farming kangaroos for meat does not currently take place in Australia, raising kangaroos together with livestock was recommended in a joint statement supported by academics, researchers, animal welfare groups and First Nations peoples.

Hunting for Conservation Reasons

When you grow your own food, you are more likely to appreciate the resources, time and effort that went into producing just one tomato. To pick and eat that vine ripened tomato that you lovingly watered, protected from the birds and carefully mulched in the hot weather, is to celebrate and savour it. You can also say the same thing about meat.

Whether you have raised the meat from a baby animal or carefully hunted it in the wild, taking the time and skills needed to ethically harvest, prepare and cook an animal means your consumption is likely to be a more mindful experience than if you simply bought some pre-prepared packaged meat off a supermarket shelf. The intensive labour involved in sourcing your meat yourself from the wild, will also ensure it’s not something you consume on a daily basis. And harvesting a whole animal usually leads to eating and using every part of that animal so nothing goes to waste.

Why Eating All Kinds of Indigenous Foods is Important

Utilising more Australian indigenous ingredients in our cooking just makes sense when it comes to eating sustainably. That’s because such plants and animals are built to thrive in an Australian climate and offer a diversity of taste that our largely European diet doesn’t. The majority of foods – meat, grains, fruit and vegetables – that we eat today have been introduced to Australia, dating back as early as the arrival of the British first fleet.

If everyone made an effort to utilise more native ingredients and support the bushfoods industry we would not only be discovering some new and delicious flavours and building a food culture unique to Australia, we would also be playing a part in protecting Australia’s biodiversity and having a smaller impact on our land and environment.

Just a note on this one, please make sure to purchase bushfoods from businesses owned, led and benefitting First Nations People wherever possible.

What You Can Do

If you’re going to eat meat, choosing kangaroo has a lower environmental impact than other forms of red meat, and is considered a lean cut of which is better for your health. When sourcing your meat, if available to you, choose an ethical butcher or supplier. When considering kangaroo, use a supplier that only harvests male animals and that follows the commercial code.