Kangaroos -- Too many -- or too few?

To pet a tame kangaroo in one of Australia's wildlife sanctuaries is to touch a gentle creature with the softest of fur. To have one take your outstretched palm in the paws of its strangely short front "arms" is to feel a sudden rush of affection. To see a tiny joey kick around inside his mother's pouch, then pop his head out for fresh air is to see a storybook animal come alive.

All ears, elbows, enormous hind legs, and whopping, balance-wheel tail, the adult kangaroo's labored, slow-motion walk is awkward, almost mechanical.Has a gigantic joke been perpetrated on these creatures, whose limbs are of such disproportionate lengths? But wait. As mamma "roo" bends forward to graze, vest-pocket junior is in exactly the right position to nibble also -- without even leaving home.

Once out of the pouch, young joey hangs around his mom for nearly a year, liking nothing better than to stand on his hind legs and playfully box with her.

When hunted down in the wild, adult roos, timid by nature and gentle in captivity, use their powerful hind feet to defend themselves ferociously.

Mrs. Kangaroo's pocket is rarely empty. While one young joey is still in and out of the pouch nursing, his baby brother or sister is simultaneously developing inside the pouch, partaking of a different formula that meets its particular needs from another nipple.

At the same time, a third offspring may well be in the wings, waiting to make its appearance as soon as the pipeline has cleared. The fertilized egg may remain dormant up to 200 days. This is one way these animals cope with prolonged drought. Once gestation begins, the process is rapid. Baby roo may be born within 30 days. Such delayed-action capability enables kangaroos to reproduce rapidly after a serious drought.

But however interesting and unusual, the kangaroo, like the human family, has become too prolific for its own good. Therein lies its predicament.

No matter how endearing they look, it's hard to love 30,000 kangaroos grazing on your property. Of course, sheep and cattle ranches on this driest of all continents are immense. Australian "stations" are huge tracts of land. In the state of Western Australia, they average 100,000 acres. Many are much larger. And experts agree that because of their differing tastes in grasses (there are 40-odd varieties), kangaroos and sheep do not compete for forage except in times of drought.

But sheep and cattle station owners complain that at times like the present, when the kangaroo population is officially estimated at about 32 million, roos are "everywhere." They even mooch on golf courses, oblivious of hurtling golf balls.

When they aren't wriggling under and through pasture fences, they easily vault over them. But they often forget about their fifth foot -- their big tail - which comes crashing down, breaking the top strand of barbed wire.

Their four-footed walk may be ungainly.But when kangaroos step on the gas, these high-speed hoppers, traveling in small groups or in mobs of up in the hundreds, can be a menace on the highways of the great outback. At a cruising hop of 35 miles an hour, they may dart out in front of cars, come tearing down the road toward oncoming motorists, hop along behind, or try to outrace them. Dazzled by headlights at night, they freeze on the road. Many residents of the outback go to the extra expense of installing a protective "roo bar" on the front of their cars.

It is the sheep ranchers, producers of the country's biggest export, who are pestered most by kangaroos. The tens of thousands of wells that ranchers have drilled to supply water for their flocks have encouraged the kangaroo population to flourish, opening up land that used to be too dry even for the kangaroo, which requires only a quarter as much water per body weight as sheep and wild goats.

So it isn't unusual -- especially during droughts -- to find a mob of kangaroos drinking at, walking through, and muddying watering holes intended for sheep. And when long- awaited rains finally fall, freshening up the grasslands, kangaroos can sense the moisture miles away. While sheep are migrating slowly with their little lambs, baby roos hop into their mobile homes and the mob shifts into high and zooms to greener fields.

For all these reasons, this national symbol is viewed by sheepmen as a national nuisance. As recently as 1974, the state of Western Australia classified the roo as vermin.

Until the save-the-world's-wildlife movement began gaining momentum in the 1960s, dealing with the kangaroo was no big deal for the people down under. Unrestrained by animal protective laws of any kind, they shot them, trapped them , and poisoned them by the hundreds of thousands.

Around 1900, Australia began exporting hides to the United States and the carcasses of slain kangaroos were no longer simply left in the outback. For 65 years, kangaroo leather was solely an item for the American market. In 1964, 1. 3 million hides entered this country. Only since '65 have the United Kigndom, France, Italy, West Germany, and Japan joined the trade, buying about half the Australian hides.

Kangaroo leather is lightweight but extremely strong and flexible, making it deal for comfortable, durable athletic footwear. While the hides are fashioned into high-quality ice hockey skates and shoes for football, track, and baseball, pelts wind up in fur coats.

A sausage and pet-food market also developed overseas for kangaroo meat. During the 1960s, when nearly 6 million pounds of it was being exported annually , Australian public indignation over kangaroo slaughter reached a peak.

