‘Like champagne, mate’: how a US kangaroo ban could kill off an Indigenous opportunity

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Last night Clayton Donovan watched a kangaroo die. Australia’s only hatted Indigenous chef joined four others who made the 156km drive to Burra in South Australia’s mid-north to see for themselves where the meat they serve on their plates actually comes from.

The 47-year-old, who grew up on Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung land on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, describes the process with a degree of deference. Along the way they met with a professional shooter who drove the group out into the darkness. When they found a suitable target, the final moment came quickly.

“I worked in abattoirs when I was young to make money, and I’ve seen what happens to cattle, lambs and pigs,” Donovan says. “This took skill. There was no trauma. It was very meticulous in terms of the actual hunt. It doesn’t disturb too much at all.

“We got back at 2 o’clock am and my head was spinning. How much care and respect and dignity and honour of the animal. It was another level.”

Each year Australia exports $80m worth of kangaroo products in the form of meat and leather. The two biggest export destinations for these items are Europe and the US, where the leather becomes products like soccer cleats and motorcycle gear.

For decades the trade has been targeted by animal rights activists overseas who say the trade leads to the horrific death of young joeys when their mothers are shot.

Last month that fight went to a new level when Democratic congressman Salud Carbajal and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick introduced The Kangaroo Protection Act to the US Congress. Should it become law, it would outright ban the importation of kangaroo products into the US.

The move builds off a campaign called “kangaroos are not shoes” run by a coalition of animal rights groups looking to pressure brands such as Nike into abandoning the use of kangaroo leather in their products. The website compares the commercial harvest of kangaroos to the slaughter of seals in Canada and calls for similar protections to those given to the American eagle, asking: “Why kill the beloved Australia icon?”

Indigenous chef Clayton Donovan poses with native bush tomatoes, lemon myrtle leaves and pepper berries

Donovan’s answer is blunt: that’s white people thinking. To make the point he first served up a dish on Australia Day in 2006 made from native ingredients that included kangaroo and emu – both the animals that appear on the Australian coat of arms.

“Is the kangaroo an emblem that defines a country? Or is it a means of protein to sustain a culture?” Donovan says. “On my side of the fence, it’s been a food treated with respect and it’s sustained the culture. These proteins, I don’t know how far we’d live without them.”

Within Indigenous culture, Donovan says, the relationship to the kangaroo is complex and often tied to traditional land management practices. While some nations consider the animal a totem and will not harm it on their traditional lands, others have relied upon it as a source of nourishment and materials long before recorded history began.

Ever since their recent arrival on the continent, Donovan says, Europeans have mostly thought of kangaroo as “dog meat”.

“The commercial kangaroo industry offers a path for self-determination for Aboriginal people. And now another group of non-Indigenous are talking about taking it away entirely,” he says.

Problem created by colonisation

In many ways the very existence of today’s commercial kangaroo industry owes much to a problem created by colonisation. As Europeans arrived in Australia in ever greater numbers, they brought with them cattle and sheep that needed vast tracts of grazing land. Fences were then set up to keep out the dingoes that stalked the livestock, removing the kangaroo’s natural predator.

Wherever this happened, population numbers of certain species exploded as rain fell and the grass grew. When the landscape dried out, the animals would “mob up” in search of food, causing damage to landscapes and agricultural infrastructure.

Historically, the problem was handled by way of mass slaughter. State governments would declare a cull and issue permits to pastoralists who would wipe out every animal on their property with little oversight. Either the carcasses would then be left where they fell or sold off for pet food.

This still occurs in parts of the country today, particularly where the commercial industry does not operate – and it is the killing of female kangaroos and their young joeys that has become the core focus of animal rights campaigners in the US.

The development of the commercial kangaroo industry over the last 30 years was intended to address the situation by introducing strict regulations at every stage of the process. Admittedly, says Dennis King, chief executive officer of the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia, the industry remains small today. It employs around 3,000 people, not counting the shooters, and only operates in those regions where the four largest kangaroo species are overabundant.

“Most activity takes place in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and a majority in three small areas. There’s a small industry in Western Australia and Victoria,” King says. “The animals are shot in the wild, where they are. There’s no stress on them. Instant death.”

King says his organisation would actually support the US import ban if the bill only applied to endangered species of kangaroo, as this would represent another step towards better quality control. But the four main species – eastern grey, western grey, red and common wallaroo – are not endangered, with population figures that move between 40 and 50 million a year depending on weather conditions.

“We harvest around 2 million kangaroos each year,” King says. “The quota is much, much higher, but we often take far less. About 1.7 million. Sometimes we’re criticised for that.”

Republican Brian Fitzpatrick introduced The Kangaroo Protection Act to the US Congress along with Democrat Salud Carbajal

That is partly because the commercial industry is heavily regulated with strong financial incentives to follow the rules. Processing facilities are heavily audited and face steep fines if they accept a carcass that has been killed inhumanely. Female kangaroos cannot be killed as they may be carrying joeys and no animal can be sold for processing unless it died from a clean headshot. Hunters are regularly tested to maintain their skill. If they can’t thread a needle with their shot, their licence is pulled.

Bidda Jones, the chief scientist and strategy officer with the RSPCA, says the commercial sector has come a long way in recent years, though there are still improvements that could be made around monitoring in the field.

“You’ve got a code of practice, which I think is a good code, and incentives for commercial shooters to abide by the code,” Bidda says. “The industry would benefit from introducing a quality assurance program. One thing would be the requirement to wear body cameras … as an auditing tool. And to return their GPS coordinates.”

The real area of concern, Jones said, is the unregulated culls that continue to be run by farmers and pastoralists.

‘Our way of life and our culture’

Dwayne Mallard is Yamatji from the Wajarri-Nanda peoples in Western Australia and the founder of social enterprise Arjaway. In his part of the country, the commercial kangaroo industry barely operates, leaving it to the pastoralists.

“They kill all the kangaroos in the evening so they don’t eat the grass – big kangaroos, little kangaroos, the whole lot. That meat is sold as dog meat,” Mallard says. “So the current practices that these activists are up in arms about is the behaviour of non-Indigenous Australians on the whole that sit within power structures we are not part of.

“Culturally, we don’t want that to happen either. These animals are our way of life and our culture and through our cultural responsibilities we have to preserve, protect and restore.”

Dwayne Mallard

Mallard’s vision is for the commercial kangaroo industry to become an economic pathway that promotes Indigenous self-determination. He would like to see every step directly involve Indigenous people in the process of hunting, monitoring and processing of the animal and the end product certified as originating on the traditional land where it was taken – no different to feta cheese or champagne.

While that certification system is something he wants to work towards, Mallard says a blanket ban like that currently being proposed in the US would kill off the opportunity to build a culturally-appropriate industry on country before it can develop.

“Who’s creating the rules here?” Mallard says. “If you had fair representation of First Nations people from northern America, and they heard our story, there wouldn’t be a ban. There would be understanding.

“Why should others have rights over our native animal? Over us? They’ve taken our land, they’ve locked us out of political decision making and the corporate power base.

“There should be a process of authenticity and integrity. We should be treating kangaroo with reverence like champagne, mate.”

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