With record high prices being paid, recently-opened commercial kangaroo harvest zones are expected to offset the impact of reduced and suspended harvest quotas on the industry.
The state's annual survey, conducted between June and October last year, found 2020 numbers had dropped about 20 per cent from the year before, leading to the "quite rare" decision to suspend harvest quotas on some species in several sub-regions.
This follows several years of decreasing populations, with National Parks and Wildlife Services regional operations director Stuart Paul saying seasonal conditions were behind the drop.
He said as recently as 2016, the population in the original commercial harvest area was estimated to be about 5 million kangaroos, but the latest figures, covering the expanded area, suggest the population is about 2.8m.
Processor Ray Borda, Macro Meats, said the new commercial harvest zones, which expanded at the start of 2020 to include the Adelaide Hills, Yorke and Fleurieu peninsulas and the South East, had been the industry's "saviour".
He said dry conditions in the north encouraged kangaroos to move south, into the new regions.
But while numbers were down, he expects to see them jump up again quickly, following rain.
As soon as we get rain up north, we do see a pretty rapid increase in kangaroo populations.
"The numbers were knocked around in the drought but we're already seeing a lot of does with twins - that tells us the numbers are going to bounce back," he said.
"The survey can't count joeys in the pouch."
Kangaroo Management Reference Group harvester representative Chad Cowin said the decision to open up the new areas was a "long time coming" for landholders and industry, and should offset the suspensions.
Mr Paul said the kangaroo population was generally one of "boom and bust".
He said the population survey had been going in SA since the 1970s, making it one of the longest-running data sets in the nation.
"We've got nearly 50 years of kangaroo population data across the state and we do see a clear correlation between season conditions and boom and bust," he said.
"As soon as we get rain up north, we do see a pretty rapid increase in kangaroo populations."
With evidence the statewide kangaroo population has dropped about 20 per cent in the past 12 months, so too has the SA commercial harvest quota, but there are variations in how this has been managed.
In some sub-regions, the quota for specific animals has been significantly reduced or even suspended altogether for 2021, including in Marla-Oodnadatta and Marree - outside the Dog Fence - for Red Kangaroos, and the North East Pastoral zone for Western Grey Kangaroos.
While the 2020 survey did not include these sub-regions, Mr Paul said working out the population also included some modelling to determine the quotas.
He said given the large size of the area to be counted, and the eight-week window that it is carried out in, not every sub-region could be counted each year.
But he said given recent trends and seasonal conditions, they were able to make assessments.
Mr Paul said there were cases where some sub-regions may have low numbers overall but had higher populations in certain areas, which could cause issues for landholders.
He said in these cases, there were other options available, such as non-commercial destruction permits or a special land management quota, which could allow a limited number to be commercially harvested, usually set at 1.5 per cent of the estimated population.
Mr Paul said there were a number of benefits in commercially harvesting a sustainable population.
"It's a win-win - it supports economies in regional areas, makes use of a resource that might otherwise be destroyed non-commercially and helps reduce total grazing pressure," he said.
Mr Paul said the harvest quota was generally set at 10pc of the estimated population within the harvest sub-regions.
While COVID-19 did have an impact on international meat markets, Mr Borda says he was surprised by the resilience of the market.
"I wouldn't call it strong, but I'd say we've got consistent orders," he said.
He said it was at the point where they were having trouble keeping up with demand, while the domestic market remained their base.
He likened the growth in value to the beef price - albeit a "fair way behind".
"Kangaroo is still in its infancy but lot of people still finding it," he said.
Mr Borda said they were doing their bit to grow the industry through making small goods and ready meals.
"It's introducing people to game meat," he said.
"Some people are scared because they don't know how to cook it, but with a ready meal, all they have to do is heat it, and if they like it, they can learn to cook.
"And it's working."
He said they were also trying to create value in the leather market by creating their own goods, while the pet food market had also boomed during COVID-19.
Macro Meats recently began a $4 million to $5m expansion of its plant, which Mr Borda says is a sign of his confidence in the industry.
He said they were also paying record prices.
"This time last year we may have paid $22 a kangaroo, now it's over $38," Mr Borda said. "The market is still there but we have to source 90pc of product interstate because there's not enough people working in SA."
Mr Cowin said with fuel prices "reasonable" and the meat price "as good as it's ever been", only tag costs were still an issue. He said prices were about $1.30 a kilogram, with anything above $1/kg quite good.
"I'd like to see prices stay where they are for a while longer," he said.
For the first time, Kangaroo Island will also be included in the commercial harvest zone, after its initial 2020 inclusion was suspended until a population survey could be done after the bushfires.
Mr Paul said prior to the fire, the kangaroo population had been about 150,000, with this back to 90,000, leading to a quota of 10pc for the Western Grey Kangaroos and 7pc for the Tammar Wallabies.
He said the 90,000 were predominantly located on the east end of the island.
"There are quite a number of primary producers that are suffering from significant total grazing pressure and do need support," he said.
Without the presence of commercial harvesters, he said numbers would have to be managed with non-commercial destruction permits.
Mr Cowin said he had doubts about if KI would ever take off as a harvest zone, given the extra freight and logistics in an industry with relatively small margins.
Mr Borda said his company would head to the island and "do our due diligence" to see what opportunities were available.
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