THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN LEGACY
Wildlife protection reflects the culture
A case study supporting the investigation in chapters ‘Fur and feathers, an expose’ and ‘Enter Science’ in Injustice: how we have failed kangaroo, koala, emu, wombat, dingo and other native animals, by Maria Taylor. [SOON TO BE RELEASED]
Background: Historically South Australia has had the poorest record of killing wildlife and not protecting wildlife. Researcher and lecturer in Aboriginal Land Management Doug Reilly wrote in a 1996 conference paper: “Since the turn of the century the state has suffered a 30% loss of land mammal species recorded in 1882.
“This dubious record is a result of wholesale habitat modification and destruction, feral predation, domestic stock competition and direct elimination by farmers, graziers and developers … this is a state where farming and grazing communities have exerted a strong influence over the parliamentary lawmakers. South Australia has managed to remove 85% of its woodlands since the time of settlement in 1836.
“This same culture of legislative land exploitation has extended to the bureaucracy responsible for native fauna protection where similar destructive policy strategies still apply.”
Reilly spoke of the lack of leadership by the land management authorities which has led to widespread individual, parochial and destructive practices. This is relevant in 2020 with federal Liberal and National Party politicians pushing to divest the national government of more environmental responsibilities and bolster the powers of states that have so spectacularly failed native animals since settlement.
Wildlife protection only as good as cultural norms
Regarding the idea that national parks and other wildlife management authorities are there to protect flora and fauna, he pointed out that protection and enforcement abilities directly reflect the political and cultural norms — i.e. they are restricted.
Kangaroo management in South Australia as elsewhere has travelled a path from destruction to conservation attempts to exploitation and facilitating more death. By 1996 a new and even more destructive kangaroo management plan was on the drawing board in that state.
“Aggressive marketing and competition in a now small but powerful industry, wanted more and more product to feed its commercial avarice is placing incredible pressure on those wildlife officers in the field responsible for implementing and policing kangaroo management programs, and those wildlife personnel charged with maintaining sustainable biological levels for the conservation of the wild populations…”
Reilly prophesied that the plan would further destroy the genetic health of the species and its ultimate survival.
In 2019 (23 years after Reilly wrote), a South Australian film produced by applied ecologists and distributed nationally and internationally, promoted efforts to ramp up more killing and ‘save’ natural ecosystems and the commercial kangaroo industry. The country’s foremost kangaroo meat business Macro Meats, is based in Adelaide.
Reilly pointed out what is also evident in other states — that ‘land managers’ in public services have historically and still do favour the interests of farmers and graziers despite their small percentage of the overall population.
He explored the changing labels governing departments housing state government wildlife services and what they reflect — losing the word ‘conservation’ and adding ‘planning’ and ‘resource management’. “Within this structure resides the now small and under-resourced National Parks and Wildlife Service.”
The brief for this service has evolved from conservation of wildlife to facilitate the exploitation of a ‘resource’ or to apply pest management solutions as evident in Australia’s national capital with ‘culls’ since 2009. Elsewhere, the parks services directly manage commercial and self-regulated landholder killing of ‘common’ wildlife, i.e. not yet considered endangered, handing out permits and tags but without the resources to overview these activities.
Wildlife knowledge missing in action
“Very few experienced personnel are left within the present emasculated SA national Parks and Wildlife Service with a basic functional understanding of wildlife handling, wildlife behaviour, wildlife releases, wildlife translocation or possess even a rudimentary understanding of the social interaction between, and within, different species of native animals and their surrounding environment,” wrote Reilly.
“Without these necessary skills and faced with harsh financial constraints, many a solution to conflicts between native animals and commercial or recreational interests are met with a ‘first action response’ that favours the cheapest and easiest path which in most cases ends with the destruction of the animal(s).”
With language that resonates in Australian states in 2020, he wrote that destruction permits, “are a common problem-solving tool and are issued by the service on an unregulated poorly policed ‘ad hoc’ basis to destroy wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, possums and birds”.
Reilly gives the example of how this thinking was extended at the time to managing abundant koala populations on Kangaroo Island, since decimated by wildfires. Every conservationist and wildlife advocate can look around and see lethal examples of this thinking and activity (not least with horrendous 1080 poison).
