Put kangaroos, camels on Australian eco-menu: scientists

SYDNEY (AFP) - Saving the planet by eating kangaroos and wild camels may seem like pie in the sky, but the offbeat menu comes with a scientific stamp of approval in Australia.
The aim in both cases is to reduce damage to the environment, but the reasoning behind the push to put the animals on the menu is sharply different.

Put kangaroos, camels on Australian eco-menu: scientists
In the case of kangaroos, environmentalists say the national animal should become a dietary staple in place of cattle and sheep as part of the fight against global warming.
The farm animals make a major contribution to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions simply by belching and farting, while kangaroos emit negligible amounts of dangerous methane gas.
In other words, there should be more kangaroos and fewer farm animals.
"For most of Australia's human history -- around 60,000 years -- kangaroo was the main source of meat," the government's top climate change adviser Professor Ross Garnaut noted in a major report on global warming recently.
"It could again become important."
In the case of camels, scientists say eating the imported animals would be one way of reducing the million-strong feral herd -- one of the largest on earth -- running amok in the fragile ecosystems of the outback.
"Eat a camel today, I've done it," says Professor Murray McGregor, co-author of a three-year study on the humpbacked pests presented to the government last month.
In each case, the scientists admit they face a struggle to change Australia's eating habits, but believe strongly in the need to somehow cut the numbers of sheep, cattle and camels.
Garnaut's study concluded that by 2020, beef cattle and sheep numbers could be reduced by seven million and 36 million respectively, allowing for an increase in kangaroo numbers to 240 million by 2020, from 34 million now.
He acknowledged, however, that there were some problems in this plan, including livestock and farm management issues, consumer resistance and the gradual nature of change in food tastes.
The idea of farming kangaroos -- which appear on the Australian coat of arms -- for human consumption is distasteful to some, but many health-conscious Australians already eat kangaroo meat.
"It's low in fat, it's got high protein levels, it's very clean in the sense that basically it's the ultimate free range animal," says Peter Ampt of the University of New South Wales's institute of environmental studies.
A similar argument was put forward last month in an attempt to whet Australian appetities for camel meat.
A three-year study found that Australia's population of more than a million feral camels is out of control and damaging fragile desert ecosystems, water sources, rare plants and animals.
The Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, which produced the report presented to the federal government, said a good way to bring down the number of camels is to eat them.
"It's beautiful meat. It's a bit like beef. It's as lean as lean, it's an excellent health food," said McGregor.
Unlike the native kangaroo, camels were introduced into Australia as pack animals for the vast outback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but were released into the wild as rail and road travel became more widespread.
With few natural predators and vast sparsely-populated areas in which to roam, the population has soared to around a million and is now doubling about every nine years, the centre's Glenn Edwards told AFP.
While putting camels on the menu could help reduce their numbers, and is one of the proposals in the report, Edwards admits it is unlikely that Australia can eat its way out of the problem.
Hundreds of thousands of camels will have to be removed to bring the numbers down to a point where they cause minimal damage, he said.
"I think (eating them) is an option that may work in some areas but it won't be the panacea," he said.
The local market for camel meat would be limited and even given the fact that there is a large demand from some countries overseas it would be difficult to harvest and process the animals.
"To commercially use camels in that way you need to have access to them -- so you need roads and, depending on how you are processing them, electricity and water.
"Parts of the range have the infrastructure but other places are simply too remote, nobody lives out there."
The only way to deal with the populations in those areas if they did not become commercially viable would be to shoot them from helicopters, he said, and leave them to rot.
Switching from cattle and sheep to kangaroos also faces problems, said beef farmer Kelvin Brown.
"In theory farming kangaroos is probably good because they are selective grazers, don't tend to overgraze country and have a good conversion rate of feed into meat," he said from his farm Ykicamoocow.
But the practicalities would keep farmers on the hop.
"You would need ten-feet (three-metre) high fencing similar to the deer industry," Brown said.
Transporting kangaroos to the abattoir would also be fraught with difficulties.
"You are dealing with an animal that isn't used to being touched or herded and apparently they do have quite high rates of heart attacks from fright and also tend to damage themselves quite easily, break legs, things like that.
"So although this idea of farming kangaroos is good, probably the only way you could do it would be to shoot the kangaroos on the farm and have some system of butchering on site."
Given the difficulties, it seems that kangaroos and camels will not become a staple of the Australian diet any time soon and environmentalists will have to look elsewhere for solutions to the planet's problems.
Image of kangaroos by Joel Saget.

Monday, January 5th 2009
Lawrence Bartlett

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