Australia's Embassy in Washington reports that "much of the emotion and anger against the harvesting of kangaroos came from the methods employed by the professional shooters.

"Reports by conservationists and in the media consistently asserted that the shooters were obsessed only with making money quickly and that wounded animals were left to die in agony, their carcasses being collected on the return trip."

A reason offered for this was the need to keep the animal alive during the night so that its flesh would remain fresh until the carcass could be removed to a refrigerated box, usually some distance away. Also, it is said that if the carcass is still warm it is easier to skin the animal.

Following a 1969 meeting of the World League for Protection of Animals, a Kangaroo Protection Committee was formed in Australia. Its initial purpose was to combat "cruelty to kangaroos." The Sydney-based organization, now known as the Kangaroo Protection Co-operative Ltd., has since contended that the kangaroo is threatened with extinction.

In 1970, a Select Committee on Wildlife Conservation named by the Australian Parliament to investigate the problem noted that "the fact that this animal is slaughtered in large numbers for pet food is a moral issue for many people. Even if it could be proved that with proper management kangaroos are a sustainable resource, many would still oppose the killing of kangaroos for profit."

Testimony by wildlife scientists and state government departments agreed, that there was no basis for any claim that the three larger species were then under threat of extinction. But they conceded that there may have been "overharvesting" in some areas.

Opinion, the committee said, "ranges from that of extreme preservationists who do not want kangaroos shot under any circumstances to those who advocate exploitation of the kangaroo as a renewable economic resource."

The committee took a middle-road position, concluding it is the government's responsibility to conserve wildlife, but that when kangaroos reached pest proportions, controlled "harvesting" was justified and that not to make use of the carcasses would be wasteful. Therefore, the use of their meat and skins should be seen as a tool of management.

In 1973, largely through the efforts of the Kangaroo Protection Co-operative Ltd., Australia banned the export of all kangaroo products while the danger of extinction was being assessed. The worldwide trade was shut down completely. But the ban lacked support and was lifted a year later. By then, however, conservation programs had been started by Australian states, which have jurisdiction over kangaroo hunting.

Under these new rules, each of the five states where kangaroos are "harvested" set annual kill quotas which have to be approved by the central government. Quotas are tied to the number of large roos. How to count kangaroos then became an issue.

Meanwhile, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was drawn up in Washington by 88 nations to ensure international cooperation in controlling or preventing trade in threatened species. The agreement came into force in 1975, and '76 Australia became a full party to it, proposing that trade in large kangaroos be regulated and that nine smaller species be treated as endangered.

While these developments were taking place, the US Congress passed, in 1973, its Endangered Species Act. Under it, Washington has an obligation to ensure that American actions in no way contribute to threatening or endangering a species. This legislation automatically brought the whole issue of American trade in kangaroo hides into question.

Investigating the status of the kangaroo at that time, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the US Department of the Interior found that although no reliable estimates of kangaroo numbers were available from any state in Australia, every year the animals were being harvested in greater numbers.

The agency's studies centered on the three largest species: red, eastern gray , and western gray kangaroos. FWS concluded that: their habitat and range had been reduced by human settlement, agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and mining; their native vegetation had been seriously diminished in some areas; and "heavy commercial exploitation for hides and meat continues," despite the Australian export ban then in effect.

By 1973, the take of animals reaching the market had exceeded 2 million annually. "This exploitation level," FWS stated, "in combination with natural losses, suggests an annual mortality that may exceed the kangaroo's reproductive capacity."

On the administrative side, Fish and Wildlife found that Australia lacked scientific information and funds to manage kangaroo populations, and control and monitoring of the kangaroo harvest appeared to be "poor," with poaching common.

Additional investigations mitigated these findings somewhat. But in late '74 , about six weeks before Australia lifted its export ban, FWS listed the three kangaroos as "threatened" rather than "endangered" species. The distinction meant that these three species were considered not actually in danger of extinction but rather were "likely to become endangered."

FWS simultaneously imposed an import ban on the products of these three species. Conservationists on both sides of the Pacific, who had been campaigning for this US action, cheered.

Thus, since 1975 the words "genuine kangaroo leather" have vanished from the American market. The bottom dropped out of the kangaroo tanning trade in the U.S. It never was a big industry.

According to Laird H. Simons, president of the William Amer Company in Philadelphia, one of only two companies that used to handle kangaroo hides in the US, this leather "is a very inconsequential item in the leather and shoe industry here -- of high sigificance to a few firms but not of general moment to the industry."

Built into America's Endangered Species Act is a requirement that at least once every five years FWS review the status of each species listed as "endangered" or "threatened." At this writing, the agency is winding up its review of the red, eastern gray, and western gray kangaroo and considering what action, if any, the US should take. Its final "rulemaking" is expected shortly.