Reilly told the conference that at the time rescue groups were sometimes part of the problem, maintaining a narrow sectoral perspective on wildlife in the landscape and sometimes a ‘nobody knows better than us’ attitude. He also notes the unfortunate prevalence of internecine warfare amongst these groups.
Carer groups shield authorities from PR disaster, enforcement gutted
He said that a common “false belief” that hand-reared wildlife cannot be released into the wild, intersects with the beliefs of some influential bureaucrats and their stand against translocation. Worse, is that in South Australia (and elsewhere) the state wildlife authorities have never accepted responsibility for sick and injured or orphaned wildlife. Carer groups, he said, have inadvertently shielded state authorities from a PR disaster.
Reilly explored the structural and financial diminishment of enforcement powers of the National Parks rangers. In South Australia in 1996 rangers with warden or protection powers were clustered in southern regions and overall continued to lose resources through successive governments. This reflects enforcement ability elsewhere, particularly in outback landscapes.
“Until 1995 only one ‘resource’ protection officer was available to enforce wildlife regulations and legislation over 87% of South Australia (870,000 sq km).” In 1995 one additional ranger was appointed to cover the western portion of this region.
“The areas in question include the remotest regions of the state where trapping, poaching and deliberate destruction of wildlife is endemic.
“As the remote regions contain the only remaining reserves of significant flora and fauna in the state, there is a heightened demand and value on its ecological ‘resources’. [But] “The region has become a supermarket for the illegal trade in flora and fauna.
“The region also contains the original (prior to 1996) kangaroo ‘management and harvest zones.
“Over this vast area, this single individual is not only responsible for enforcing compliance within kangaroo management programs, but is also responsible for an additional 25 authorities.” He said these ranged from the National Parks and Wildlife Act, vegetation, heritage, environmental protection and any associated policies and rules. The duties include education and training and preparing any prosecutions.
A view about novel ‘plague-proportion’ kangaroo numbers
Reilly gave a background to the constant charge in Australia that kangaroos are in abundance in the western pastoral zones never before seen in history.
He blames the questionable land management practices of politicians and their constituents in the farmer grazier sector. The construction of the dingo fence across the state in the 1930s lead to a drop in natural predation; the introduction of watering points where there had been none before and the related change in ground cover were key factors aided by high rainfall seasons. Add to that the kangaroo’s evolutionary response in a boom and bust landscape of gathering for a post-rainfall feed.
He describes the progression in the 1960s (still very much reflected in today’s legacy) of a ‘cull’ to counter ‘overabundance’ that morphed into a commercial operation by 1966. The commercial quota in his state increased in the intervening years from 146,529 animals to 632,000 in 1996.
He too questioned the figures that have come out of aerial surveys that started in 1978 and that underpin state and Commonwealth management structures on behalf of the commercial industry — basically how many target animals do we claim exist and how many can we kill. This is the only kangaroo ‘conservation plan’ Australia has ever devised. Reilly called out as odd the supposed stability of numbers. Since his time, dramatic increases in official counts have cropped up in some years despite drought and high quotas.
Reilly is another wildlife expert who said basic population biology is not adhered to in kangaroo management with little data on sex ratios of numbers killed. “What data are available, comes from industry figures which can only be considered to be highly questionable and inaccurate.”
Killing the biggest animals
“The established practice of paying the shooter a per kilogram dressed weight has encouraged the removal of the largest animals from the population and forced the animals into unnatural selection pathways. Research literature indicates that the large dominant animals (8–12 years) provide the genetic health of subsequent populations,” he wrote.
The lack of biological science and baseline data for comparison while the gene pool of the hunted kangaroo species is being destroyed, has been particularly noted for the over-hunted Red kangaroo where the average age of a shot animal in the early 2000s was said to be only two years.
“The dominant (or alpha males) responsible for the genetic diversity of the population are now observed to be only one tenth of their numbers in the late fifties and early 1960s in regions north of Port Augusta” Reilly said he learned from observers in the field. He noted that females have seemingly increased their breeding in response, and the presence of many young males.
