Wildlife activists seek kangaroo import ban. They want to dry up market for skins so Australia will tighten laws on killing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Britain, eight running-shoe manufacturers have stopped using kangaroo leather in their products. The European Community Parliament, meanwhile, slapped a partial ban on the import of kangaroo skins in September, and a bill introduced in the United States Congress calls for even more stringent controls.

These efforts reflect the growing push by a fervent coalition of environmentalists and animal- rights advocates against one of the largest commercial wildlife harvests in the world.

Nearly 3 million kangaroos will be killed in Australia this year for commercial uses. Others will be hunted illegally or eliminated as agricultural pests.

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Australian officials consider it ``culling'' and say it is necessary. They argue that kangaroos over-populate many parts of the country and compete with cattle and sheep for pasture - points hotly disputed by critics.

The killing of kangaroos has long stirred controversy inside Australia, where the marsupial is a cherished national symbol. Activists now want to make it an international issue as well.

``The mainstay of the industry is the export market,'' says Lorraine Thorne, an organizer with Greenpeace International based in London. ``So we believe the most effective approach is to make the international community aware of their involvement in the slaughter.''

Greenpeace is orchestrating the international campaign, including last year's drive against running-shoe companies. In that case, the environmental lobbying group wrote to firms in Britain, showing them an advertisement that they planned to produce naming shoe companies that use kangaroo.

``[The firms] had an opportunity to stop their name from being associated with kangaroo skin, and they took it,'' says Ms. Thorne. Indeed, four of the companies - including Nike and New Balance - have vowed to make their products ``kangaroo free'' worldwide.

A consumer campaign is also being prepared for the US. In January, the International Wildlife Coalition based in Falmouth, Mass., will publish a booklet listing US companies that use kangaroo skin in their products.

``Many products aren't labeled `kangaroo skin,' so it's taking a lot of investigation on our part to pinpoint the items,'' says Marian Newman, the coalition's Washington-based program director.

Australia earns about $10 million a year from its kangaroo trade, most of it from skins exported to Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. The leather is used in everything from handbags to baseball gloves. A much smaller market has developed for kangaroo meat, which is sold as a delicacy in some parts of the world.

John Clune, a spokesman for the Australian Embassy in Washington, says, ``We just can't accept the argument that the larger species which are hunted commercially are in any way endangered'' by the culling program.

Australian officials estimate that there are at least 19 million of the three largest species of kangaroos. These three - the red, eastern gray, and western gray kangaroos - are the primary targets of hunters.

The group of animals typically referred to as ``kangaroos'' includes 48 different species, ranging from human-sized red kangaroos to tiny rat kangaroos.

It's the methods of the killing, as much as the hunt itself, that has stirred controversy.

Films produced for European, US, and Japanese television use graphic footage to show how the animals are spotlighted at night, then killed with a shot to the head. Australian officials contend that much of the information distributed abroad plays on emotions.

``I don't know if there's any nice way to kill an animal,'' Mr. Clune says, ``but we say it must be done - so we should do it as humanely as possible.'' Without the commercial harvest, he says, farmers and ranchers would be forced to use cheaper, less humane methods, such as poisoning water holes.

The international campaign against kangaroo killing is being tailored to suit different countries. In Britain, a nation with historic ties to Australia, there's heavy emphasis on the coming Australian bicentennial. The slogan: ``200 years of slaughter isn't something to celebrate.''

Meanwhile, the European Parliament earlier this fall approved a measure that would ban the import of 45 species of kangaroo and put the three large species onto a special list. The large animals could still be imported, but extensive monitoring of the trade would be required.

In the US, the focus is on a bill in Congress that would ban the import of all kangaroo products. In 1974, the US Fish and Wildlife Service put the three largest species on the Threatened Species List and banned all imports. The ``threatened'' list is one step down from the ``endangered'' list.

Under heavy pressure from the Australian government, the US lifted the ban in 1981. At the time, the Reagan administration said that the Australians had implemented an effective kangaroo management plan.

Under the plan, each Australian state develops its own program which must then be approved by federal officials. Last year, activists against the kangaroo killing challenged Queensland's management plan before an administrative appeals tribunal and succeeded in getting it proclaimed invalid. Activists are challenging Queensland's program again this year.

Opponents of the kangaroo harvest expect an uphill fight. Kangaroo killing has a long history in Australia. Plus, the industry is strongly supported by influential ranching and farming interests.

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