To Americans and other visitors, the national symbols of Australia that bounce around in a nature reserve here are cute, furry, harmless marsupials, content to graze peaceably and look after their young.
But to Australian farmers and ranchers, they are voracious pests that break down their fences, overrun their lands and eat them out of house and home.Australia these days has too many kangaroos, and no one seems to know quite what to do about them.
Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for years has listed Australia's three main types of kangaroo as threatened species, in fact they are anything but scarce. In many areas, farmers, ranchers and government officials say, they are more numerous than ever and have even reached plague proportions. On the rangelands alone of four states where they are monitored, kangaroos easily outnumber Australia's national population of 17.4 million people, officials say.
This poses a dilemma for Australians, who seem to have something of a love-hate relationship with the "roo," as they commonly refer to the animal.
On one hand, it is officially a protected species and a national icon. Its image appears on everything from the Australian coat of arms to $1 coins and the tails of airliners. And Australians get outraged when, as shown in a gruesome amateur videotape that was broadcast on television recently, people shoot kangaroos for sport with shotguns from moving jeeps. One announcer angrily described the hunters as "yobbos running amok in the outback."
On the other hand, kangaroos also are appearing increasingly in the gun sights of professional "roo shooters" - and on restaurant menus. There are even suggestions that kangaroos be raised for slaughter like sheep or cattle, a difficult proposition at best.
Faced with government regulations that set limits and procedures on "culling" or "harvesting" - in other words, killing - kangaroos, many landowners are simply ignoring the bureaucracy and shooting them without permits. They say quotas on the numbers of kangaroos that can be shot by permit-holding farmers and professional roo-shooters are too low to lessen the animals' damage, which exceeds $140 million a year.
"It's just like a rabbit plague; they can really decimate a property," said Peter Chivers, a stock agent from Cowra, about 60 miles north of Canberra. "I know there's a lot of emotion about shooting these cute and cuddly little things, but it's a real problem."
"There's more roos than ever," said Graham Berry, another farmer in the area. "They eat as much as a steer. They eat up to 15 hours a day. They eat all night."
Paul Remond, whose family owns 120,000 acres in northern New South Wales, said kangaroos routinely destroy at least 10 percent, and sometimes more than half, of his 13,000-acre wheat crop, besides eating the grass that supports his sheep.
"The kangaroos are as bad at the moment as I can ever remember," he said. "We could very easily have 30,000 kangaroos on our property at the moment." His sheep consequently have dwindled by two-thirds, to about 10,000 head. "The kangaroos are beating us hands down," he said.
At the 13,750-acre Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve about 25 miles southwest of Canberra, home to about 2,000 kangaroos and various other animals that tourists can see in natural settings, wildlife officer Neil Reckord has a different misgiving.
"I get frustrated when I hear well-intentioned people getting concerned about kangaroo harvesting when they are not really under threat," he said. "It distracts attention from a lot of species out there that we really are losing."
Animal rights activists are in a quandary as well. They generally oppose killing kangaroos for profit but concede that farmers may have a case.
"We've always opposed the commercial industry because we believe it's not being properly regulated," said Glynes Oogjes, director of the Australia and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies, an umbrella organization of 45 animal rights groups. She cited a lack of testing of shooting skills for kangaroo-hunting licenses and "no analysis of carcasses" to check whether the animals died humanely.
Kangaroos killed by commercial shooters are used largely for pet food, although their meat increasingly is sold to restaurants in states where this is permitted. Canberra's trendy Chez Moustache, for example, offers "kangaroo in red wine sauce" on its menu. It looks like beef but is chewier and has a venisonlike tang.