Introduction to Ray Mjadwesch’s Submission on Kangaroo Management in NSW
I have just, finally and sometime overdue, read Ray’s submission on kangaroo management, as I had promised him for some time. I have done so with some hesitation first, as I know that Ray is, concerning kangaroos, what one might nowadays call ‘emotionally engaged’. He will do anything for them. He has just spent two weeks or so attending to a large Grey Kangaroo male which had been mauled by two dogs as a lady walked them off-leash through the campus of Charles Sturt University. He immobilised it, and assisted the attending vet, for four treatments including field surgery (to drain wounds), to otherwise treat wounds and change dressings. Eventually it was translocated to Porters Retreat (some 70 kilometres away) for a longer term recovery than had been anticipated, only to find that while it had gotten through the worst of the wounds, it eventually succumbed to the stress of the attack and complications anyway, and died. He has done all this as an unpaid part of his work he says, though CSU in this instance offered to cover the cost of sedatives. Quite an effort, and with some distress. As I said, I had misgivings about reading his kangaroo study, as I feared that Ray had perhaps moved towards the ‘Animal Rights’ fringe.
I was quite wrong as I found out and I would like to apologize to him here and now. Ray, one of my first students in Australia some 20 years ago, has become a true professional with his own consulting firm. His knowledge of natural history and biodiversity is phenomenal, and what is more, Ray has developed great integrity and extremely high personal and professional standards, which come with a rare sincerity.
He has applied these in a study of the management of kangaroo populations in NSW, after he found some discrepancies in the official records, and, no doubt his rightful wrath was fired by a killing program of kangaroos (called a ‘kangaroo cull’ in Australia to make it sound more professional and dispassionate) on Mt Panorama. This cull distinguished itself in that it was carried out by a very competent feral animal control specialist, but it was planned by Bathurst Regional Council and the NPWS with singular incompetence and mindless brutality. Right down to the end, when the animals were dumped in a pit - thank god the local rubbish tip was next door and they did not have to cart the carcasses through town. Ray was not the only person who was upset. A lot of people, none of them on the animal rights fringe were horrified.
Having read Ray’s study now and with my own background in wildlife management I believe that Ray has put his finger on something very important for Australia’s national psyche, never mind the four species of macropod he considers. I also believe that he has demonstrated par excellence, what I myself have tried to describe in two books with a colleague “Conservation through Hunting - An Environmental Paradigm Change in NSW”. We were lacking Ray’s example to show in all stark simplicity what is so terribly wrong not only with the commercial harvest model, but generally with wildlife management in our state. He has shown how a seemingly competent and scientific corporate ‘harvesting regime’ can eventually drive a species to extinction, because it has ‘forgotten’ that science has often very little to do with how things work out, if animals are harvested as they have been here. Some very basic principles of population dynamics are often ignored by proponents of such systems.
Ray has shown without any doubt in my mind, that it does not do to be complacent about what happens even to our species which we believe are most abundant and ‘safe’ from our many careless and intentional and not so intentional environmental depredations. He has also, inadvertently shown how truly bad the harvesting system is. I had my problems with it, also discussed in the book I refer to above, but I was quite shocked at what Ray has described. I had always believed that this ‘industry’ was bad; I had no idea it was THAT bad.
I have recently experienced on my own farm how callously the kangaroo harvest industry deals with non-shooting landowners, how government agencies either don’t care or are not equipped to interfere, and how this creates conflict within communities. How the ‘regulators’ in their quite distressing ignorance and nonchalance call something ‘scientific’, quoting my revered and late friend and mentor Graeme Caughley, while they have no idea how that works out in the real world, is beyond understanding.
Let me be more specific now. Let us talk about population dynamics and game statistics. Let us also talk about animal rights, and why these might be so uncompromising in NSW. Let us especially however talk about ‘harvesting dynamics of corporate management regimes’, of the compromised role of hapless regulators as they change offices and departments as the years go by and as new politicians walk in and out of offices. Let us see how such regimes work out in THAT world. Let us also talk about that other so much celebrated term ‘community participation’ and let us see how that term also is being made a farce of.
I am getting to the point, no fear. What do we see? Ray has meticulously traced the history of our often wrong perceptions and opinions about kangaroos. He has shown, once again, how powerful and quite wrong myths can develop. He has shown what is hidden in statistics which are administered and looked at by an inconsistent, disinterested, complacent and increasingly ill equipped ‘professional’ bureaucracy. He has also shown how big corporate interests pervert values, pervert truths and pervert systems. And finally he has also demonstrated how misguided it is to develop landscape-based management systems for highly dispersed, specific and dynamic species, or better four of them.
