Who doesn’t love kangaroos?
From the 1950s kids’ TV show Captain Kangaroo to the loveable Winnie the Pooh characters Kanga and her baby joey Roo to entertaining cable comedies such as Kangaroo Jack, the iconic marsupials are universally appealing.
One of the most enjoyable memories from my many trips Down Under occurred at a public golf course outside the small town of Inverell in New South Wales. As the sun was setting, a couple of golfers were lining up their putts on the 18th green, and standing no more than 10 or 15 feet away was a pack (herd?) of eight or nine gray kangaroos, patiently biding their time until they could hop onto the fringe of the green and start munching on what was some of the only irrigated “pasture” around, in what was a very dry summer that year.
Even for the Aussies in our group, it was exciting to see the kangaroos close up, and when they were startled by a car door slamming nearby, to watch them take off as a group, bounding as much as 20 feet in a single leap, was breathtaking.
On the more serious side, a kangaroo appears on Australia’s official Coat of Arms, meant to symbolize national progress by depicting an animal that cannot go backwards, but is always moving forward. Whether serving as national symbols or tourist attractions, kangaroos are fascinating creatures, unique animals found nowhere else on Earth.
Despite their iconic status Down Under, however, the Australian government is making plans to ensure that there will be many fewer ’roos hopping around this year.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government announced plans this week to cull some 2,000 kangaroos. The ACT, roughly equivalent to the District of Columbia, is a federal territory that surrounds the national capital of Canberra.
Of course, D.C. consists of about 68 square miles; the ACT is nearly a thousand square miles, much of it consisting of rolling prairies and forested mountains. About half of the territory is included in the Namadgi National Park, making it an ideal habitat for gray kangaroos.
Perhaps too ideal, since the animals’ population has steadily increased across a slowly shrinking habitat. To control the population growth, 10 reserves throughout the territory will be closed in the evenings over the next few months to facilitate the culling.
Animal activists, predictably, are outraged, but government officials contend that the goal is protection of the kangaroos’ natural habitat.
“We know for a fact that over-abundant numbers of eastern grey kangaroos can have a devastating impact on the local environment,” Daniel Iglesias, director of Parks and Conservation for the territorial government, told Australia’s ABC News. “We know that it can lead to de-vegetation, and it can lead to the complete degradation of certain areas if we let it go too long.
“This is not about eradication,” Iglesias said, “this is about sustainable numbers of eastern grey kangaroos.”
Cull or be culled
The very concept of killing wildlife is controversial, no matter how noble an environmental motivation is ascribed to the plan, and Australian activists have loudly protested the ACT’s culls in the past — understandably.
Truthfully, nobody loves the idea of having to kill wildlife, whether it’s kangaroos overgrazing their range, deer overrunning American suburbs or bison who might spread brucellosis wandering outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
But the combination of agriculture, which provides a food source, development, which shrinks habitat, plus the dearth of natural predators that might reduce a herd’s number, is responsible for producing more animals in less space and closer proximity to human habitat and activities than ever before.
Is killing the only solution? A trial is currently underway to test the usefulness of fertility drugs as an alternative method of controlling kangaroo populations in the AC, and Iglesias said that the initial results indicated the option might become viable in future years.
“If we can do that, it’s a tool in the toolbox for us,” he said. “It’s another way to control over-abundant numbers.”
In the meantime, let’s be mindful of an important backdrop to this and every other story about culling wildlife populations or reducing the numbers of destructive feral species.
Over the long term, Nature does a reliable job of maintaining eco-librium — only in harsh and brutal fashion. When a population of animals exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat, disease and starvation soon reduce their numbers in ways arguably far more painful than hiring trained hunters.
Either way, the balancing act of maintaining manageable populations of wildlife, while urban development continues its relentless expansion, is a challenge that’s not going anyway anytime soon.
Even if science comes up with foolproof birth control, the reality is that thousands of animals will not “live out their natural lifespans,” as activists love to phrase it.
The only question mark is whether man or Nature will do the killing.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator