Red kangaroos Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

The Nation of Kangaroos

The naturalist Henry Beston once wrote that nonhuman animals are "other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” We should take seriously the idea that taking land from wild animals is like invading another country.

MELBOURNE – The red kangaroo, the largest of all kangaroo species, is Australia’s national animal. Kangaroos appear on the country’s coat of arms, on its coins, on its sporting uniforms, and on the aircraft flown by Australia’s most popular airline. On a hike in Australia, seeing these magnificent animals bound across the landscape awakens my sense that I am in a unique country, with its distinctive flora and fauna. Yet, as the recent internationally acclaimed documentary “Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story” (for which I was interviewed) demonstrates, Australia’s relationship with kangaroos has a much darker side.

Every year, millions of kangaroos are shot, in the largest commercial slaughter of terrestrial wildlife anywhere in the world. No one really knows how many are killed. Australia’s state governments issue quotas, which in recent years have allowed for the killing of more than five million kangaroos, but the quotas are not a reliable indication of the number actually shot. On one hand, the quotas are not fully taken up, so the number killed may be less than five million. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of joeys inside the pouches of female kangaroos who are shot are not counted, though they will invariably die. In addition, no one knows how many kangaroos are killed illegally, outside the quota system.

There are two main reasons why so many kangaroos are killed. First, there is money to be made from the sale of their meat, skin, and fur. Kangaroos were hunted and eaten by indigenous Australians, but among urban Australians, the meat is not popular – one survey found only 14% eat kangaroo four times or more per year. Tourists coming to Australia often try it, and there is a modest export trade as well, but much of it ends up as pet food. Kangaroo skin is used for leather and the fur for souvenirs.