genocide: a great australian tradition

In 2002 6.1 million kangaroos and wallabies will be legally exterminated in Queensland: the largest quota EVER. Who knows? Who cares? In this article I ponder these questions and begin to understand why wars and ethnic cleansing are also possible.

The year two thousand and one marked a nadir for the world in many ways. Terrorism has become the universal justification for the oppression of free speech everywhere. Human rights that we have taken for granted in the western world are being whittled away in the name of security. Our minds have been focused on fear, in part generated by actual events, but magnifed out of proportion by the mass media. While we are cocooned in this fear the world goes on, perhaps a bit more violent and intolerant than it was before, as we reject record numbers of refugees and our government suppresses so called ‘illegals’ like they are criminals without compassion for their all too human suffering.

In this climate of fear and intolerance the plight of suffering animals gets scant attention. Indeed, it may be, as human rights are being crushed everywhere, so too has the systematic slaughter of animals become more socially acceptable. The value of life has become less sacred, more relative.

The State of Queensland has excelled itself in the oppression of animals in the past few months. Hot on the heels of the extermination of Fraser Island’s dingoes (visitors are reporting no sightings at all now, six months later) the state government embarked on an all out assault on the wild dog population. Aerial baiting with 1080 took place state-wide, indiscriminately killing wild dogs and dingoes alike, despite QNP&WS alleged intention to preserve the dingo in certain areas. Little wonder that this baiting took place, for if the state refused to acknowledge the farmers claims of the plague status of these dogs, after they so enthusiastically ‘culled’ the Fraser dingoes, they would be labelled hypocrites.

And hypocrites they continue to be, giving kangaroos protected status with one hand and taking away their lives with the other. The Queensland Kangaroo Management Advisory Committee has declared a quota of six million macropods for 2002 for this state alone. This figure equates with last years quota for the whole nation. Farmers are claiming plague numbers of kangaroos, and the state is agreeing with them.

Putting aside an aquaintance and prominent kangaroo advocates recent claim that “farmers look out the window and see twenty ‘roos and they call it a plague”, let’s look at the evidence for plague numbers as the state sees it. Until 1983 kangaroo quotas were not set by any scientific method, but arbitrarily. The ACF policy staement reports:

Australian authorities claimed a total population of 32-35 million in 1980, implied this had grown to 36 million in 1982, and even suggested it could be as high as 60 million in 1983. In June 1983 a comprehensive estimate for the years 1980 to 1982 revealed the kangaroo population “peaked” in 1981 at only 19 million. (Grigg, Caughley and Short 1983)

The 1982/83 drought was the most severe on record in eastern Australia and caused an overall mortality of 43% in inland New South Wales kangaroo populations. Applying the known mortality rates to relevant areas of Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia reveals that the post-drought kangaroo population would not exceed 13 million. Australia’s human population exceeded 15 million in 1983. The post-drought floods in western Queensland and north west NSW caused additional heavy post-drought kangaroo mortalities. (ACF 1999)

Kangaroo numbers are calculated by a simple algorythm: for every kangaroo you see in a given area multiply by roughly 3.2 (the figure varies slightly for species of macropod). On the assumption that the quota is usually between 15 and 20% of actual numbers, this gives us roughly a total state-wide population of 35 million. Previous estimates of the total kangaroo population of Australia have varied wildy, but do assume it fluctuates between 15 and 35 million. (Grigg 1999). What flaws are there to this erstwhile ‘scientific’ method of macropod guesstimation? The small matter of a margin of error of about 2.2. (Bigwood in Wilson, 1999) The possibility exists that not only have they grossly overestimated the numbers, but that the current quota could lead to local extinctions of some species. Not something that would trouble farmers greatly.

In July 2001 a symposium on Recent advances in the Scientific Knowledge of Kangaroos was held at the Universtiy of NSW. Studies indicate that we are now exterminating Red kangaroos at a rate faster than they can breed. The average age of a Red is now 2 years, yet they do not reach sexual maturity until they are 10. How are they to continue to exist when quotas advocating their deaths get bigger every year? Yet they are declared pests by farmers and conservationists alike. Pest because they want to eat and breed and live in the country that has always been theirs, but has been usurped by the invading forces of introduced species (cattle, sheep and human beings) and the unjustifiable devaluing of their lives over other native animals based on more hearsay than science. There is no assesment process to validate the claims of landowners requesting damage mitigation permits. All figures are based on an aerial survey using the ‘guesstimate’ process I described above.

Apparently the extermination of kangaroos is not something that troubles the average Australian greatly either. Year after year stupendous numbers of macropods are killed in Australia, ostensibly as ‘pest management’, and few of us bat an eyelid (see Table 1). We have become so used to the proclaimations of ‘sustainable users’ and the myths of the farming lobby that we believe it. Kangaroos, our national icon and most recognised native marsupial, are massacred with impunity year after year on the weakest of scientific evidence. However, profit often wears the guise of science. Kangaroo meat and skins earn the Kangaroo Industry Association (now euphemistically called the ‘Wild Harvest’) millions in export dollars every year.

The arguments of ‘roo killers are now widely supported by conservations groups too. Conservation by ‘managing’ populations has become a panacea for ecological problems.

