Heston Blumenthal prepares the tail with saffron, red wine and amaranth. Rene Redzepi served it in a broth with snow crab at Noma's Sydney pop-up. At Melbourne's Attica, acclaimed as Australia's best restaurant, Ben Shewry pairs it with bunya bunya.
Chefs love kangaroo meat for its flavour and texture. Enthusiasts hail it as a distinctively Australian product, low in fat, high in iron and kinder to the environment than grazing livestock.
Though it has been embraced by fine diners, curious tourists and the ecologically conscious, less than 60 per cent of Australians have tried it.
The commercial kangaroo industry is looking to expand, including to Asian markets. Graziers want kangaroo numbers controlled. But animal welfare advocates oppose the slaughter as cruel, and say farmers need more support to manage kangaroos without killing.
As NSW's greyhound racing ban and the outcry over live exports attest, the community is concerned about animal welfare.The fate of joeys orphaned by the commercial harvest has long been a source of disquiet – and a persuasive platform on which opponents lobby against the industry.
But others argue that without the harvest, more kangaroos would be dispatched less humanely – by non-professionals, without the industry's standards or regulation. They see it as a vicious circle: the animal rights movement affects investment and consumer demand, resulting in a smaller commercial industry, more kangaroos and more potential cruelty.
"The RSPCA's always been quite clear that we think the majority of cruelty is occurring outside the commercial industry, because there's no one watching," says the organisation's chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones.
Few wildlife issues are as controversial as managing kangaroos; finding a solution that satisfies pastoralists, conservationists and the industry has been an intractable problem for decades.
It may seem paradoxical, but could harvesting kangaroos be the way to safeguard them?
George Wilson, Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University's Fenner School of Environment and Society, says kangaroo welfare "is an extremely important part of management". But while some people just consider the welfare of individual animals on a day-to-day basis, others are also concerned about "the long-term survival of the species in the landscapes on which they depend".
In 1970, Wilson became the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service's first kangaroo officer. He now has a wildlife management consultancy and says co-operatives of landholders, working with the commercial industry and sharing profits, would improve land management, biodiversity and, ultimately, the welfare of kangaroos.
"It would change their status from being a pest on agricultural properties to being a component of the production system," he says. "Landholders would have a vested interest in not only the kangaroos but the habitat the kangaroos prefer ... which then brings a whole lot of other biodiversity benefits. The welfare of both individual kangaroos and the species as a whole would be enhanced."
'These joeys are seen as collateral damage'
If Australia has a brand, it is the kangaroo; its very uniqueness is one reason the iconic marsupial is defended so passionately. But many farmers despair when mobs move onto their land.
Sixth-generation farmer Michael Green used to see mobs of 10 or 20 kangaroos on his property near Cooma. After a few good seasons "it's not unusual now to see 100".
He plants crops to sustain his sheep and cattle through winter but says "the moment you try to shut a paddock up, hundreds of kangaroos will come in and strip your paddock overnight. Overgrazing from these kangaroo populations is putting farms permanently in drought. It just becomes a downward spiral. Farms go broke."
As protected native fauna, kangaroos can only legally be killed with government approval, under damage mitigation permits or as part of the commercial harvest.
Four species are harvested in the wild, in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, from a sustainable quota set between 15 and 20 per cent of the population. Last year 1.6 million kangaroos – 20 per cent of the quota – were taken from a population of 49 million.
Orphaned young are meant to be euthanised under methods outlined in the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies. For furless pouch joeys, it's a blow to the base of the skull or stunning, then decapitation. Furred joeys should be killed with a blow to the head, while at-foot joeys – out of the pouch, but dependent on their mothers – should be shot.
"It's a gruesome fate and these joeys are seen as collateral damage," Louise Boronyak says. The manager of THINKK, the think tank for kangaroos at the University of Technology, Sydney, she says people are surprised by what happens to joeys and the scale of the harvest: "It's the largest commercial killing of land-based wildlife anywhere on the planet."
As government bodies do not routinely monitor shooters in the field, Boronyak says it is impossible to verify that joeys are killed humanely and all adult kangaroos head-shot as per the code.
In 2014 the federal government's Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation released a report on improving the humaneness of the commercial harvest. The researchers saw harvesters stamp on furless joeys and the heads of larger joeys swung against a rock, ute racks and trays or hit with an iron bar. At-foot joeys were let go, leaving them vulnerable to starvation, dehydration and predation.
"This is legalised, inherent, government-sanctioned cruelty being inflicted on our national icon every night," the president of the Australian Society for Kangaroos, Nikki Sutterby, says. "[If it happened to] another animal, people would be prosecuted for animal cruelty. But the government says that it's OK to do this night after night to thousands of joeys. Why are there different standards?"
