I was in Australia earlier this year to help a colleague with a project he had started; but this post is not about that project. No, this post is about the time I crossed paths with a kangaroo hunter in the middle of nowhere.
We were busy with surveys one night when, like warning shots, a few raindrops started falling from the storm clouds that had gathered above us. Before Mother Nature brought out the heavy artillery, we shuffled down the mountainside and hurriedly set up a makeshift camp at the edge of an abandoned agricultural field. Fortunately for us, she was only bluffing and within an hour we were sitting under a clear sky making general chit-chat until our banter was broken by distant bang. We shrugged it off as the sound of faraway thunder echoing off the mountain side and only realised later that this was not the gentle rumbling of a passing storm; this time it was a real rifle shot.
Before I continue, let’s first backtrack a few hours to the events that occurred earlier that afternoon.
We had arrived at the foot of the mountain around midday and wandered around the margins of the fallow land prior to starting our upward trek. We made out two grey shapes sunbathing nearby and, upon closer inspection, saw that it was a female western grey kangaroo with her offspring. I had only been in Australia for a short time so my experience of kangaroos had been limited to those that darted across the road swiftly at dusk (or those less swift, lifeless masses that lay next to the road after unfortunate meetings with road trains). Needless to say, I was beside myself with excitement. They put on a good show for us: hopping around a few times within a few meters of us. It was really cool!
Now let’s jump forward again to the rifle shot in the dark.
After hearing – and ignoring – the first bang, we were surprised to hear the sound of a vehicle. The noise became louder and soon we saw a massive spotlight scanning the abandoned field. Recall that (a) it was in the middle of nowhere and (b) late at night so, despite feeling a little bit of curiosity, most of my mind was filled with fear. My heart raced as we were blinded by the headlights of the approaching Land Cruiser.
“I didn’t expect to find you boys out here.”
After explaining to the driver who we were, I was relieved to find out that he wasn’t an angry landowner about to chastise use for trespassing on his property (or a bounty hunter after an escaped murderer hiding out in the region). He was a cheery chap who was as surprised to see us and we were to see him.
It is worth mentioning at this point that his Land Cruiser was not the standard model that rolls of Toyota’s factory floors: it had a mount on the dashboard for a hunting rifle and padded stands, which jutted out from the sides, for resting the rifle whilst taking aim. Not to mention the rack on the back from which nearly 25 kangaroo carcasses were dangling; each with their head and feet chopped off.
The friendly fellow explained to us that he was out shooting ‘roos. He didn’t own any of the land but had the concession to hunt vermin in the wider region.
“Wow! This haul in the back must be worth quite a bit of money”
“Nah, mate, they just toss ’em into dog food. I only get $15 per ‘roo.”
Australia is an expensive place and AUS$15 is not worth much over there. This guy was hardly earning piles of cash, so it wasn’t financial greed that was motivating him. Instead, here he was – in the darkness far from everything – just trying to provide a service to the farmers and, in return, receive a little money. It’s a tough job and at that moment I admired the kangaroo hunter for doing it. But then I realised that the mummy kangaroo I saw frolicking in the field earlier that day was probably strung up on the back of the truck now. Along with my admiration, the hunter also had my disappointment. How could he destroy something so beautiful, just lop off its limbs and grind it into dog food?
Admiration and disappointment: how I could hold such conflicting feelings simultaneously.
I suppose that my story is being replayed around the world every day. While it might not be kangaroos, somewhere out there some well-intentioned person is just trying to make a living at the expense of some aspect of nature. They are not necessarily bad people who set their sights on biological destruction…these are honest, hard-working people who find themselves in circumstances unfamiliar to me. Who am I to judge them? Yet I probably do judge them; as do most of us. It is so easy to make all-encompassing statements in conservation, but they rarely hold water after we examine the situation from a different perspective. As conservation biologists, we need to embrace ambiguous emotions and, while we shouldn’t be afraid to take a stand when necessary, stop seeing all conservation issues as black and white.
Another aspect that contributed to my disappointment was not that this guy was shooting kangaroos; it was that he was shooting those specific kangaroos. He probably shot mummy and baby roo; the same two who had captivated me a few hours earlier. Logical reasoning tells me that I should be equally outraged regardless of which kangaroos are being hunted – but I was not. I felt attached to those specific individuals because of my earlier experience and, as such, my view of hunting was altered. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I suppose it means that I am not as objective as I could be when it comes to the muddy conservation water but – more optimistically – it also suggests that pro-environmental ideals can be cultivated by promoting personalised environmental experiences.
Before saying goodbye to the hunter, I asked him we had any reason to worry about stray bullets.
“Well, not any more now that I now you guys are here.”
Off he drove; another ship passing in the night. I’m sure the kangaroos wished that they could say the same thing.
A few weeks later I found myself in a tourist-trap restaurant where this was written on the specials menu:
“Kangaroo steak $30-00”
I couldn’t help smiling at the idea that the same price would’ve bought two whole kangaroos from the hunter. Needless to say, I ordered the Emu fillet instead.
Yeah, you should have asked him for a tail steak. They are pretty good.
Kangaroo control is a complicated and often emotional problem in Australia. I have no problem with controlled hunts, but what drives me completely beyond scientific objectivity is the common policy in many parks ad other public areas to mass kill the roos and bulldoze them into a trench (e.g. http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/anger-at-defence-cull-of-14000-kangaroos-20130901-2sz23.html).
With protection, kangaroo populations quickly get out-of-bounds (Canberra has an infamous roo problem) and the effect of overgrazing on plant diversity and range quality is well understood. I have no quarrel with the plant ecologists wanting to protect native plants, what bugs me is the waste and inefficiency (culling is treating the symptoms, not the problem). I think a can of dog food is a fitting end for jill and joey if the profits from that sale are turned back into research on management.
Exit question – How would you feel if he had been shooting wild pigs?
I share you feelings completely!
Culling – and even controlled trophy hunting – has tremendous potential to support conservation. Not only is it a prudent land management tool to control herbivore numbers, the funds would give a valuable boost to cash-strapped conservation agencies. Everyone will benefit if we make evidence-based decisions without getting bogged down by all the negative emotions associated with hunting.
As a non-Australian, I associated the kangaroo as the quintessential image of Australia. I naively assumed that everyone felt the same… but, in hindsight, I should’ve known better. In South Africa, people regularly hunt Springbok without thinking twice about the symbolism of shooting our national animal. Let’s not even mention the hunting of big 5 species and other charismatic megaherbivores!
Culling and hunting evokes mixed emotions. My intention when writing this essay was to highlight that I am in NO position to judge the management practices in Australia; even though I’d like to think of myself as an intelligent individual with more ecological training than most. I just don’t understand the Australian context. (And I know that the assumption that there is only “one” Australian context is probably also misguided because, let’s face it, what is good practice Western Australia might be downright irresponsible in Queensland, for example)
Maybe the bigger lesson is that we should all reserve our judgements until we have a deeper understanding of the specific situation.
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