Australia's kangaroo leather and meat industry thrives

But a generation who grew up with 'Skippy,' a Lassie-like show about kangaroos, is fighting to protect them.

A three-quarter moon is rising, and a light breeze is building, causing the waist-high spheres of "rolly polly" grass to shimmy across the dry grass plain.

But for David Burke, professional kangaroo shooter, it's a far from inspiring scene. "These conditions are less than ideal," groans Mr Burke. The brawny father of three has been hunting "roos" professionally on and off since he turned 18.

The moon is too bright. Together with the breeze it will make the kangaroos skittish. And with his pay based on weight – about 12 cents a pound – that means Burke has a long night ahead of him.

For all his gripes, though, by 4 a.m., Burke shot 28 kangaroos and a wild boar, netting himself more than $300.

It may still draw the ire of animal-rights groups, but Australia's $128-million-a-year kangaroo meat and leather industry is thriving. A byproduct of government efforts to control the hopping herbivores, the industry won a record quota of 6.9 million kangaroos this year as a result of aerial surveys showing a healthy 60 million kangaroos.

"The last few years have been very good years," says John Kelly, head of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.

Australia has always had a strange relationship with its marsupial icon. It celebrates the kangaroo on its coat of arms, and whole generations grew up in the 1960s and 1970s tuning in the television to "Skippy," a Lassie-like kangaroo.

Yet they are treated as pests by farmers, who complain that they compete with sheep for feed and run amok in crops. And drivers across the outback abandon the road come sundown for fear of hitting one.

More peculiarly, perhaps, in the past decade, Australians have begun eating kangaroos. They still haven't made it into supermarkets en masse; many Australians still get queasy at the idea of biting into a "Skippy" steak. But celebrity chefs now regularly tout the leanness and gamy flavor of the meat.

That interest in kangaroo as a culinary treat – think Australian for venison – followed the overturning in the early 1990s of state laws banning its sale for human consumption.

The gradual change in public attitudes hasn't stopped animal-rights groups from waging war on the industry.

In Britain, VIVA, a vegetarian group, succeeded in getting kangaroo meat banned from supermarkets. Earlier this year, it began a campaign to get David Beckham, captain of England's soccer team, to stop wearing cleats made out of kangaroo skin.

"It's the most brutal, terrible industry," says Maryland Wilson, a VIVA ally who for years has been one of the kangaroo industry's most vocal critics in Australia. "The kangaroo is an iconic animal. It's the symbol of Australia. But it's a bloodied symbol."

As a result of the criticism, the kangaroo industry remains notoriously touchy, and meat wholesalers avoid telling too much about where their products end up. But the industry says it is bound by strict standards that make all of the killing humane.

All animals have to be shot in the head – the main reason licensed shooters like Burke get so frustrated when conditions conspire against them. As a result, kangaroo shooting is now a job for professionals with exacting standards.

"We've really gone to a lot of trouble to clean our act up and get rid of the cowboys," says Ray Davis, the managing director of Australian Meats, a kangaroo wholesaler and exporter.

There are still diverging views about the industry beyond the animal-rights lobby, though.

David Croft, a kangaroo expert at the University of New South Wales, argues that harvesting kangaroos has increased their numbers rather than controlling the population.

By targeting large males over the years, he says, shooters have raised the percentage of the population that is female and its overall ability to reproduce.

"You could do nothing over a fair amount of the more arid range lands, and you would do no worse," he says.

It's also unclear how many kangaroos there really are in Australia, Mr. Croft argues. Aerial surveys are flawed, and as a result, the real population, he says, is really somewhere between 20 million and 60 million, too wide a band to allow educated decisions about controlling it.

Even Burke has his reservations about the quotas. He shoots up to 5,000 Kangaroos a year and has noticed changes in the makeup of the mobs of kangaroos he runs into.

He still sees as many as he saw two decades ago when he was starting out. But, he says, they are consistently smaller than they used to be. "I'd still like to be shooting roos in five or 10 years," he explains.

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