Kangaroo cull echoes colonial shame

KangarooThe culling of kangaroos on military land in Canberra seems ironic given that the kangaroo is one of two native animals on the Australian coat-of-arms. As many citizens equate the military with the country's defence the cull is symbolic of an attack similar to the flag burning that has earned the ire of many Australians. It is problematic having a living national symbol.

People have objected to the cull on several grounds. The charge that killing the animals is inhumane seems to have been answered adequately by RSPCA approval of the methods being used. However, there is a symbolic level on which the cull represents a national shame.

Not surprisingly, members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy have been prominent in drawing attention to the unique position of the kangaroo in Australian life. It is not surprising either that they have attempted to save the kangaroos by claiming sovereignty over the land being used by the military.

While the linear reasoning might have made their task almost impossible, all Australians should recognise an element in this cull that goes beyond sentimental attachment to national symbols.

Aboriginal activists established the Tent Embassy near the Old Parliament House to draw attention to the status of indigenous people as outsiders. When the parliament moved to its new premises in 1988, the Embassy attempted to claim the old building as unoccupied crown land, and members were incarcerated for trespass.

In 2000, the Embassy moved to a park in Sydney, a situation convenient for overseas visitors to the Olympics. The local council attempted to have the campers moved on, as though they were vagrants.

Despite the recent apology delivered to the Stolen Generations by Prime Minister Rudd, the Embassy still has a role. Indigenous people still face both formal and practical disadvantages.

Some years ago, one member of the Embassy told me of the connections that indigenous people have with the kangaroo. She pointed out that one of the most devastating effects of European settlement was occasioned through fencing.

Fences exclude Aboriginal people from their traditional areas and so disrupt their cultural practices. But they have also disrupted the normal patterns of kangaroo movement. Consequently, kangaroos came to be regarded as enemies by farmers and pastoralists and, eventually, by motorists.

There seems to be something pernicious about an action that confines kangaroos to a small area, then refuses to move them elsewhere and finally decides that they must die.

Apparently, scientific evidence suggests there are too many kangaroos in the military establishment. According to the logic, unchecked population growth presents a threat because the kangaroos will then starve to death.

Perhaps the military is being humane and does not want to see the kangaroos dying slowly of 'natural' causes. On the other hand, this logic could be based on a denial of the superior population control methods used by marsupials. Kangaroos are known to regulate their reproductive activity according to seasonal conditions. They can delay the maturation of their young so that the strain on the mother's body is minimised.

It seems unlikely that an animal with such an understanding of environmental pressures and such a developed biology would breed itself into extinction. This suggests these kangaroos would not be in crisis but for the activities of the military, and that the cull is primarily for the convenience of human activity in the area.

In searching for a way to live in this ancient land, non-indigenous Australians often pay lip-service to the necessity to learn from the indigenous people. This can apply at the level of living sustainably in synchronisation with the land, and also at the level of developing a genuine Australian spirituality.

We have largely failed on both counts because we have refused to trust indigenous people, their cultures and their traditions.

It seems likely that the Coorong at the end of the Murray-Darling River system will be dead in a few years and yet we show little concern. The cull of kangaroos might seem far removed from these broader issues, but is it is symbolic of a deeper failure to trust anything indigenous, which may explain why we are heading towards environmental catastrophe.

'We just don't get it, unna?' (Australian Review of Public Affairs)
'Aborginal land claim in bid to stop kangaroo cull' (Herald Sun)

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.


Flickr image by bmcguirk

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Canberra kangaroo cull, Aboriginal tent embassy, RSPCA, australia environment, Murray-Darling



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Existing comments

Confining myself to the issue of the kangaroo culling at the defence establishment in Belconnen, does the author prefer the kangaroos to be culled by violent impact with passing motorists and/or starvation?

It is disingenuous and dishonest to use the local issue of kangaroo numbers in a local suburban setting, to draw comparisons with treatment of indigenous people in Australia

lachlan de haan | 23 May 2008  

There were kangaroos enclosed on defence land near Bendigo for decades, in an area of some square kilometres. They did not over-multiply. I wonder whether the current problem is due to the drought reducing the available feed. But please note that one reason given for the cull is that the excess of kangaroos is endangering other fauna, and flora.

Michael Grounds | 23 May 2008  

The problems revealed in the kangaroo cull in Belconnen highlight a number of difficulties in the relationship between Australians and our stewardship of the land.

In this case the threat to several endangered species on the block of land arising from population growth of the kangaroos.

The Defence Department showed no willingness to take a long term view of environmental management of the Belconnen block only responding at the point where a crisis was imminent.
A parable for the approach to environmental issues in the country generally.

Land improvement and the provision of consistently available sources of water have led to the situation which has enabled kangaroo numbers to continue rising with no natural predators.

We have created the problem and if we do not manage it through appropriately organised culling, plants, insects and less symbolically significant animals will suffer.

