Kangaroos Invading Australian Cities as Drought Worsens

Stephanie Peatling
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2007
Australia's worst drought in a hundred years is driving its kangaroos into cities in search of food and water, experts say.

In Canberra, referred to as the Bush Capital for its pockets of parklands scattered throughout the city, residents encounter the common sight of eastern gray kangaroos on the streets.

(Related: Kangaroo Attacks in Australia Spotlight Growing Turf War" [May 6, 2005].)

After several years of dry conditions, vegetation has been grazed down to nothing—leading to the unusual spectacle of kangaroos hopping around the lush grounds of the lakeside home of Australia's Governor General, Sir Michael Jeffery.

Canberra's urban kangaroo sightings have been complemented by reports of greater numbers of kangaroos in other cities and towns in the southeast of Australia, apparently driven there in search of food. (See a map of Australia.)

Country 'Roo, City 'Roo

Brendan Mackey, director of of the Australian National University's WildCountry research unit, says it is "quite logical" to see more kangaroos moving into urban areas seeking sustenance.

"The kangaroo's biology is geared to take advantage of the good times," Mackey said. "So when times are good they reproduce and are very fecund. When the signals turn negative they stop."

Droughts cause a competition for scarce resources, so when times start to get tough, kangaroos compete with sheep and cattle for food and water, Mackey said.

The outskirts of Canberra and other major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne still have relatively plentiful resources—without the other competitors that are usually found in the bush.

"Because Australia naturally has a boom and bust environment, you have large droughts and flooding rains. From year to year rainfall is quite unreliable. In order for an animal to live in this environment they have to have a strategy to survive," Mackey said.

Military Manuevers

On the edges of Canberra, kangaroos have posed such a problem at two Australian Department of Defense training sites that the department wants to do a planned hunt of the animals. (Related: "Birth Control for Kangaroos: Scientists' Population Control Plan" [September 6, 2006].)

"Kangaroos are impacting endangered ecological communities, which include several threatened species, and there are strong indications that many kangaroos will soon starve unless numbers there are reduced,'' said Russell Watkinson, the director of Australia's Parks, Conservation and Lands.

The kangaroos' search for food led them to land used for training defense personnel.

That land is also home to two threatened species of lizards. The lizards are going hungry because of lack of food, and reduced vegetation makes them easy pickings for predators.

"There is strong evidence that some of these threatened species have declined where there has been excessive grazing, [though] they have remained healthy in comparable areas where grazing pressure is controlled," Watkinson said.

It's not just kangaroos that move in search of sustenance.

Native birds have also been observed to travel large distances for better foraging, Mackey said, said the unknown factor is how they know when and where to go.

No one knows when the drought will break, but Mackey said kangaroos will be ready to adapt to any changed conditions, whether good or bad.

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