The Australian government uses creative counting to promote kangaroo killing

Featuring Wildlife Ecologist Ray Mjadwesch     

Ray Mjadwesch is dedicating himself to figuring out how many kangaroos there are in Australia. That also means knowing how many are being killed in grisly commercial slaughters — the largest in the world.

“It’s just crazy that they get away with it.”

Ray dug into the raw data on kangaroo population counts and found what he calls egregious errors, convincing him that authorities are hiding the alarming drop in the number of kangaroos so hunting can continue.

“There’s more killing now (in the modern era) than there ever has been,” says the conservation biologist in describing the kill rate of the last 20 years. Ray says 1.5 million to 3 million wild kangaroos are slaughtered every year, not including hundreds of thousands of joeys. But he says the core of the problem is that “nobody really knows how many are being killed.”

Although about a million and a half kangaroos were killed in 2018 by commercially licensed hunters who sell kangaroo skin and meat, no one is officially tracking the number killed by farmers and ranchers. The government allows farmers and ranchers who claim the marsupials are damaging crops and foraging on livestock grazing land — they call it “damage mitigation” — to shoot them and bludgeon the joeys still inside the pouches.

“Just tick some boxes,” he says, and authorities will simply hand you a permit with very little questioning — sometimes over the phone. One acquaintance who issues such permits called it “public relations.”

Ray, recipient of the Australian Wildlife Society’s Conservation Award, began investigating the plight of kangaroos a decade ago after spending three months in the wildlands surveying two threatened daisy species. After returning to Bathurst, he learned of a quiet initiative by the local council that killed 140 kangaroos and 88 joeys to reduce collisions with cars in the annual Bathurst 1000 auto race. When Ray shared his dismay with a colleague, he was told “there are plenty” and not to “get my knickers in a twist.”

He told the colleague that he’d just spent three months in kangaroo habitat and had seen almost none. “I literally found more threatened daisies than I did kangaroos.”

So, he got ahold of the government’s management plan and, with his expertise, immediately spotted huge problems. “I was shocked to find it was such a disaster,” he said.

Ever since, Ray has been dissecting the government’s annual population surveys that claim the number of kangaroos is far higher than Ray suspects. The math just doesn’t add up, as he explained to Kate Elliott, host of the podcast “Freedom of Species” at 3CR Studios: Kangaroos reproduce at 10% a year under the best of circumstances, without hunters or drought or fires. A female kangaroo has one joey per year, generally more than 70% of them die in their first year. On his website, Ray has examined government data on a zone by zone and species by species basis, which shows population increases in just one year of 107%, 134%, 170% and even 197%. “Impossible!” he says. “It becomes obvious something must be very wrong with the methodologies,” he says, deadpan. The numbers are inflated, he believes, so the killing can continue.

While he trusts the raw data from those surveys, he is certain the interpretation of that data is being manipulated to hide the fact that kangaroo populations are plummeting in many areas of Australia.

He formally nominated the Western and Eastern Grey, Common Wallaroo and Red Kangaroo for listing as threatened in the state of New South Wales which, if accepted, would have forced an independent review of the survey data separate from government researchers. But his nomination was rejected after pro-industry researchers were parachuted into the Committee.

Interpreting any wildlife survey data is complex. Researchers know they can never visually spot 100% of any animal they’re surveying. To extrapolate, they apply broadly accepted methods to “correct” the data. For kangaroos, Ray trusted the initial corrections which were developed for the species, which roughly doubled or quadrupled the estimates (for red and grey species respectively), but over time these corrections have been periodically increased; these days researchers multiply their counts by up to 14, depending on the species.

He’s also noticed a pattern in how the government is adjusting the corrective calculations. They “always revise them upward,” he said. The government claims “populations have remained steady yet they’re increasing the correction factors.”

His threatened species nominations called them out on it; “whenever they revise their correction factors, they always revise them upward,” he said. The government claims “populations have remained steady yet they’re increasing the correction factors — they have been caught with their pants down,” he says, “hilariously.” On one hand, the government claims hunting has kept the kangaroo population steady, but on the other hand, they have inflated the correction factors by three or four times.

Remember the Bathurst 1000 auto race? Ray helped convince authorities there, instead of killing kangaroos, to let him lead a team to relocate hundreds of kangaroos to another habitat. A partial solution to collisions but not to human encroachment on kangaroo habitat.

Ray’s calculations suggest the kangaroo population has dropped by 85% in some areas, threatening their very viability. In certain areas, it is “most likely” only 1-2% remain — his work continues.

But what really made him suspect the government’s honesty was when he initially submitted a public information request for that raw data. He was surprised they even gave it to him, until he looked closer: The data was in four different formats, including pdfs that prevent recipients from easily grabbing the data.

“I think that was very deliberate to mess around with me on the data. That’s all right. They don’t understand how patient I am.”

He’s put his work online for the world to see.

At the end of his scholarly nomination to enhance protections in NSW, Ray took off his scientist hat and wrote a conclusion as a proud Australian: “The author is beyond angry. This sort of nomination is outrageous — that it is even needed. It should not be the author’s job to do this; the public trusts government agencies to do their job. For the agencies in charge of the management of wildlife in NSW to have been so derelict in their duties that it has come to my preparing this nomination, is a disgrace.”

He acknowledges his work has made him the bad guy of powerful interests. “And it has come at a huge cost. Personal, professional, financial, emotional. Ten years so far, and it isn’t over by a long way.”

In a moment of somber reflection, Ray wrote in an email, “How do I feel about all this? Like I have to say something. Like I have to do something. In my mind, the kangaroo industry is like big tobacco or the fossil fuel industry — they have bought all of the scientists they need, and they have all the government support they need, but it is all based on deception and pseudo-science, and it is all about money.”

“After 150 years of persecution,” he concludes, “I think kangaroos need a break from shooting.”

Ray Mjadwesch is dedicating himself to figuring out how many kangaroos there are in Australia. That also means knowing how many are being killed in grisly commercial slaughters — the largest in the world.