What has puzzled many people and alarmed kangaroo- watchers is that last June , Fish and Wildlife made public what appears to be a strangely contradictory proposal. It concluded that the kangaroos in question "remain threatened in Australia" and said, therefore, it intends to retain them in the "threatened" category under the Endangered Species Act. In the same breath, the agency proposed lifting the US ban for the next two years to permit commercial importation of kangaroo products, because "the Australian states have met the conditions for resuming commercial trade with the US. . . ."

John Paradiso, senior biologist in FWS's Offie of Endangered Species, explains that when the US imposed its import ban, "we stated that when the Australian states submitted to us evidence that they were managing these kangaroos properly . . . we would consider possibly lifting the ban.

"In the fall of '79, the Australian, states submitted to us their managerment plans. Their contention is that kangaroos have now reached epidemic proportions , that there are actually over 30 million kangaroos there. . . . There's a lot of anti- kangaroo sentiment among ranchers. When they get fed up with roos, they'll go out and shoot or poison them in mass killings. This is dangerous, because the government can't control it. State governments don't have enough money to control the kangaroo population themselves, so what they have done is to create a market for hides.

"They contend that if the US allows importation of hides, that money will go to professional shooters in Australia. By setting kill quotas, the government will control the number of kangaroos the shooters may take. The shooters will sell the skins of the animals, and the profit from that will support the hunters."

At the time the US ban was imposed, America was buying about half the supply of kangaroo hides. Its withdrawal from the trade has not halted the killing of kangaroos, but has thrown the world market in this commodity somewhat out of balance. There is currently a slowdown of hide purchases by other nations.

Here is the conundrum: Australia contends that the US import ban is having an adverse effect on the wildlife management system its states have set up to control kangaroo killing. Authorities there insist that if kangaroo proliferation is not contained in this manner, ranchers and farmers could once again take matters into their own hands and kill indiscriminately. Yet, conservationists insist that if America reenters the market, this will provide shooters monetary incentive to increase their kills.

Why is Fish and Wildlife retaining an animal on the US "threatened" list when it is claimed to exist in plague proportions?

Kangaroos, Mr. Paradiso explains, "have proved themselves to be very vulnerable t commercial exploitation and also to drought. . . . We want to keep them on as 'threatened' in case something unforeseen should occur. If in the next couple of years we see that the Australian states aren't living up to their commitment, if they are 'overkilling' kangaroos, or if a big drought should come and reduce the kangaroo population and the Australian states are not doing anything to protect them, then we can take immediate action to post a ban again.

"We're going to monitor this thing very closely over the next two years to see what has happened."

Nevertheless, this proposal by the director of Fish and Wildlife has sent conservation groups here and in Australia scurrying to their battle stations.

John W. Grandy, executive vice-president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group headquartered in Washington, warns: "If the government goes forward with its proposal to allow the import of threatened species into this country for commercial purposes for baseball mitts and all sorts of other things , we will certanly go to court to stop that. . . . We simply think that allowing the mass commercial exploitation of endangered or threatened species is absurd under our law."

The main purpose of the Endangered Species Act, Mr. Grandy points out, "is to restore to nonthreatened, nonendangered levels species which are either endangered or threatened. . . . What we are saying is that you cannot allow 2 or 3 million skins in here a year unless you explain how that is going to restore the species to nonendangered, nonthreatened status."

He argues that if the US increases the world market for kangaroo products by permitting them to be imported while retaining that animal in its "threatened" category, "there are a number of other animals protected by our law which are also threatened with extinction and we can see the same thing happening with them."

Marian Newman, coordintor for kangaroo protection for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, and a leading American spokeswoman for kangaroo preservation, concedes that sharpshooting of kangaroos is probably the least objectionable method of controlling their numbers. But she pleads against wholesale slaughter and in favor of highly selective culling done only by government rangers to eliminate the profit incentive of commercial trade.

For some time, Australia has been importuning the US to lift its kangaroo import ban. But Mrs. Newman contends that "the only thing that lifting this ban will do is jeopardize even more the survival of kangaroos and impose further unnecessary cruelty upon them."

She points out that kill quotas have been steadily rising. In 1975 the limit was set a 1.1 million kangaroos. In '79 the figure was up to 1.8 million. The 1980 quota was unprecedented at 2.8 million animals.

Craig Van Note, executive vice-president of Monitor, a Washington-based conservation, environmental, and animal welfare consortium, contends that Australians "don't even know how many kangaroo they have over there."

Conservationists offer no alternative population estimate of their own. They simply insist that "nobody knows how many there are." But they say they know there are far less than 32 million.

To sort out fact from fiction, Fish and Wildlife dispatched to Australia last March Dr. David R. Anderson, a professor of wildlife science at Utah State University. A population biologist (i.e., one who specializes in wildlife Research Unit of the Fish and Wildlife Service but is not connected with the Interior Department's Office of Endangered Species.