In brief: A recipe for disaster. In fact whaling comes to mind, even the recent disaster story of the Saiga antelope which, after a long history of destruction had recovered to 1.5 million animals, to be all but completely destroyed (‘kaputt’) within one year of a ‘centrally organised’ harvesting regime being implemented.
Ray has really put his finger on something which Dan Lunney has called “an unresolved mess of a festering conflict’, all the worse, because it is hidden behind what is being sold around the world as a ‘commercial AND scientific success story’ of that so celebrated term ‘sustainability’. How the corporate world loves that concept! The bigger, the more scientific, the better. Never mind the people, never mind the kangaroos. As long as somebody, the fewer people the better, makes a lot of money. In this case some $270M a year is no mere trifle.
How could that happen? I could write a lot about that, and science and scientists would also feature quite prominently. But let us just focus on the term ‘game statistics’, that magical term behind SUSTAINABLY harvested wild animals. A true bag of cats that.
Game Statistics: A Cautionary Tale.
It is probably safe to say that I have had more to do with ’game statistics’, than most practicing and theoretical wildlife ecologists. During my PhD in NZ I have compiled from helicopter firms over months, lists of several hundred thousand animals killed across the southern Alps seasonally, over some 20 years or so. In Germany I have worked extensively with national statistics and developed and supervised over seven years of what may be one of the world’s largest mark recapture schemes, involving some 15,000 animals, followed over their lifetime with 2,500 recaptures over a course of 25 years. I have been a member of the “European Group on Game Statistics” (where I fondly remember that we attempted to start one in Great Britain which did not have anything of the kind - unbelievable but true, and one wonders if the situation in Australia is a relic of this Anglo attitude).
I have of course read much of the literature on this topic, and I have read with interest and chagrin how many game or fish statistical tales of ‘sustainable harvest’ unfolded around the world into unmitigated disasters. I have also worked closely with practitioners who collected game statistics, including my father who did this over some 60 years or so, and yes, although THE most correct and honest man I have ever known, even he cheated sometimes – he HAD to. In other words, I believe I have some claim to know what I am taking about. May I say I am familiar with both: science and the ‘real world’.
Looking at what Ray has found in NSW Kangaroo harvest (inconsistencies) has not really surprised me. In fact, I would have been very surprised if the lists had proven what I might call “useful”. Not in my wildest dreams however was I prepared for what Ray describes.
I have thought about it and now I have started to realise that that state of affairs is not really that surprising after all. I realised that these records were collected by a group of people which was neither trained to do so, had no regulation as to compliance and were changing all the time. I am not aware of any worthwhile attempts to look at the accuracy of records either. I have also personal experience with kangaroo culls, including one I titled in a report I wrote, “The Great Kangaroo Slaughter of Mudgee’, where the company I was working with tried to do a good job, but met with complete disinterest from the local bureaucracy, who reverted back to the good old days as soon as we were removed from the scene (a round up of some local guys, lots of beer on the back of the ute, and great fun). I shudder when I think back to that. About how naive I had been and how bad it was. I also shudder if I think how easy it would be to manage that system so much better, but that nobody has the will to do anything about it.
And I have not even got to the government departments themselves. These neither had really trained experts in population dynamics and demography working on the data, there was little if any consistency when departments ‘changed hands’ when sections where shut down and I suspect data sets shredded, as is a common enough tool for ‘managing’ information overload. Probably safe to say, that none of these records, the way they were collected, the way they were verified and the way they were administered and ‘analysed’ gives any confidence in them. Almost worthless I would say. Still, it is surprising that even these data tell us so many rather scandalous things yet nobody seems to have done anything about it. How can it be that we have such alarming population trends and harvesting trends which show collapsing populations while we are celebrating a ‘world best practice’ (how Australians love that term) system, telling everybody else, even the World Conservation Union (IUCN) about it.
Is it possible that Ray can have got it wrong so badly? While I do not exactly know the nature of the datasets, and frankly have got no time to get into them (I would if somebody would pay me to do that - it would be quite a feat I think) I suspect that he has not.