So too the public has been led to believe that not only is managment of nature a possibility (laughable, and from my ecocentric p-o-v, the ultimate in human arrogance) but that is positively good for species to be culled. The idea that kangaroos are going to suffer unduly because of their high numbers by eating out their range is the logic behind this argument. Yet historical records show that the early explorers reported huge mobs of kangaroos comparable with the bison of Northern America. There have always been lots of kangaroos, they live lightly on the land just like their indingenous human contemporaries would have. After a year of drought it is far more probably that farmers are now wanting to cull them not because of a population explosion, but because they have already so overstocked their land with cattle that they can’t tolerate the least bit of vegetation being eaten by a native animal. Better to scapegoat the indigenous animals than blame their own bad land use practices.

It is suggested that kangaroos will cause land degradation as a result of overpopulation. Come on now, is anyone who knows that this county has 180 million cattle obliterating flora under hoof (about 70% of our land mass) so naïve as to say it is the kangaroo that is responsible for land degradation? And those that do recognise the damage cattle do, suggest ‘roo farming as an alternative. The ‘roo meat trade, as it currently operates, is based firmly in the pest culling paradigm. Is it any surprise that as beef consumption plummets overseas in the after effects of foot and mouth and BSE and export sales of ‘roo and Australian beef are on the increase that we now see the highest quotas in the history of the industry?

The parallels with the human history of genocide are many. Genocide, as it is defined by Jared Diamond in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, is done primary for four reasons: ideology, power, psychology and land or combinations of these. That we have power over native animals is beyond question, it is the other three that provide some explanation of why we pursue their eradication.

The ideology that sees kangaroos as pests, as resources, is no different to that which led to the massacre and slavery of the Tasmanian aborigines. It makes compelling reading, it’s parallels to contemporary pest animal management astounding:

With the declaration of martial law in November 1828, soldiers were authorised to kill on sight any Tasmanian in the settled areas. Next, a bounty was declared …’Black Catchin’, as it was called…became big business pursued by private as well as official roving parties. At the same time a commission…was set up to recommend an overall policy towards the natives. After considering proposals to capture them for sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs, the commission settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted police. (Diamond 1991: 252-53)

When the Tasmanian aborigines were close to extinction, scientists became interested in them. Such was the competition between scientists for this ‘missing link’ research that they desecrated burial sites, and cut off body parts for souvenirs. One even went so far as to make a tobacco pouch of a man’s skin. Indifference is the psychological effect that this trophying has on the attitudes of people towards those they seek to exterminate. Walk into any tourist shop in Australia today and you will find trophies of extermination: kangaroo paw back-scratchers, scrotum purses, travesties of koalas stitched from kangaroo fur. Koalas are fortunate to have achieved the ‘cute and cuddly’ category well before we exterminated them. Though in truth we came very close to it in the early 1900s. Koala skin rugs are now museum pieces, testimony to our grisly pasts.

The original Tasmanians were named ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘heathen’ and hence ‘not like us’; just as select of the original animal natives of Australia are labelled ‘pests’ and in ‘plague’. The combination of this language of inferiority and disrespect with trophyism and you have powerful tools to promote acquienscence to mass murder in the wider society.

As the ideology that kangaroos are pests continues to assuage the consciences of Australians, the grab for their land provides a very real excuse for their continued slaughter. In this same way, the Tasmanian aborigines were usurped of their land and then their lives by greed. Greed too is behind the one added act of profiteering that would be unconscionable in a human genocide: meat. While the debate rages as to whether kangaroo meat is safe for human consumption or a decent thing to do to our national symbol, the guts of the matter is largely overlooked. We have stolen their land, we are stealing their lives and making trophies of their skins, and now in the final act of desecration, we want to eat them.

A sense of history can tell us much about why we human beings are capable of what we do to each other and other species. Perhaps it can also help us to circumvent tragedies of extermination before it’s too late. So long as we remain ignorant of our mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. Let’s hope we can save the remaining orginal Australians from the same terrible fate that befell the original Tasmanians.

References:

Animal Liberation South Australia 2001, Kangaroo Slaughter visited November 2001 at http://www.animalliberation.org.au/comkang.htm

Australian Conservaton Foundation 2001, Policy Statement No. 39 Kangaroo Harvesting visited September 2001 at http://www.acfonline.org.au/asp/pages/document.asp?IdDoc=207

Caughley, Grigg & Short (1983) “How Many Kangaroos?” Search 14: 151-154

Diamond, J 1991 The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, Vintage Science Press: London

Environment Australia 2000 Wild Harvest of Native Species – Kangaroos (1991-2000), visited September 2001 at http://www.ea.gov.au/biodiversity/trade-use/wild-harvest/kangaroo/yearly.html

Grigg, G & Pople, T 1999 Commercial Harvesting of Kangaroos in Australia Environment Australia

Rajecki, DW, Rasmussen, J and Craft, HD 1999 “Labels and the Treatment of Animals: Archival and Experimental Cases” at Society & Animals website http://www.psyeta.org/sa/sa1.1/rajecki.html

Seymour, F & Oogjes, G 2001 “The Risky Politics of Scape-goating the Victim”, Animal Australia, unpublished manuscript

Wilson, M (ed) 1999 The Kangaroo Betrayed, Hill of Content: Victoria

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