LTonight, Clayton Donovan saw a kangaroo die. Australia’s only indigenous chef joined four others who made the 156km journey to Burra, in the mid-north of South Australia, to see for themselves where the meat they serve on their plates actually comes from.
The 47-year-old, who grew up in the land of Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung on the north coast of New South Wales, describes the process with some degree of deference. On the way they met a professional marksman who led the group into the dark. When they found a suitable target, the final moment came quickly.
“I worked in slaughterhouses when I was young to earn money and I have seen what happens to cattle, lambs and pigs,” says Donovan. “This required skill. There was no trauma. He was very meticulous in terms of the actual hunting. It doesn’t bother too much at all.
“We returned at 2 in the morning and my head was spinning. How much care and respect and dignity and honor of the animal. It was another level. “
Every year Australia exports kangaroo products worth $ 80 million in the form of meat and leather. The two main export destinations for these items are Europe and the US, where the leather is made into products such as soccer shoes and motorcycle clothing.
For decades, the trade has been the target of animal rights activists abroad who say the trade leads to the horrific deaths of young joeys when their mothers are shot.
Last month that fight reached a new level when Democratic Congressman Salud Carbajal and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick introduced the Kangaroo Protection Act to the United States Congress. If it becomes law, it would completely ban the importation of kangaroo products into the US.
The measure is based on a campaign called “kangaroos are not shoes”Led by a coalition of animal rights groups seeking to pressure brands like Nike to abandon the use of kangaroo leather in their products. The website compares the commercial kangaroo capture to the Canadian seal slaughter and calls for protections similar to those afforded to the American eagle, asking, “Why kill Australia’s beloved icon?”
Donovan’s answer is blunt: that’s what whites think. To clarify the point, he first served a dish on Australia Day in 2006 made with native ingredients including kangaroo and emu, both animals featured on the Australian coat of arms.
“Is the kangaroo an emblem that defines a country? Or is it a protein medium to maintain a culture? “Donovan says.” For my part, it has been a food treated with respect and has sustained the culture. These proteins, I don’t know how long we would live without them. “
Within indigenous culture, says Donovan, the relationship with the kangaroo is complex and often linked to traditional land management practices. While some nations consider the animal to be a totem and will not harm it in their traditional lands, others have relied on it as a source of food and materials long before recorded history began.
Since their recent arrival on the continent, Donovan says, Europeans have primarily thought of the kangaroo as “dog meat.”
“The commercial kangaroo industry offers a path of self-determination for Aboriginal people. And now another group of non-indigenous people is talking about taking it off completely, ”he says.
Problem created by colonization
In many ways, the very existence of today’s commercial kangaroo industry is largely due to a problem created by colonization. As Europeans came to Australia in increasing numbers, they brought with them cattle and sheep that needed vast tracts of grazing land. Fences were then put up to keep out the dingoes that stalked livestock, eliminating the kangaroo’s natural predator.
Wherever this happened, the number of populations of certain species skyrocketed as the rain fell and the grass grew. When the landscape dried up, the animals “molded” in search of food, causing damage to landscapes and agricultural infrastructure.
Historically, the problem was solved by mass killings. State governments would declare a cull and issue permits to herders who would wipe out all the animals on their property with little oversight. Either the carcasses would be left where they fell or sold as 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 that has become the central focus of animal rights advocates in the US. USA
The development of the commercial kangaroo industry over the past 30 years was intended to address the situation by introducing strict regulations at every stage of the process. It’s true that, says Dennis King, executive director of the Australian Kangaroo Industries Association, the industry is still small today. It employs about 3,000 people, not counting shooters, and only operates in those regions where the four largest species of kangaroos are overabundant.
“Most of the activity takes place in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the majority in three small areas. There is a small industry in Western Australia and Victoria, ”says King. “Animals are shot in the wild, where they are. There is no stress on them. Instant death.”
King says his organization would actually support the U.S. import ban if the bill only applied to endangered kangaroo species, as this would represent another step toward better quality control. But the four main species, eastern gray, western gray, red, and common wallaroo, are not endangered, with population numbers moving between 40 and 50 million a year depending on weather conditions.
“We harvest about 2 million kangaroos each year,” says King. “The quota is much, much higher, but we often take much less. About 1.7 million. Sometimes they criticize us for that. “
That’s in part because the commercial industry is heavily regulated with strong financial incentives to follow the rules. Processing facilities are subject to rigorous audits and face heavy fines if they accept a corpse that has been inhumanely euthanized. Female kangaroo cannot be killed as they can carry joeys and no animal can be sold for processing unless killed by a clean head shot. Hunters are regularly tested to maintain their ability. If they cannot thread a needle with their injection, their license is taken away.
Bidda Jones, RSPCA’s chief scientific officer and chief strategy officer, says the commercial sector has come a long way in recent years, although there is still room for improvement around monitoring in the field.
“You have a code of practice, which I think is a good code, and incentives for commercial shooters to comply with the code,” says Bidda. “The industry would benefit from the introduction of a quality assurance program. One thing would be the requirement to use body cameras … as an auditing tool. And to return your GPS coordinates “.
The real area of concern, Jones said, is unregulated slaughter that continues to be managed by farmers and herders.
‘Our way of life and our culture’
Dwayne Mallard is Yamatji from the Wajarri-Nanda villages in Western Australia and the founder of the Arjaway social enterprise. In his part of the country, the commercial kangaroo industry barely operates, leaving it to the herders.
“They kill all the kangaroos at night so they don’t eat the grass: big kangaroos, small kangaroos, everything. That meat is sold as dog meat, ”says Mallard. “So the current practices by which these activists are up in arms is the behavior of non-indigenous Australians in general who sit within power structures that we are not a 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 ”.
Mallard’s vision is for the commercial kangaroo industry to become an economic avenue that promotes indigenous self-determination. He would like to see each step directly involve indigenous peoples in the process of hunting, monitoring and processing the animal and the final product certified as originating from the traditional land where it was made, not unlike feta cheese or champagne.
While that certification system is something he wants to work on, Mallard says a blanket ban like the one currently being proposed in the US would eliminate the opportunity to build a culturally appropriate industry in the country before it can develop.
“Who is creating the rules here?” Mallard says. “If you had a fair representation of the First Nations people of North America and they listened to our story, there would be no ban. There would be understanding.
“Why should others have rights over our native animal? About us? They have taken over our land, they have excluded us from political decision making and from the corporate power base.
“There must be a process of authenticity and integrity. We should treat the babysitter reverently like champagne, buddy. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism