The Icelandic Minister for Fisheries, Arni Mathiesen, recently wrote to the Australian Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, indicating that if Australia was going to make a fuss about Iceland killing 40 minke whales for scientific purposes, the Icelandic Government was going to make a fuss about Australia killing millions of kangaroos. Minister Campbell has responded suggesting it is outrageous to equate killing whales with culling kangaroos. But is it?
Most of Iceland is uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture. The people of the north Atlantic have traditionally looked to the ocean for food - hunting and eating everything from cod to whales. Whales eat other fish and sometimes other whales. Understanding and managing a fishery will include understanding and managing whale populations.
The traditional inhabitants of Australia didn’t grow much food either. Like the people of Iceland they enjoyed a predominately hunter-gatherer lifestyle and kangaroo were a hunted animal.
With the arrival of Europeans in Australia came rabbits, sheep and other domesticated animals. The population of Australia now eats mostly farmed animals. It is interesting that Minister Campbell didn’t take the opportunity in his response to the Icelandic Minister to promote kangaroo meat sales to Europe - instead he suggested we only cull kangaroo because they are too numerous. He didn’t volunteer that we also eat them.
At the same time the Icelandic Government was complaining about the killing of kangaroos, Queensland’s United Game Processors reported that prices for kangaroo meat were running at record levels, of $0.90 a kg (carcass weight) with demand for what was once considered pet food, now increasing for human consumption.
I enjoyed the most magnificent meal of char grilled kangaroo fillets (on a bed of warm potato and horseradish salad with beetroot jus) over looking the Yarra River some weeks ago.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has reported that kangaroo meat is increasingly popular, with the European Union and Russia emerging as most important markets.
But according to Natasha Cica writing in On Line Opinion on Monday, while Russians are now the biggest buyers of kangaroo, to the tune of $11 million last year, its for neither haute cuisine nor pet food but rather “no-name sausage meat [sold] somewhere round Vladivostok, and there are intimations of consumer backlash, maybe even revolution, if the truth gets out”.
Every year the National Parks authorities in each Australian state conduct surveys of the kangaroo population by flying over large samples of the rangelands at low levels and counting the roos. After 20 years of monitoring the techniques have been refined and the counts are now accurate indicators of total populations. This census is then used to determine a national quota for the commercial kangaroo harvest. The quota is typically set at 10-20 percent of the total population and over recent years this has equated to a whopping 4 to 7 million quota from a total roo population often in excess of 50 million individuals.
Indeed our environment minister could have boasted to the Icelandic Government that not only is kangaroo meat tasty, free range, low-fat, low-cholesterol, disease-free, high protein but that kangaroos are the most common large wild land mammals on earth.
Instead both the Icelandic and Australian governments are exceedingly coy about the potential for commercial exploitation of their skippies and willies. Yet it makes not only good economic sense but also good environmental policy to commercially harvest wild animals.
Michael Archer, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of New South Wales, and journalist Bob Beale, write in their new book Going Native: Living in the Australian environment that:
If the natural world is to have a future, we need to understand that the love of animals based on use and dependence has always led to a commitment to conserve.
Indigenous peoples who remain hunter-gatherers have a love and respect for animals, plants and ecosystems that most of us simply do not understand because they, unlike us, are still an indivisible part of the environments upon which they depend.
... Once we build the fence and climbed over it, we lost the plot and threatened the future. The mindset of animal rights advocates who argue against the value of using animals would seem incomprehensible to hunter-gatherers - as it would to the animals themselves if they were somehow able to conceptualise it. To argue, for example, as some animal rights advocates do, that a koala would rather be starving in an eaten-out forest remnant than sold to become an exhibit in a Japanese zoo strikes us not only as absurd but extraordinarily presumptuous.
Instead of trying to fire shots at each other from all the way around the other side of the earth, Ministers Campbell and Mathiesen should really just sit down together and over a meal of medallions of kangaroo and reindeer (perhaps on a bed of caramelised onion with roast potatoes and steamed spinach) they could discuss how they can both best promote the sustainable harvest of nature’s natural bounty.