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Kangaroo products trade to California and the Australian government’s interference in foreign conservation legislation

There has been recent media coverage of efforts by the Australian government, in concert with the Australian Kangaroo products industry, to overturn an impending ban on the importation of Kangaroo products to California. The trade in Kangaroo products has been largely in the form of leather products. Aside from ethical issues surrounding the underhandedness of the Australian government’s interference in the Californian legislature on this issue, these events raise broader ethical issues about ongoing attempts to commercialize the harvesting of Australian wildlife, including for international trade.

First, some background about the Kangaroo products trade to California. The Californian legislature imposed a ban on the importation of Kangaroo products in 1971, a highly principled environmental decision, which in part reflected opposition in California to the commercial killing of wildlife. However, this ban was effectively overturned by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. As a result, the trade in Kangaroo products has flourished for the past eight years or so. The moratorium on the ban will end in December 2015, and is now due for review in the Californian Senate. The Senate could decide to either discontinue the moratorium, in which case the Kangaroo products trade would cease in accordance with the original ban, or, it may decide to maintain the moratorium, and the trade in Kangaroo products for a limited period or even indefinitely.

The issue has attracted a great deal of critical media attention in California, not merely because of the ethical issues associated with the commercial destruction of wildlife, but because of the way the Australian government has directly funded underhanded political tactics to influence of the decision making of the Californian legislature.
The Australian Department of Agriculture provided the Kangaroo Industries Association A$143,000 to pay U.S. lobbyists to influence Californian law makers. Furthermore, Australian government interference has been criticized because of the dishonest tactics that have been used in its attempt to influence the Californian legislature to maintain the Kangaroo products trade. It has relied upon a ‘gut and amend’ tactic, by which a bill on a completely unrelated issue, which has already reached the floor of the Californian Senate, is rewritten to put a totally different issue to the legislature. In this way, a bill initially related to gambling has been transformed into a bill on the Kangaroo trade issue, in an attempt to have the moratorium continued by stealth. As a result, a complaint has been lodged to the Fair Political Commission alleging that the Australian government may have acted illegally in not declaring its financial payments or to register itself as a lobbyist employer. The U.S. Humane Society observes that this tactic “…smacks of special interest dealing and secrecy”.

The Australian government’s underhandedness and mismanagement of the issue is clearly tarnishing Australia’s reputation in the U.S. Attempting to stick his finger in the dyke, Australian Ambassador to the U.S., former Federal Labor heavyweight, Kim Beazley, staggered into the fray, asserting to the Californian press that Australia’s tactics had been respectable and that criticism of it was ‘emotional’. Predictably supercilious, Beazely asserted that the products traded were not from threatened kangaroo species, that there were twice as many kangaroos in Australia as people and that cessation of the trade would do significant economic damage to both California and Australia – as if these claims exhausted the ethical and ecological issues involved pertaining to wholesale wildlife destruction and commercialization.

In a political climate where there is increasing reluctance to accept that habitat and wildlife species should be quarantined from commercial predation, and where the very concepts of nature and nature conservation are under siege from academic air heads, it is disturbing to witness the lengths to which the Australian government will go to ensure the continuation of wildlife-based trade. The events surrounding the trade in Kangaroo products to California should not be seen in isolation.

Domestically, recreational hunting organizations are ramping up political pressure for increased access to wildlife species, to have wildlife species redefined as 'game'. In fact the recreational and commercial dimensions of wildlife destruction are closely related. Recently in Victoria, state upper house members, elected on a hunting and fishing ticket (with an obscenely small number of votes) called for the introduction of a kangaroo shooting season, similar to the Victorian duck shooting season. While claiming that their voluntary involvement in Kangaroo culling would make a contribution to environmental management (referring to claims of kangaroo overpopulation), it is also asserted that the Kangaroos slaughtered should ‘not go to waste’ and be disposed of commercially. It remains to be seen if the Victorian Labor government will be opportunistic enough (given the need to attract cross-bench support in the upper house) to buy into this insidious double speak. In reality, recreational shooters want access to Kangaroos for the same reasons they have already gained state permission to destroy ducks – nothing to do with environmental management or 'sustainability' (in fact the opposite).

As part of its 2014 policy platform, the Victorian Labor government announced its intention to rewrite and merge the Victorian Wildlife and the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Acts. As it stands, the Victorian Wildlife Act holds that all Victorian wildlife is protected by definition. The Act does, however, provide for the destruction of wildlife where property and persons are threatened or damaged. Although it may be argued that these wildlife destruction provisions are currently applied too liberally, the axiomatic principle that wildlife, by definition, is to be protected is highly defensible and responsible. It remains to be seen whether this laudable principle survives Labor’s rewriting of the Wildlife Act; Victorian Labor’s current bio-diversity policy contains no such principle.

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Does Kim Beasley really know what's he's negotiating as trade with California? Would he be happy to go out at night, and stalk peaceful mobs of kangaroos with firearms, and shoot at them? Would he like to see their gunshot wounds, that often don't kill outright, and watch them suffer. As for the joeys, they are either ripped from their mothers' pouches and bashed to death, or left to die slowly from starvation or predators. What sort of "human" could endorse such trade, based clinically as kangaroo "management".

There's no sustainable "harvest" of wildlife. The Americans know this. They've seen Bison, passenger pigeons, overfishing, Great Awk etc. The passenger pigeon in the early 1800s may have been the most numerous bird in the world, with an estimated population of at least three billion birds—or at least a third as much as the total population of all kinds of birds in North America today.

The unsustainable harvest of wildlife is a major threat to global biodiversity and to the millions of people who depend on wildlife for food and income. Overexploitation is now one of the major threats to mammals, reptiles, and birds, second only to habitat destruction. Changing the status of kangaroos from protected native wildlife, to "game" for hunters, would see carnage in our bush, and their numbers plummet tragically.