My suspicion derives from other game statistics which are collected MUCH more controlled and rigorously and administered consistently by offices and sort-of specialists, if rarely specialized wildlife ecologists and statisticians. This experience tells me that even such comparatively sophisticated datasets have very serious flaws. Remember the Canadian Cod Industry which collapsed so spectacularly in the late 1970’s. They had statistics which were meticulously collected and analysed by special departments and my, did they get them wrong. How could they get is so wrong? They had collected vast datasets over vast areas, using information written down by fishermen, neither properly trained to do that and a HUGE vested interest (and opportunity) to make up a non-existent reality. They ignored that and analysed them using the most sophisticated models available. They used Optimum Sustainable Yield models (OSY), Maximum Sustainably Yield Models (MSY), they had data on fecundity and mortality, growth and even dispersal which were simply amazing. They advanced Sustainable Yield Modelling and developed models, some of them so sophisticated that even bank mathematicians were envious? And my, did THEY get it wrong. They got it so wrong that one year when the gigantic fishing fleet went out, some 20 000 boats I recall somehow, there was virtually no cod left. How could they get it so wrong. Well they did. Because they relied on data which were as Graeme Caughley used to call such datasets “an amorphous mass of nothing much”.
I will stop here, although I could go on and on. After reading Ray’s study, I suspect that we have a similar problem here. Perhaps not quite so bad, but who knows, the data sets seem much worse. Anyway reason enough to become alarmed and not just call for a review, but simply put a stop to that practice. If the industry association starts screaming let them. They are themselves to blame. Let us not forget this is not just a practice which is not ‘sustainable’ (or rather highly destructive) of kangaroo populations, but also one that has divided society. Let me quote what myself and friend and colleague A/Prof Tony English had to say about that system in “Conservation through Hunting”.
KANGAROO TALES CONTINUED
Driving to work from the farm, some 96 km one way, one author passes one large-sizedtown, two want-to-be villages, some 30–40 farm houses, some 50 cars (outsideof town) and between 2–10 dead kangaroos, wallaroos and swamp wallabies (ourthree most common local species). The kangaroos might lie in the middle of theroad, or on the edge. There might be a crow or two on them, they all look bloodyand mutilated and no car stops. Not even the one which hits them. The driver is justgenerally very happy to have a “roo bar”, an oversized bumper many countrypeople have attached to their cars. It does not stop kangaroos from being runover, killed or injured. But it helps keep the blood and dents off the car. This story isrepeated all over Australia, every day, up the road and down the road, thousandsand thousands of kangaroos every day; in Canberra also. A breathtaking exampleof urban hypocrisy, of utter indifference; unless tweaked by the world news or whata Hollywood actress might have had to say about it. This situation has been goingon in Australia for more than a generation. There is a ritual attached to it. TheGovernment departments with their commercial and (of course) “sustainable”harvesting plans, scientific and all, on the one side and uncertain about their “role”in that conflict. On the other side of the divide, the animal rights people, like thecampaigner Pat O’Brian, who respond with: “If they go ahead with it, they aregoing to be sorry. We will do whatever it takes to stop them.”And of course there isthe Japanese television and radio [which] have focused on the protest against thekangaroo slaughter and linked it to Australia’s international stance on whaling.
Japanese network TV reporter Hiroki Iijima told News Ltd that Japanese peopleviewed the kangaroo cull as “hypocritical”. So what does that say about the muchcelebrated “sustainable commercial harvest of kangaroos”? To us it suggests that“ecologically sustainable kangaroo harvest” is perhaps not quite enough andsoc ially divisive, even if it makes kangaroo meat acceptable for the Americanpetfood market. This becomes especially clear if one contrasts that situation withEurope, North America or Russia where deer hunting is not a “sustainablecommercial harvest” but carried out by some 30 million participants deriving socioeconomicvalue far in access of what commercial kangaroo harvesting produces(70 per cent pet food). It is also not socially divisive and cannot be targeted byAnimal Rights activists in the same manner as it involves so many participantsincluding many disadvantaged rural and indigenous people. That is, it is “owned bysociety”.
p 201 in Bauer, J. and A. English, 2011. Conservation through Hunting-An Environmental Paradigm Change in NSW. Vol.1: Framing the Game. Game Council, NSW, Government of NSW, Sydney, NSW
As I said, lots of reasons to be critical about the kangaroo harvesting industry, BEFORE I even read Ray’s stuff and yet another example how Australia, but in particular NSW, could get it so amazingly wrong. And that situation does not get better if one ignores it. The destruction of yet another Australian legacy by white greed and ignorance.