Doug Hynd | 23 May 2008  

This article overlooks the fact that the single most important factor which has allowed many native animals, especially kangaroos, to prosper was brought by white man - the storage of water. This has eliminated huge death numbers in drought.

Pat Healy | 23 May 2008  

This is undoubtedly a complex issue without easy answers, but it has always struck me as rather ironic that the solution ultimately proposed, that is, the killing of the animals involved (euphemistically termed 'culling') occurs in an age when we are increasingly urged to see ourselves as part and parcel of the animal world. Would we propose such a solution, and term it humane, when confronted with the overcrowding and starvation of the human animal?

There surely has to be a better and more compassionate way of responding to the conflict presented by such dilemmas.

Thomas Ryan | 23 May 2008  

Tony Smith appears to draw a long bow in his connection of the Lawson ACT kangaroo cull to wider issues. Aboriginal culture valued the kangaroo - but for food as well as anything else! While not disagreeing with his argument about fencing's devastating effects on both our indigenous peoples and fauna, to use this as an argument against the current humane cull seems extreme. Other comments (e.g. Doug Hynd's) point up some of the real issues that confront Australia's approach to environment issues.

Clive Monty | 23 May 2008  

It is drawing a long bow to link culling kangaroos at a defence facility (implicitly accepted as not unreasonable) with some unspecified colonial shame. Noble thoughts are to be applauded, but this offering is no more than hand-wringing.

Readers of Eureka Street are entitled to offerings of more substance than this. The issue is not clearly defined, nor are we provoked to think about how to deal with the issue.

I have noticed a tendency developing of publishing material that is lightweight and missing an opportunity to explore an issue that may be serious. For all I know, the issue here may be of that kind, but it wanders over matters in such a way that the result is more likely to alienate readers.

I suggest that the editors need to impose more discipline upon contributors, before thoughtful people decide that their time can more usefully be spent looking elsewhere for intelligent discussion.

jltrew | 23 May 2008  

Top marks for this article Mr Smith.
Yes the parallel with indigenous history and native animal history is worth noting. If you disagree go read Prof Henry Reynolds on the subject, the letters back to the ' mother country' told all.

neilium | 23 May 2008  

Animal populations naturally increase to exhaust local resources unless they can move elsewhere, or predators or other factors keep the population small enough. Solutions to stop kangaroos eating out their reserve and then starving are:

1. Remove fences so excess crowds can move elsewhere.

2. Find people willing to trap and move kangaroos elsewhere, paying costs.

3. Raise funds to bring fodder.

4. Introduce natural predators of kangaroos. These were dingoes, wedge-tailed eagles and indigenous hunters. Droughts also keep numbers down, and kangaroos are able to reduce breeding then – but not simply when food is short, because they used to just move elsewhere.

5. Cull kangaroos or reduce reproduction so numbers never eat an enclosure into desert.

6. In the past, indigenous people ate kangaroos. We could go vegetarian, or recognise that many people eat the meat of species that they are careful not to drive to extinction. What is the difference between kangaroos, sheep and cattle as long as they are ensured decent lives and humane deaths? Learn from Native Americans too.

val yule | 23 May 2008  

It would have been nice for the Aborigines and the kangaroos if there had never been settlement by westerners in the land. Then the Japanese could have just walked in and occupied it in the 20th century. Would the kangaroos have survived their presence? Judging by their treatment of the whales I don't imagine they would.

It would be great if we had no fences in Australia and kangaroos could roam free. Then there would be no sheep or cattle to provide meat for us, milk to drink or wool to provide clothing for us.

The people on farms in Australia provide a valuable service in providing food. For those who have never been to the outback you have no idea of how many roos are out there - culling a few in Canberra would have minimal impact on their numbers.

We live on the fringes of suburbia where the bush is gradually giving way to housing. A family of kangaroos (four) lives in an adjoining paddock which has now been fenced off to build a nursing home. We worry about what will happen to the roos when the bulldozers move in but is the land to be left for the animals or do humans requiring housing take preference?

It is an unfortunate fact of life that where people are, the animals cannot survive. It is quite simply "the law of the jungle". Or "survival of the fittest", whichever you prefer.

Pat | 23 May 2008  

It would be good if the author and all Australians were as concerned about indigenois Australians and their pressing needs today as they are about a few kangaroos in the defence facility.

Maurice Shinnick | 24 May 2008  

I think this article reads too much into the significance of the cull. It has nothing to do with our treatment of the Aboriginals and is simply a means of reducing the kangaroo population on the property to enable the rest to survive in a healthy state.

Anthony Julian Santospirito | 26 May 2008  

Great article but the same thing is happening again at Majura Defence base, again in ACT.....this time 6000 kangaroos will be shot unless people tell the government to stop.

Philip Woolley | 04 May 2009  


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