It’s an iconic Australian sight – the solid dark mass of a dead wombat on the side of a dusty country road, one stout leg thrown up as if in warning to other animals.
One every now and then, sure, but the sheer number of roadkill deaths hit me as we drove from Canberra to my parents’ place with my brother last week – kangaroos and wombats in various stages of decay were clustered along the roadside in groups of four, five, six.
My family and I have just moved back to my hometown of Bega, NSW from Montana, a US state which has a strong culture of hunting [and has had a hunting season in effect since 1872!] a fact which means the native animal populations of common animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep there are kept in check.
There are, of course, roadkill deaths in Montana but a new scavenging law introduced a few years ago means that those who are hit are quickly moved off roadways – and eaten.
When we left Montana, the contents of our freezer included white wrapped packages labelled “roadkill buck,” meat that was gifted to us by a friend who saw a deer hit and salvaged it.
[Thanks to our friend Ben’s humour, we also had packages of meat in our freezer labelled “tender meat snake” (instead of the more conventional “backstrap” and “tenderloin”)]
“Were there always this many roadkill animals?” I asked my brother, wondering if three years away had caused me to gloss over the reality of the situation.
“Nah, it’s just really bad at the moment because of the drought,” Laurie answered.
It is dry. It’s not the driest I’ve seen this land, but the grass is shorn down to brown stubble and the creek makes a narrow path through its bed.
The dry is causing animals to roam further to find food and water, crossing more roads in the process.
Looking out the car window at the carnage, I can’t help but wonder: could Australia learn from Montana’s long history of managing its native animal populations?
On the same road we were travelling – the Snowy Mountains Highway – our mate Zac counted 200 dead roos one night this winter driving the 20 minutes between Canberra and Michalago.
“It was the combination of it being a Friday night and there being lots of snow traffic,” Zac said, “I stopped counting when I got to 200.”
Zac also told me that the owner of the Tathra caravan park had mentioned that her international visitors had been distraught at seeing so many roadkilled animals – the very animals they had come to see and hoped to see hopping and fluffy, not smeared on the highway.
Australia’s success as a tourism destination relies, at least in part, on healthy populations of native animals. But historically, white settlers have not been good stewards to native animals – the Tasmanian tiger was declared extinct in the early 1930’s, the result of overzealous hunting and koalas were taken to the brink of extinction, shot for their thick fur.
Australia protects by law the majority of native plants and animals. In my state, NSW, native animals are currently protected under the biodiversity conservation act of 2016.
But have we taken it too far?
Australians eat vast quantities of meat every year, more than any developed country in the world, according to the world economic forum website. Reading this, a gem from a permaculture course I took years ago in New Zealand floats to the top of my mind: the problem is the solution.
Although Aussies have come to terms with the idea of eating native animals [kangaroos are now hunted commercially and roo meat is commonly available in supermarkets and restaurants] the mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of harvesting the meat ourselves.
Roo meat is very similar to venison – lean and dark – but in recent years, I’ve not heard of anyone eating other Aussie animals.
Wombat, by folklore, is tough and chewy [there’s a song about wombat stew: “ewey gooey yummy chewy wombat stew”] and tales of early white settlers include despondent descriptions of living on nothing but pumpkin and bear [koala].
While we may not be able to do anything to make wombat taste good, a roadkill salvage culture and the associated laws or indeed, a huntings season similar to Montana’s would at least save some kangaroo meat from being wasted.
Meanwhile, good people ease the suffering of animals by doing clean up on our roads, rescuing infant kangaroos and wombats from the pouches of their road killed mothers and euthanizing where necessary.
This morning we went to see an old family friend, Pauline, who is 76 and a very busy volunteer with WIRES, a wildlife rescue organization.
Pauline has five babies in her care, four kangaroos and one wombat, which she keeps in woolly shoulder bags to mimic a pouch.
Pauline’s orphans were rescued out of their mother’s pouches or found wandering on their own but still needing milk to survive. Once they hit the magic weight of six kilos, they will be weaned and released onto the bush property of another WIRES volunteer and eventually into the wild.
The work that Pauline and her fellow volunteers do is pressing right now [she said WIRES takes in several new animals every day in this region] and her access to these cuddly animals delighted my American tourist children, who, two weeks into our time in Australia, still shriek every time they see a kangaroo or wombat.
But the work of WIRES doesn’t address the overall problem – which is that the populations of these animals continue to grow in good seasons unchecked, leaving a large population to die slowly when the drought inevitably returns [Australia has a shortage of native predators, with birds of prey and the dingo at the top of the chain].
Native animals are officially protected in Australia, but the way I see it, we’re not doing everything we can to protect them.
But we can – we have hardworking scientists at our disposal who could come up with a sustainable solution for kangaroo and wombat populations which would thrill animal lovers, meat lovers and your car insurance company in equal parts.
Thanks for reading!