Playing by nature's rules means responsible roo culls

Western culture has unrivalled voyeuristic access to nature. The BBC's Sir David Attenborough delivers a seemingly unending stream of eye-popping natural history cinematography that we have all welcomed into our lounge rooms at some point in time.

We are amazed, educated, mystified and entertained, and some of us even horrified. In discussing the recent BBC offering Africa, a family member lamented "what brilliant productions they are, but I just can’t watch them, as the scenes where the African big cats chase down their prey is too horrifying".

Long may Sir David's familiar commentary sound through our lounge rooms, for they bring into our consciousness the reality of life from those still wild corners of our world. They remind us that nature has a tried and tested formula for "figuring things out", for ensuring that the cycle of life, however brutal to our gentrified eyes, is first and foremost about survival and the need to pass on genetic information to the next generation.

But nature's capacity for balancing the equation is no match for humankind's capacity to, at times, get in the way.

Take the most recognisable of Australian marsupials – the kangaroo. While we cannot be sure how many eastern grey kangaroos existed on the Limestone Plains upon the arrival of Europeans from 1824, we do know one thing – the environment supported predators such as dingos and quolls (and earlier still, thylacines as well). These predators survived on numerous species of kangaroos, including the eastern grey and, in keeping with nature's way, kept their numbers in check.

Over the next 100 years the drive to clear the land for wheat and wool required the new landowners to protect their sheep from the jaws of the kangaroo's native predators. Dingos became public enemy No. 1 and their number soon dwindled. Without predators to keep their numbers in check, more and more kangaroos began to populate the plains. Other factors also likely contributed to a suspected increase in kangaroo numbers, such as the conversion of woodland habitat to grasslands (farms). Then as a rural landscape evolved into an urban one, and farmers no longer needed to deter kangaroos through the use of firearms, kangaroos were once again exploiting the good times. Today the ACT and region records some of the highest population densities of eastern grey kangaroos in Australia (and insurance companies record some of the highest vehicle collision rates involving kangaroos).


Population explosions of grazing animals are often symptomatic of an unbalanced natural system. This very phenomenon was demonstrated in the case of Yellowstone National Park in the US. The disappearance, due to human practices, of the native North American grey wolf from the mountains of Yellowstone was a boom for its prey, the native elk, whose numbers multiplied. 

The US National Parks Service won the right to reintroduce wolves to the park in 1995 and as a result, the predictable drop in elk numbers also saw the re-emergence of a host of native plants that had not been able to see the light of day thanks to the hungry and numerous elks. The return of the plants unlocked opportunities for a host of insects, which in turn fed the birds and soon enough, that amazing positive feedback loop that is a healthy ecosystem was back in business.

In our case, it would not be practical to reintroduce the dingo to the Canberra plains, but the Territory and Municipal Services, as the ACT's largest land manager, has a responsibility to respond to the environmental degradation we are seeing in our grassland and grassy woodland environments today due to the overgrazing by over-abundant populations of kangaroos. 

We humans have sadly played a crucial role in tipping the balance in favour of kangaroos to the detriment of the broader environment and we now must take appropriate steps to address the problem. A well planned, ecologically-based kangaroo population management program will bring numbers in key areas back within sustainable levels, without threatening the species with localised extinction. It's all about balance and it is certainly not about eradication. We have within our means the capacity to apply care and thought to the way a population management program is delivered, to ensure animals are managed humanely and with a minimum of distress.

To play by nature's rules is to subscribe to the cycle of life and death. Where we understand humans as the cause of unacceptable disturbance to the natural order of things, responsible land managers should consider (only) well-planned interventions, with a view to tipping the equation back towards the way nature might have intended.

Daniel Iglesias is director of ACT Parks and Conservation Service.