Environmentalists say the Australian government is sanctioning the brutal slaughter of kangaroos — mainly for dog food — rendering the iconic species endangered in some states.
One night in November, wildlife carer Greg Keightley caught a gruesome sight on camera. A group of men were butchering kangaroos on the edge of his 200 hectare property in the Blue Mountains National Park three hours northwest of Sydney.
When Keightley first arrived in the area two years ago, he began volunteering for a local wildlife NGO, helping to look after animals — predominantly kangaroos — injured in the bush. Initially, he thought it was a peaceful place to spend his time. Until one night when he heard the sound of gunshots piercing the quiet.
Realizing the commotion was shooters firing at kangaroos, his partner called the police. When they didn't come out, Keightley decided to take matters into his own hands and film what was going on around him. He wanted evidence of the slaughter of the very animals he spends his free time protecting.
The shooting continued into the early morning and Keightley soon realised it was far from an isolated incident. "Often the shooters come up here high on drugs and shoot at any wildlife indiscriminately," he told DW.
Fun fact: Female kangaroos can determine the sex of their offspring. They can even delay pregnancy in case environmental factors are liekly to decrease their chances of survival
Wallaroos, which are somewhere between a wallaby and a kangaroo, are also affected by the pet food industry
Reality of culling
Kangaroo killing is sanctioned by the Australian authorities, whose National Park and Wildlife Service issues licenses to private shooters. The government has a national code of conduct, which outlines how to fire a bullet in an animal's head.
"The government wants the public to think it is a quick and clean kill," Keightley said. "It is anything but."
The night he turned his camera on events, he found a baby kangaroo — known as a joey — lying on the grass having been severed from its mother's pouch while suckling. Half the teat was still in its mouth.
Keightley also filmed a small group of men tying the joey's mother to the van, which was already carrying scores of other kangaroos whose legs had been cut off. Even without their limbs, he said, they were still alive.
"That way they don't have to pay for a refrigeration truck, as an animal is preserved for longer if it is still breathing," Keightley said.
He says this is so the animals arrive at their destination as fresh meat. Literally. Because they are taken to plants where they are processed for their leather and flesh — sometimes for human consumption but largely for pet food exports.
Read more: Learning how to respect wild animals again
Last year, Niall Blair, Minister for Primary Industries in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) told the media that kangaroo populations had reached "plague proportions."
On the grounds that some farmers had been complaining of the marsupials eating grass needed for sheep and cattle in a climate of ongoing drought, Blair said the NSW government had "lifted the number of kangaroos that farmers are allowed to shoot" and that carcasses would no longer need to be tagged.
As a result, the quantity of animals shot is no longer recorded.
Fun fact: Kangaroos are the only large animal to use hopping as their primary method of locomotion, which allows them to cover large distances
Fun fact: Young kangaroos, also known as joeys, will sometimes jump head first into their mother's pouch when frightened
David Croft, honorary fellow at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, says kangaroos are being made the scapegoats for a problem caused by humans.
"What does plague proportions mean? In proportion to what?" he said.
He believes Australia should address the causes of the climate crisis that is exacerbating droughts.
Ecologist Ray Mjadwesch, who is the recipient of a conservation award from the Australian Wildlife Society, says kangaroo populations cannot naturally increase to plague proportions. "This is a biological impossibility due to their slow reproduction cycle," he told DW. "But they can crash."
According to government data, the number of red kangaroos in central NSW has dropped from 5.1 million to 2.9 million in the past year, while the number of gray kangaroos increased from 3.9 million to 4 million.
But Mjadwesch is critical of the figures.
"Shooting rates exceed population growth rates, particularly during drought. Increases in populations in drought are not possible."
He believes there's more to it, and that the government is seeking to score points with farmers while simultaneously supporting the kangaroo meat industry.
"This is political, it is about deals and millions and millions of dollars, and it is about wiping out Australia's kangaroos."
Some politicians have argued that the kangaroo population in Australia has reached "plague proportions"
Power of industry
Australia's Department of Agriculture says some 3,000 tons of kangaroo meat are exported annually to 60 countries. According to the most recently available government statistics — which date back to 2003 — 75% of this was used for pet food. Some environmentalists say the figure is now higher.
Macro Meats, Australia's largest retail distributor of kangaroo and wild game meat says it harvests the animals in a "responsible" way.
At the time of publication, Macro Meats, had not responded to a DW request for comment, but the company's website claims the organization buys meat from licensed shooters who kill kangaroos according to the government’s code of conduct.
"What is the purpose of a code of conduct if it isn't upheld or policed?" Keightely said. "Is the pet food industry really so powerful that our wildlife has to be slaughtered and shooters can act with impunity?"
He would like to see cruelty against wildlife become a criminal offence taken seriously by the police and courts, and he is campaigning with the Animal Justice Party — an Australian political grouping founded in 2009 — to push for new legislation.
He is also working with campaigners in Europe to raise public awareness of how kangaroos die in Australia for pet food shipped overseas.