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Living with the ups and downs of kangaroos

Kangaroos in Australian mythology: from left, a bush kangaroo, Olympics 2000 boxing kangaroo, and Splodge from “Blinky Bill”. Photo: Clive Williams

“Whimsy” columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS share some of the positives and negatives of living with our big-footed friends, the kangaroos…

KANGAROOS are a contentious topic in Canberra. Some see our national symbol as a threat to their vehicles, while others see them as unfortunate victims of Canberra’s expansion. 

Columnist Clive Williams.

Kangaroos are the largest species in the family “macropodidae” (macropod meaning large foot). Intermediate size macropods are called “wallaroos”, and smaller ones “wallabies”. There are about 70 macropod species, with many of the smallest species in danger of extinction. 

The largest kangaroos are the red kangaroo, eastern grey kangaroo, western grey kangaroo and antilopine kangaroo. The eastern grey is the most common kangaroo in Canberra. Canberra is also home to common wallaroos (the males are black and females pale grey). Kangaroos have adapted much better than their smaller cousins to human land-clearing and other habitat changes.  

Kangaroos are the only large animals to use hopping as a means of locomotion. Comfortable hopping speed for a kangaroo is about 20–25 km/h. They can accelerate up to 70 km/h over short distances, and hop at 40 km/h for two kilometres – but they can’t go backwards. 

Kangaroos are shot throughout Australia for meat, hides, to keep them off grazing land and roads, and in Canberra to reduce their numbers. Kangaroo meat has perceived health benefits for human consumption compared to traditional meats due to its low-fat content. 

Because of its grazing habits, the kangaroo has developed specialised teeth. Silica in grass is abrasive, so kangaroo molars are ground down and move forward in the mouth before they eventually fall out and are replaced by new teeth that grow from the back. Among mammals, only kangaroos, elephants and manatees have this capability. 

Unlike cattle and sheep, kangaroos release almost no methane. Scientists are interested in the possibility of transferring the bacteria responsible for this process from kangaroos to cattle, since the greenhouse gas effect of methane is 23 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. There’s also interest in crossing sheep with kangaroos; the aim of course is to produce woolly jumpers. 

Kangaroos are shy and retiring by nature, and in normal circumstances present no threat to humans.  

In 2003, Lulu, an eastern grey that had been hand-reared, saved a farmer’s life by alerting family members to his location when he was injured by a falling tree branch. On May 19, 2004, it received the RSPCA Australia National Animal Valour Award. 

Some causes for erratic or dangerous kangaroo behaviour include panic, injury, illness, extreme thirst, and hunger. The only reliably documented case of a human fatality from a kangaroo attack occurred in NSW in 1936. A hunter was killed when he tried to retrieve his two dogs that had attacked a large kangaroo.  

Nine out of 10 vehicle/animal collisions in Australia involve kangaroos.  Kangaroos grazing by the roadside at night can be dazzled by headlights or startled by engine noise and leap in front of vehicles. Since kangaroos can weigh up to 90 kilograms, the impact can be severe, killing the kangaroo, badly damaging the vehicle, and potentially injuring the occupants.  

The female kangaroo is permanently pregnant, except on the day she gives birth. She can “freeze” the development of an embryo in times of drought and in areas with poor food sources. During a dry period, males will not produce sperm, and females will conceive only if green vegetation is plentiful. 

Large kangaroos have no natural predators, but younger ones and smaller species may be killed by dingoes, foxes, feral cats, and dogs –  domestic and feral. 

Whether culling is necessary in Canberra to control kangaroo numbers is questionable. Kangaroos control their numbers themselves relative to the availability of food. Much of the kangaroo/vehicle problem in Canberra is due to suburban encroachment into areas where kangaroos have always existed.  

How best then to reduce collisions with kangaroos when they’re most active at night? 

The range of vehicle headlights on low beam is around 40 metres and on high beam around 100 metres. If you’re travelling at 80 km/h with a fast reaction time of one second, the average stopping distance is 60 metres (but for two seconds it’s 80 metres). It’s therefore prudent to drive well below the speed limit on some of Canberra’s roads at night, particularly where there are kangaroos visible, dead kangaroos by the roadside, or nature reserves bordering the road. 

Note that vehicle-mounted “kangaroo whistles” are ineffective for preventing collisions with kangaroos. Tests have shown that kangaroos don’t react to the high frequency sound they emit.  

Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist.


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2 Responses to Living with the ups and downs of kangaroos

Robyn Soxsmith says: July 20, 2021 at 2:16 pm

Oh dear Clive what a contradiction. Female kangaroos, just like human females, can be permanently pregnant, ie capable of carrying a baby. However kangaroos conceive only ONCE a year, ie give birth. Kangaroos have evolved over millions of years to be perfectly adapted for Australia’s cycles of drought, fire and rain. As you have mentioned when food and water are scare they do not conceive.

Having lived in the “bush capital” for nearly 40 years, it astounds me that collisions with wildlife have still not adequately been addressed, ultimately leaving the cost to be borne by motorists through increased insurance premiums.

Experience from overseas clearly shows that the construction of wildlife bypasses, fencing and speed limits with flashing lights at wildlife crossing zones do work to reduce accidents.

When it comes to savings thousands in potential damages, motorists who live in and around wildlife crossing zones should consider aftermarket add-on collision warning systems. The systems work using either infrared or forward looking radar systems that detect not only other vehicles and people, but animals ahead.

It’s worth noting that reports by insurance companies show that single vehicles accidents including those involving wildlife are mainly due to vehicle speed. As they say, the best defence is a good offence. Drivers should be stay alert, avoid hot spots, and reduce speed at dawn, shortly before dusk, and hours after sunset are simple and effective ways to reduce the chance of a collision.

If Canberrans want to continue to enjoy the benefits of living in the “bush capital” then the ACT Government needs to seriously and urgently implement wildlife crossing structures, together with introducing driver awareness, as a means to reduce the impact of wildlife collisions and thereby saving lives (human and animal).

Robyn Soxsmith

Yana says: July 24, 2021 at 10:48 am

Well said Robyn. Canberra boasts about being a smart, planned city. The only one in Australia. Pity they stopped short of this mid last century! We all know that visibility deteriorates more than 50% at night when travelling East in the mornings or West early evenings. So why don’t our speed limits reflect this very obvious fact. Planting grasses or native food plants along median strips and road shoulders has got to be the most incompetent idea of most planning and roads designers. They should be fired! We are intelligent enough to design roads and suburbs that will encourage wildlife to harmoniously live together. Change speed speed limits to reflect the changing risks of safety, enforced through average speed cameras, stop planting vegetation on road sides and median strips, create overpasses for humans and animals to join up parks and reserves to avoid road ways. Gosh we don’t even design bike paths adequately. When are we going to get smart about urban planning and road design! When are we going to design “smart” planned city spaces again? Seriously, it’s not rocket science 🤦🏻‍♀️


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