He returned from a two-week inspection trip with the strong recommendation that the US ban be lifted.

His purpose was not to count the kangaroos but to evaluate the techniques Australia uses to conduct aerial surveys.

Since 1975, when state governments began to set kill quotas, one of them -- New South Wales -- began these large- scale aerial surveys. Since then South Australia has followed suit. Recently, an experimental survey was made in Queensland, the wettest and most fertile state on the continent, and therefore the hardest to survey because of its foliage cover.

"I did review those procedures to make sure they were credible in a scientific sense," Dr. Anderson says. "After a frew days I felt good that those surveys of tens of millions of kangaroo were believable. But as an aside, everywhere I went there were kangaroo. . . . Kangaroo are one of the most abundant herbivores on the face of the earth. It is staggering. Everywhere I went there were kangaroo."

Dr. Anderson pooh-poohs as emotional "tales" claims that kangaroos are virtually extinct, rare, or even very uncommon.

He contends that people who say that Australia has no management plan are "irresponsible." The evidence is coming in, he says, that they now have "an excellent program." In addition to population surveys and annual kill quotas, the system uses a tag system for keeping track of the number and species of animals killed in the field, handled by processing plants, and finally exported. He personally spot-checked this paper trail and fund it effective, he says.

A landowner who wants to remove, say, 5,000 kangaroos from his station applies to his state for that many tags, which range from 12 cents to 35 cents each. If he can find licensed professional shooters to do the culling, this authorizes the shooter to buy the tags and to kill that many animals. Every hide must be tagged in the field. Shooters in turn sell the carcasses to a processing plant. Hides bring only about $3 each. This price bears directly on the charge of cruelty.

At such a low return, a professional shooter has to kill about 60 kangaroos a night to make it worth his while, Dr. Anderson contends. Considering the cost of ammunition (about 30 cents a bullet), the spiraling price of gasoline, the cost of a truck, lights, etc., there is no economic incentive to use two bullets to do the work of one.

Dr. Anderson insists that most professional shooters are full-time workers, not weekend moonlighters, that they are skilled sharpshooters, and that they aim at the animal's head so that death is virtually instantaneous. He does not deny that some accidental or deliberate cruelty may occur. But he discounts conservationists' charges about the way much of the killing is done. Their publicity suggests that in most cases the animal is wounded or crippled so that it cannot get away. Then, they charge, it is left all night until dawn, finished off with another shot, and then deposited in a chiller box for temporary storage or delivered directly to a processing plant.

"That's ridiculous!" Dr. Anderson exclaims. "Somebody is distorting what facts we have to the point that it is paranoid. If you and I were making our living trying to shoot kangaroo for their meat and hide, I can guarantee you we would not shoot them in the hind leg or body cavity, because that would ruin the very product we were out there to get."

Mechnical devices now in use in processing plants skin off hides in seconds, he says, so that he sees no incentive in shooters' skinning animals in the field. Dispatching little joeys does seem cruel, he concedes. But would it be less cruel, he asks, to leave them to die unattended by their mothers?

"None of us want to see any cruelty," he says. "But what I am interested in and what the US government is interested in under the Endangered Species Act [ which does not deal with the question of cruelty] is whether there is a generally effective management system that regulates the industry in a way that does not endanger the kangaroo populations. That is the real issue."

The question of the individual animal's right to live is also not covered under the endangered-species law.

Even with a population of 32 million, is it really necessary to cull such a high number of kangaroos? Dr. Anderson admits the number is high, but he points out that it represents only a very small percentage of the total population which he estimates at somewhere between 20 and 40 million, not counting young kangaroos.

To summarize, he says, many improvements have been made in the way Australia is handling its kangaroo population, including large parks and reserves that have been set aside, affording these animals varying degrees of protection. "Kangaroos cannot drop in population now without an alarm being sounded," he says. "And groups will be ready to take action on those alarms." Dr. Anderson, in fact, sees the kangaroo problem as pretty much solved. What needs to happen now, he says, is to divert some of the resources being spent on kangaroos to some of the dozens of truly endangered Australian animals -- certain wallabies, wombats, and wallroos.

The whole kangaroo issue is muddled by disputed points of fact -- over the size of the kangaroo population, effectiveness of Australia's management program , extent of cruelty, even over whether a drought now exists there. If the Fish and Wildlife does lift the US import ban, and if conservationists do bring suit, a court trial might be one way of determining what the facts really are.

If the import restriction should be lifted despite the court challenge, and kangaroo products again show up in luxury items in US shops, the final arbiter on this side of the Pacific Ocean will be the American consumer. After learning what facts he can glean, it will be up to him to decide whether to buy or leave on the counter goods labeled "genuine kangaroo leather." Which way he jumps will have a direct effect on kangaroos.

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