A new documentary, Kangaroos: a love-hate story, has stoked a fiery new culture war, attracting controversy for its depiction of the killing of kangaroos in the culling and harvesting industry. The film had already made a splash in the US, with several outlets covering the film, but the storm has finally reached Australian media.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has trooped off to Belgium to speak at a screening, and in a move you could set your watch to, The Australian has run a piece chronicling the kangaroo meat industry’s furious response, along with a damning editorial criticising Rhiannon (and the Greens, by extension) for her support.

Rhiannon, for her part put out a statement on Monday, explaining the self-funded trip: 

“We will use the evidence to show that kangaroos are in trouble.

“Myths about kangaroos are uncritically repeated as facts in Australia and abroad which provides social and political license to keep shooting these animals beyond their reproductive capacity.

“Australians tend to forget that kangaroos are one of the world’s most iconic species, and are largely unaware that government management of kangaroos is not from a framework of conservation, but from an intent to bolster commercial shooting” she said.

So, is this just an classic Oz beat-up on the Greens? Removing moral and economic concerns, how does the science of culling and harvesting stack up?

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University told Crikey the difference is between a focus on conservation and animal liberation. 

“It’s a distinction the media doesn’t make enough — an animal welfare group will be fundamentally driven by the individual welfare of one animal, whereas a conservation scientist will look at the integrity and stability of a natural ecosystem,” he said.

On that reading, things don’t look particularly good for Rhiannon.

Are kangaroos numbers ‘in trouble’?

“The important context is to know that there significantly more of some of the large kangaroos than there would have been upon white settlement of Australia,” he said. “Their natural controls, whether it’s Aboriginal hunting or predators such as dingoes have really been taken out of the landscape. At the same time, a lot of forest areas have been cleared for grasslands, and kangaroos are particularly good at turning grass and water into more kangaroos. As a result, in many areas the kangaroo populations have flourished.”

The estimated number of kangaroos in Australia varies. The Oz piece cites Department of Environment and Energy figures putting the figure at nearly 45 million, with the caveat that “Population estimates are based on aerial and ground surveys and are for the areas within Australia where commercial harvesting occur”. And the department argues the actual national populations would be significantly higher, as these figures do not include estimates for areas not surveyed. Lindenmayer has a more conservative estimate of 25 million, which would still make kangaroos “one of the most abundant large land mammals on the planet”.

As has been pointed out by Daniel Ramp and Karl Vernes in The Conversation, data on the historical decline or increase in kangaroo numbers is open to manipulation, or at least grabbing a window that suits your narrative

What are the wider impacts of a booming boomer population?

“Too many herbivores in an area flows on to lots of other impacts,” he said. “We have seen in some of our studies, when you have larger kangaroo population — or sheep, or cattle — on native plant diversity, on native reptiles and it also has significant effects on bird populations and beetles.” 

Even if they’re ‘necessary’, don’t these culls employ needlessly brutal methods?

The film contains graphic imagery of kangaroo culls.

“I’ve seen how these hunting work, I don’t exactly like what I see, but I understand that it’s part of this industry, just like it is in the sheep and cattle industry,” Lindenmayer said. “My experience is that the people inovolved in culls are expert marksmen, and do everything they can to ensure a clean quick kill.”

In response to the claim the film depicts joeys “beaten to death” to save bullets, Lindenmayer said “I have never seen that, I’ve never seen farmers or officials do that. And I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’ve never seen it.” 

“The quotas are strongly set, by repeated surveys, extensive work is done on what the upper and lower numbers of a cull can be, and then the numbers of animals taken are almost always on the lower end. My experience is it’s one of the best regulated meat based natural resource industries in the world, in terms of the science that underpins it.”