8 arrested as Aborigines protest cull of kangaroos in Australia

May 21, 2008 

CANBERRA, Australia: (AP) Kangaroos and Tasmanian devils are beloved Australian icons that are tugging the nation's heartstrings for very different reasons. While authorities are cutting the population of the former, they are struggling to prevent the latter from dying out altogether.

The juxtaposition underscores Australia's challenges, failures and differences in opinion on caring for its unique fauna.

Protesters vowed Wednesday to seek a court injunction to stop the cull of 400 eastern gray kangaroos at a government site in the national capital of Canberra. Scientists say the rapidly growing kangaroo population needs more to eat than its natural habitat can support, threatening the species' own survival as well as that of endangered reptiles and insects.

Tasmanian devils were meanwhile listed as endangered Wednesday because a contagious cancer has been killing off wild populations of the kangaroo's carnivorous marsupial cousin.

Defense Department authorities began the kangaroo cull Monday on an abandoned military site in Canberra where some 600 kangaroos live.Police charged eight Aboriginal activists with trespassing on the site Wednesday. The activists were hoping to persuade Defense to relocate rather than kill the kangaroos, whom they consider sacred. Defense has said relocation would be too expensive.

Pat O'Brien, a protest leader who was not arrested, said the activists planned to apply Thursday for a court injunction to stop the cull until after June 6 when they are scheduled to face the trespass charges in court. Each faces a maximum fine of 1,100 Australian dollars (US$1,050; €670) if convicted.

Canberra's local government leader Jon Stanhope said this week that he understood the cull distressed many people, but that more than 3.5 million kangaroos are shot in the Outback each year because there are too many.

But O'Brien — president of the Wildlife Protection Association of Australia, whose patrons are the family of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin — said government leaders were missing the point.

"Shooting millions of kangaroos doesn't make it right," O'Brien said Wednesday. "The national capital has a chance to lead by example and show that Australia has moved beyond solving all our wildlife management problems with a gun."

The Tasmanian devil, infamous worldwide as the Looney Tunes cartoon character Taz, is threatened by a contagious cancer that has cut its population by up to 60 percent in a decade. The disease has spread so quickly that scientists last year estimated there might be no disease-free population in the island state of Tasmania within five years.

The government of Tasmania — the only place in the world where they exist in the wild — reclassified the devil on Wednesday from vulnerable to endangered status. The reclassification qualifies it for greater government conservation assistance and adds pressure on the federal government to upgrade the devil on its national threatened species listing.

"We are committed to finding an answer and saving the Tasmanian devil for Tasmanians and the world," state Primary Industries Minister David Llewellyn said in a statement.

Early European settlers named the feisty devil for its spine-chilling screeches, dark appearance and reputed bad temper which, along with its steel-trap jaw, made it appear incredibly fierce.

Its larger cousin, the Tasmanian tiger, a striped Labrador-like creature that like all marsupials carried its young in a pouch, was shot into extinction during the 20th century because it preyed on livestock.

Veterinarian Hugh Wirth, former president of the World Society for the Protection of Animals and of Australia's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said Australians have become more concerned about conserving their wildlife in the past 20 years.

Wirth said the RSPCA accepted the wild kangaroo population must be kept in check because of manmade changes to the environment, but that it should be a continual process of weeding out the old and sick. He accused Defense of ignoring kangaroo population explosions at properties throughout Australia until the animals are at risk of starvation.

"Impossibly high numbers have been allowed to develop and then you have a mass slaughter. That's not close management and it's intolerable," Wirth said. "In a decade's time, we'll have another slaughter."

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