Australia's arid lands support one of the most diverse native animal populations in the world. But the nation's grazing animals may be nibbling the land to dust.
''Between 50 and 70 percent of the land area of Australia is at risk of desertification due to too much grazing pressure from cattle, sheep, feral goats, and kangaroos,'' says Gordon Grigg, professor of Zoology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
For many Australian farmers and ranchers, the answer is clear: Reduce the number of kangaroos.
Farmers have long viewed kangaroos as pests, competing with cattle and sheep for scarce water and grass. In the 1950s, state governments regulated the slaughter of kangaroos on rangelands by a quota system. Recently, the Australian government, the wool industry, and landholders have invested in new ways to get rid of 'roos, including electrified troughs to prevent kangaroos from drinking as well as research into contraceptives.
But killing more kangaroos will not solve the problem of land degradation, says Professor Grigg. ''You could take all the kangaroos off the land and it would make little difference in the face of the onslaught from sheep and cattle.''
Hard-hoofed imports, such as sheep and cattle, cut into the topsoil, whereas soft-footed native animals are adapted to Australia's arid rangeland, he argues. The need is to give ranchers a commercial incentive to cut back on their herds and encourage healthy kangaroo populations.
Ironically, that incentive would come from winning acceptance for kangaroo as a source of high-quality meat. Until 18 months ago, it was illegal to sell kangaroo for human consumption in much of Australia. Conservationists, animal rights activists, and ranchers opposed moves to market kangaroo meat as either cruel to animals, unsafe for humans, or a threat to lamb and beef prices.
But advocates say the battle to win market acceptance for kangaroo as a high-quality meat could be the key to saving the habitat for all of Australia's native animals, including its kangaroos.
Grigg, who made his case for commercializing kangaroo to preserve the environment in 1987, is beginning to win converts.
''In the last five to 10 years, there has been a trend away from seeing kangaroos as a pest to seeing them as a natural resource,'' says Gerry Maynes, director of the population assessment unit of the Australian Nature Conservation Agency. This government agency sets annual quotas for kangaroos.
Obstacles remain to developing foreign markets for kangaroo meat, which could bring some $180 million yearly into the Australian economy, according to Australia's Bureau of Resource Sciences.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service only lifted its designation of three species of large mainland kangaroo from the endangered species list last March, thus ending a 22-year ban on the sale of kangaroo products in the US. ''It is believed that the kangaroo population may exceed what it was before Australia was settled by Europeans,'' the service said in a statement.
''Our view is that if the kangaroo industry is going to develop markets in the US, it would take years to overcome the perception that kangaroos are endangered,'' says Mr. Maynes. The main markets for the $60 million kangaroo industry are now Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Japan, and Korea.
The industry also faces a hard sell at home. Animal rights groups argue that commercial killing is cruel. National Kangaroo Campaign coordinator Maryland Wilson charges that professional shooters subvert natural selection by targeting dominant males.
Dramatic demonstrations, including dragging a dead kangaroo through the lobby of a Melbourne hotel that served kangaroo meat, have prompted some chefs to drop marsupials from the menu. Last year, Victorian Coles Supermarkets suspended sales of kangaroo meat after public protests.
''It is generally assumed that conservationists shouldn't be killing kangaroos. But conservation values animals in their habitats, and if you increase the commercial value of animals, you can get conservation of the species and its habitat,'' Grigg says.
Grazing organizations that once opposed the sale of kangaroo meat now support it. This year, for the first time, farmers in South Australia are bargaining with meat producers and shooters to set prices for kangaroos on their lands.
The ranchers may come around, but you're unlikely to find kangaroo prosciutto on the menu of Qantas, Australia's national airline, which uses the kangaroo as its corporate logo.
''Qantas won't buy from me,'' says Susan Bruce of the Canberra-based gourmet foods company Poachers Paradise. ''They have a policy that no kangaroo will ever be served on their airline - as food, that is, not as a passenger.''