Harvesters wanted to minimise suffering and felt pressure from animal protection groups and the public not to kill joeys, the researchers said. But they emphasised that at-foot joeys suffered if left to fend for themselves and that from the animals' perspective, blunt trauma to the head was the most humane way to euthanise smaller joeys.
The report's call to standardise euthanasia methods and train harvesters to use them is backed by the RSPCA, which has pushed since 2014 for a review of the code. Despite being due for review in 2013, it has not been updated to reflect the latest research. National kangaroo managers will discuss a review in September.
'Nothing will change as long as farmers consider kangaroos as a pest'
To address the issue of orphaned joeys, the kangaroo industry moved towards a male-only harvest from 2012. But according to data from state governments, more than 250,000 females were still harvested nationally in 2014 and 2015 meaning an estimated 215,000 joeys were killed.
The RSPCA wants research into the impacts of a male-only harvest on population dynamics and landholder behaviour. "The jury's still out on whether [it] is actually an improvement in welfare," Dr Bidda Jones says.
There are concerns that if landholders don't think enough kangaroos are being removed, more people would shoot them – but without the competency tests and head-shot-only enforcement of commercial shooting. Jones also fears a rise in other inhumane methods of killing, such as barrier fencing and closure or poisoning of water points.
Damage mitigation permits are issued when landholders assert that kangaroos are a problem. Instead, Jones says, they should be based on evidence that kangaroo grazing pressure is damaging the environment and livestock are being managed efficiently, with trials and evaluation to prove culling is justified and effective.
"Nothing will change as long as farmers consider kangaroos as a pest," she says. "Better understanding of the actual, rather than perceived, impacts of kangaroos and improved land management all round would go a long way to improving the situation."
The ASK's Nikki Sutterby points to scientific research – some going back decades – to argue the impact is overstated.
Studies have found kangaroos contribute much less to grazing pressure than assumed and rarely visit crops or compete with sheep except when food is scarce.
According to a government research analysis, grazing systems where kangaroos feed alongside livestock, "are more productive and ecologically sound". There was "little convincing evidence of substantial damage by kangaroos to crops, pastoral production or rangelands" and "scant evidence that harvesting (or culling) controls numbers or mitigates alleged damage", except very locally.
Sutterby says government departments should work with landholders, informing them about the research available on kangaroos and farming "because there is no credible evidence ... that kangaroos are the pests they're portrayed to be or that killing them in these massive numbers is actually leading to any benefits".
Louise Boronyak says kangaroos are often "the fall guy for a range of mismanagement or different grazing pressures". She also believes government should do more to support farmers in non-lethal management such as using wildlife-friendly fencing and audio-visual deterrents.
Kangaroos are more valuable to tourism than for their meat and skins, she says. She wants to see "severe restrictions" on shooting and "more programs that foster co-existence with our wildlife".
'Let's just accept they're a resource'
Dr Peter Ampt lectures in natural resource management at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Agriculture and Environment. Like George Wilson, he thinks landholders collaborating with the industry would improve management of kangaroos.
"Nothing's going to stop them being shot," he says. "Let's just accept they're a resource; let's accept there's a market for them. If consumers had the message that farmers were working with the industry, the harvest was humane ...[and it] helped the farmers manage their land better both for profit and for biodiversity, all of that would be a good story for the industry and far better for the welfare of kangaroos and the management of land."
In Scotland, the income from hunting gives landholders an incentive to protect iconic wild deer and their habitat. In the same way, Wilson says, Australian farmers whose land supports kangaroos "need to have an active interest in safeguarding kangaroo well-being. That is more likely to happen if the industry thrives and kangaroos are valuable."
Wilson says more research is needed to inform investment and development opportunities. The animal rights lobby – which saw kangaroo meat removed from British supermarkets and a reimposed ban on kangaroo products in California – has affected "the decisions of large investors and corporate agriculture who could put money into better management of kangaroos. Many landholders and potential investors don't want to know about the opportunity because it's seen to be high-risk."
Compared to beef and lamb production, the kangaroo industry is small. Exports, mainly to Europe, were worth $20 million last year.
Ray Borda, the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia president and founder of processor Macro Meats, says if markets were expanded, kangaroos would be worth more and farmers could share in returns. "They'll be guarding them with their lives," he says.
Borda describes kangaroo meat as "a step above organic", with animals harvested in their own environment. "The world wants a clean, green, natural product," he says. "We've got a lot going for us, but unfortunately you've got the opponents whose whole quest is to cloud what we're doing.
"If we're really concerned about the welfare of kangaroos, let's work together. I accept that we have to have animal welfare as our No. 1 [priority]. They just need to accept that we are the best way forward."
With no commercial harvesting around Cooma, grazier Michael Green has a permit to shoot up to 200 kangaroos on his property. The carcasses rot in the paddocks, scavenged by feral pests.
"There's a hungry world out there," he says. "We have a very valuable source of food here that's just being wasted."