FEATURE - Australia's losing battle against wild pests
Author: Michael Perry
The kangaroo sits upright, dazzled by the light. Seconds later a crack from a rifle breaks the silent night air. The "roo" slumps to the ground dead, blood streaming from its head.
The deadly ritual is repeated every few minutes until 15 "roos" lay dead in the paddock near Narrandera in Australia's drought-stricken western New South Wales state.
The corpses are slung on hooks on the hunter's truck and butchered under the stars, using a small chainsaw, bolt-cutter and knives. The meat is destined for pet food. The intestines, feet and head are left in the dirt for foxes and crows to devour.
Evidence of the carnage will be gone in days, but with hundreds of "roos" still in nearby paddocks the night-time culling will continue.
This is the life of Australia's professional kangaroo shooter, damned by environmentalists but praised by farmers for ridding them of one of their biggest pests - the kangaroo.
Some 3.5 million kangaroos are culled each year, supporting a A$200 million ($112 million) industry based on the meat and skins, but numbers keep swelling. The kangaroo may be a national emblem, standing with pride on Australia's coat of arms, but with more than 58 million "roos" it is now in record plague proportions, damaging the environment and competing with livestock for scarce food.
With Australia in the grip of its worst drought in 100 years it is not only the kangaroo that is fighting for food, but also tens of millions of wild rabbits, pigs, foxes, camels, cats, goats and horses.
Australia has been invaded by at least 80 species of animals introduced since white settlement more than 200 years ago.
More than 30 of these species are now declared pests, causing economic losses totalling a conservative estimate of A$420 million (US$235 million), mainly in lost agricultural production, says the government's Bureau of Rural Sciences.
The hungry introduced animals contribute to land degradation, destroy native vegetation and cause soil erosion, reducing the number of sheep or cattle a farmer can carry on his land.
More than A$60 million a year is spent controlling the pests, and another A$20 million on pest control research.
The native kangaroos are not classed as feral pests so there have been no studies into the economic losses they cause.
But farmers say over-grazing by huge mobs of "roos" causes millions of dollars worth of damage to drought-hit pastures and robs starving sheep and cattle of much needed feed.
SPORT GONE WRONG
Australia's worst pest is the rabbit, introduced by a settler who released 24 into the wild for sport hunting.
In less than 100 years, the rabbits multiplied into the millions - leaving large areas of land looking like cratered moonscapes due to hundreds of rabbit burrows.
"The rate of spread of the rabbit in Australia was the fastest of any colonising mammal anywhere in the world," says the Bureau of Rural Sciences.
The release of the rabbit virus myxomatosis in 1950 temporarily cut numbers but it was not until 1997 and the release of another disease targeting the pests, calicivirus, that numbers were finally brought under control.
Farm losses due to rabbits today still total a staggering A$200 million a year and other pests continue to run rampant.
The European red fox, also released for sport hunting, is thriving and massacring sheep flocks, costing farmers A$40 million a year.
The state of Victoria offers a A$10 bounty for each fox tail and has gathered 25,000 in the space of a few months.
A glimmer of hope has come in the return to fashion of fox fur in Europe and China.
Last month, hunter Don McGilvray's tin shed in Narrandera was stacked to the roof with 23,000 fox skins destined for export.
"Foxes are one of the biggest threats to wildlife in Australia. Foxes kill thousands of lambs, birds and native wildlife," says McGilvray as he prepared for a night's kangaroo shooting around Narrandera.
PIGS DINE ON LAMB
Pigs were introd