Reilly noted how the demand for kangaroo “product” led to expanded harvest zones across the whole state and increased quotas. Reds, Western Greys and Euros (elsewhere known as Wallaroos) with Reds making up the dominant quota.
“Apart from the Aboriginal Trust Lands which have their own fauna sustainability problems, harvesting of kangaroos may now be undertaken anywhere in the state…political, farming and industry pressures continue to threaten and compromise the biological diversity and sustainability of regional kangaroo populations.” And that was 23 years ago.
Manipulate the public and media to disrespect and exploit native species
“The industry, (supported by the bureaucracy and the legislators) has embarked on deliberate and dishonest campaigns of propaganda to support the false perception that the country is overrun by large populations of kangaroos,” he said. “The media has been cleverly manipulated to support this stratagem.
‘Taken in context, while the total population of kangaroos (all species) Australia-wide hovers between twenty-two and thirty million [officially in 1996] total sheep and cattle numbers exceed two hundred million…which animals pose a greater threat to Australia’s ecological diversity?”
“Placing a pittance value on each individual animal cheapens all kangaroo species in the eyes of the public, makes it easier to evoke unsustainable management practices, gains acceptance of the animal as a plentiful and healthy food source and hence accelerates its inevitable downward path to destruction.
Reilly spoke of animal society and individuality. “No mention is ever made of the varied and complex social interactions within the different species and separate groups of animals, or, the impact of the commercial kill on these internal family structures. No mention is made of the astounding individuality and variability of each animal. To suit a deliberate commercial objective, it is far better to consider the animals as an amorphous mass of meat suitable for exploitation.”
Rural politicians and council area decisions reflect the widely held belief that kangaroos are ‘pests’, he noted. In 1996 South Australia, Reilly wrote of the complete ignorance amongst decision-makers about behavioural and environmental requirements of kangaroos leading to destruction of local populations.
Open seasons during drought periods
With Queensland and then NSW declaring open season on kangaroos during recent droughts to please graziers, followed by catastrophic fires and loss of life, concerns about regional extinctions stay alive.
Wrote Reilly: “The destruction of kangaroos during drought periods when animals cluster in search of feed and water, and in times when populations are under greatest stress and female reproduction rates decline has led to severe impact on the biological dynamics of isolated resident populations”. Add to that, ever-increasing fence densities, (cluster fencing across many kilometres as is common now in Queensland) and more roads, keep kangaroos, emus and other wildlife from sustaining habitat.
Reilly makes a claim that resonates in all states: “There is an unwritten but deliberate policy by wildlife authorities to eliminate completely resident native animal populations (kangaroos, wombats, etc) from farming areas.”
Reilly also charged that in South Australia in 1996 it was apparent that fierce competition between shooters, processor representatives and between the processors themselves for a limited number of animals and access on private property — led to “a plethora of dubious practices aimed at corrupting past and present management strategies”. Victoria’s resurgent kangaroo pet-food industry had been charged with similar problems before being cemented into place by political fiat.
The end of the road: signposted ‘economic gain over co-existence and understanding’
Always favouring economic gain over biological understanding in government policy will inevitably lead to demise of the species, wrote Reilly. 1996 amendments to the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act demonstrated how that downward spiral of wildlife exploitation works.
Similar to the findings of the ‘Injustice’ investigation Reilly found policy emerged from a dominant clique of wildlife practitioners that reject dissenting opinion under the umbrella of science.
Since the early 1990s, politics influence wildlife management via the economic rationalist theories that flourished in Australia from that time. These have pushed the ‘user pays’ paradigm to public service. In the wildlife management arena, this thinking dictated that kill permits sold to farmers, and fee payments from the kangaroo industry, often constitute a major part of the budget for National Parks units overseeing the industry. At the same time this approach ensures the human resources are minimal. That was true in 1996 South Australia said Reilly, and is true in NSW today.
Doug Reilly, The Growing Culture of Institutionalised Wildlife Exploitation in South Australia, in Self Regulation in the Kangaroo Industry is the Code of Practice an Appropriate Mechanism?, Canberra ACT, Australian Wildlife Protection Council Vic Inc, (sponsor IFAW) conference, 1 September, 1996.