In Australia, the kangaroo is a national symbol (sharing the coat of arms with the emu) and readily identified by most of the world. But, not many countries are as confused as we are about their national trademark – variously iconified, culled, harvested, treated as pests and sometimes protected. For a national emblem, the kangaroo has a beleaguered history.
The kangaroo soon caught the attention of the first Europeans to visit the east of the continent, with Captain Cook likening it to a cross between a mouse, a greyhound and a hare. The name kangaroo comes from the word gangurru, as used by the Guugu Yimithirr people of Far North Queensland where Captain Cook and Joseph Banks first encountered the marsupial (circa 1770).
Not long after (1778), with the arrival of the first settlers in New South Wales, kangaroos provided a crucial source of meat until the colonists could get their own stocks of cattle and sheep established.
The kangaroo wasn’t let off after that though – while no longer needed for food it continued to be shot for sport, on horseback with dogs, in the manner of fox hunting among British gentry.
As pastoralists became increasingly powerful and land holdings expanded, they began to see the kangaroo as a pest that competed with their livestock for feed or grazed on their crops and took advantage of artesian wells. Bowing to pressure, the kangaroo was declared a pest by the NSW Legislative Assembly in the 1870s and shooting increased in earnest (there was a bounty).
There is some scientific doubt about this perception, for example kangaroos avoid livestock where possible and may only compete for pasture during drought. Kangaroos are not water-focussed grazers. However the idea lingers in the national psyche and government thinking. This is unique, because as the concept of an Australian identity developed our distinctive fauna came to be appreciated and protected (even the dingo) and attempts were made to eradicate introduced species. Except, that is, for the kangaroo. Perceptions are changing though, and kangaroos are now treated more as a harvestable resource than a pest to be culled. Although, from a kangaroo’s perspective, it amounts to the same thing.
Kangaroos are macropods (bigfoot) that evolved about 10-20 million years ago. There are ~50 surviving species (with 6 documented extinctions since settlement and 7 currently endangered). Only 4 species can be harvested for food – Red, Western Grey, Eastern Grey and Wallaroo.
Initially, around the 1950s, kangaroos were harvested for pet food. However, while not eaten by humans in Australia, there was a small export industry for human consumption that started as early as 1955. The first Australian state to allow sale for human consumption was South Australia (1980). The remaining states did not follow this lead until ~1993. Until 2009, the largest overseas market was Russia.
Uptake of kangaroo meat for human consumption has been slow in Australia (most meat is still fed to dogs), although the trend is increasing. The meat has to overcome its long-standing association with dog food. Also, there is the problem of ‘Bambi (or Skippy) Syndrome’ – the reluctance to eat something that we have anthropomorphised.
The deer industry has partly avoided this because deer meat is called something different – venison (from the latin venari – to hunt/pursue), just as cattle are beef and pigs are pork at point of sale.
So, there was a competition to rename kangaroo meat. Suggestions (from a staggering 2,700 entries) included kangarly, maroo, krou, roujoe, rooviande, jurru, ozru, marsu, kangasaurus (!), marsupan and jumpmeat. The winner was ‘australus’, a name that hasn’t been heard of since (presumably because it was uninspiring and cliched). Others were just corny.
There are benefits to harvesting kangaroos. They are indigenous to the rangelands; they contribute to biodiversity; their soft paws do little damage to the environment compared to hooved sheep and cattle; land does not need to be cleared; kangaroos eat and drink less; the animals need none of the management associated with livestock maintenance; they are killed instantly in their natural environment rather than experiencing the stress of herding, penning and transport and; they don’t emit methane (perhaps surprisingly, methane from livestock makes up ~11% of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions). Kangaroo Management Plans are in place to alleviate concerns about food safety, kangaroo welfare and population, and ecosystem degradation. Conditions are more stringent than for another and more lucrative industry that also harvests wild-animals – the seafood industry.
Harvest is confined to 5 large areas of the continent that are then subdivided into multiple zones. State wildlife departments take aerial surveys to estimate kangaroo numbers in each zone each year, and a quota is set. This has to be approved by the federal government. Only males can be taken (females are almost always carrying a joey). The full quota is not usually reached in practice, as harvesting is by firearm (in 2014 the kangaroo population was ~54 million, the quota was 8.8 million and the total killed was ~1.6 million). The department issues numbered lockable and tamper-proof tags to licensed shooters, and these are attached to the carcass immediately after shooting. The tag never leaves the carcass and provides a trace of the number taken, date, location and shooter.
The food-safety of kangaroo meat is no different to livestock and is closely monitored and inspected. The level of bacterial or parasitic infection detected in kangaroo meat is the same as for livestock. Bacterial contamination will only be on the surface of the meat, not the interior (if it was the animal would have been very sick and quickly dead in a natural ecosystem). Just as for beef, a quick sear or blanch will give peace of mind. And just as with beef and other farmed animals, mince or sausage meat should be thoroughly cooked because of the intermingling of surfaces and because the mince/sausage will probably have come from hundreds of animals.
In Australia, the most commonly-available kangaroo meat cuts are fillet, steak, mince, burgers and sausage (top restaurants are driving increased options). These can be treated just like their farmed counterparts, however because kangaroo meat is very lean, fillets and steaks are best not cooked beyond medium-rare (55C). I have had only modest success cooking steaks to tenderness, however fillets are another matter and delicious. I suggest sous vide at 55C for 60-90m.
Some afterthoughts: We Australians sometimes eat the other animal on our coat of arms too – the emu. However, Australia is not the only country to eat its national emblem (it may be the only one to do it in the plural though). The elk is consumed in Sweden; the brown bear in Finland; the camel in Saudi Arabia and the bull in Spain (where it is also taunted and killed in public, occasionally vice-versa). A country’s emblem (if animal) is often chosen for its strength and ferocity, which might explain why it is not common practice to eat it. Unluckily for the kangaroo and the emu, they are herbivores.
The cute kangaroo
The bodybuilding kangaroo
The posing kangaroo
The scary kangaroo (its a pet – even scarier)
The swimming kangaroo (they are adept in fresh and saltwater and can lure their predators into water and overcome them by drowning)
The disturbingly human, philosophical kangaroo
The politely curious kangaroo
The don’t mess with me kangaroo