Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 36 
A Mysterious Disease (part I)
‘Millions’ of kangaroos missing in far west New South Wales
Photo: David Brooks
An extraordinary piece in the The Australian on December 28th, to the effect that, at some point in the twelve months between the 2016 and the 2017 estimates of the overall kangaroo population – estimates drawn up in order to arrive at a ‘harvest’ quota – a mysterious disease has killed off over three million kangaroos in far western New South Wales. Enough to have anyone who cares even remotely for kangaroos on the verge of panic. But should we panic? There are numerous things here that seem a little strange. Firstly, whoever is the source of the story (the infographic and certain other features seem to indicate that it has been written up from a press release; that it contains information from a representative of the NSW Department of Primary Industry suggests that that Department may be the source) appears to have determined the impact of this epidemic not from large numbers of rotting corpses of now rather long-deceased kangaroos (the story has appeared some twelve months after the supposed epidemic), but from a surprising difference between the estimated 2016 kangaroo population and the 2017 count (done, according to this article in The Australian, by visually marking each kangaroo they see ‘by using video-game controllers’).
Over three million kangaroos in far western NSW appear to have gone missing. That they have done so because a mysterious disease has killed them all would seem to be a matter of assumption rather than fact. Certainly this piece presents us with very few facts at all.
It seems curious, for example, that the piece is accompanied, not by a photograph of a large number of kangaroos lying dead in the wild – indeed, not even of a single kangaroo lying dead – but of a man (Dr Greg Curran) holding a section of a kangaroo’s spine. Perhaps no photographs of roos dead or dying from the reported disease were available. A very odd thing though, wouldn’t you think? if the number of deaths was as massive as the article reports.
There was an outbreak of a mysterious disease in late September/early October 2016. The ABC Rural page reported on it on December 1st 2016, in a piece entitled ‘Mystery roo deaths in far west NSW baffle authorities’ (that word ‘baffle’ comes up repeatedly, like a signature). Once again it was Dr Curran who was interviewed for the piece. ‘Hundreds of kangaroos have been found dead in far west New South Wales’, that piece began (my emphasis), ‘from what has been described as a “mystery disease”.’
‘The reports we're getting’, Dr Curran told the ABC, ‘are that people might be seeing five to 10 animals and some people are seeing 40-50 animals. … If they're seeing that, it suggests there could be between 100-500 dead in any particular area.’
One hundred to five hundred dead in any particular area sounds pretty bad, but it does not sound as if it’s going to add up to three million. In fact it sounds as if it might not get to one thousand. Certainly the NSW Department of Primary Industry’s deputy chief veterinarian, who was also interviewed for the ABC piece, did not think the numbers significant enough to launch a full investigation. ‘During October, the Department of Primary Industry received reports of approximately 200 red and grey kangaroo deaths,’ she said.
‘There's not a lot to go on.’
The death of even two hundred kangaroos from a mysterious disease – from any disease – is tragic, and a concern for us all (please don’t get me wrong!) but the true mystery here does not seem to be the disease itself, so much as the figure of three million that the (unspecified) source of the press release has come up with.
It is particularly odd, don’t you think? That, while, in September/October 2016, there were people on the ground reporting the deaths of 10, 50, 200 kangaroos, it appears the subsequent death of three million managed to go almost totally unreported.
But that’s enough to think about for now. This subject will be revisited in a later post.