Farmers' kangaroo cull enrages conservationists : When the marsupials outnumber the humans there is trouble, writes Robert Milliken from Cobar, New South Wales

BATTLE LINES are being drawn between farmers and conservationists in Australia over what is believed to be the biggest population explosion among kangaroos the outback has seen. Kangaroos are bounding through Australia's farmlands in record numbers. Estimates put the latest national population figure at more than 20 million, 3 million more than the number of humans.

The kangaroo population has increased by more than 6 million in the past 10 years, despite controlled 'culling' by licensed shooters in the face of an international campaign to impose a ban on the export of kangaroo products from Australia.

Farmers are demanding more radical action to limit the marsupials. They complain that kangaroos are robbing their livestock of valuable water and pasture, destroying fences, eating crops and causing road accidents.

Neil Elder, a farmer near Cobar, on the western plains of New South Wales, has been overrun with four species of kangaroo: the Red Kangaroo, the Eastern Grey, the Western Grey and the Euro. Motorists are advised not to drive through the plains at night, when kangaroos emerge in hordes. Most locals drive with 'roo bars' fitted to their vehicles, giant steel frames which ensure the animal comes off second best in a collision at high speed.

'They're hardly an endangered species, as the conservationists claim in Europe and America,' said Mr Elder. 'There's a drought on here, but unless we do something about the 'roos the drought will never end.'

At the heart of the controversy is the kangaroo's status as Australia's national symbol. Attempts to set up commercial industries for kangaroo meat and leather have always run up against public opposition to the notion of eating the country's emblem.

Although its use in pet food is legal, only South Australia and the Northern Territory have sanctioned kangaroo meat being sold to humans in butchers and restaurants.

Ironically, the population explosion can be traced back to the farmers' forebears. When white settlers moved into the plains around Mr Elder's place in the 1830s, kangaroo numbers were relatively small. Aborigines hunted them for food, and kept their numbers in balance. The white settlers pushed the Aborigines from their lands, cleared trees and installed water holes, converting the plains into an environment which encouraged kangaroos to breed profusely.

They are now in such large numbers that Doug Osborne has been able to make a full-time living shooting kangaroos on the western plains for five years. He is a licensed shooter working within limits of a quota set by the government to regulate kangaroo numbers. Mr Osborne typically comes home at dawn with a nightly haul of 160 carcasses. He sells the hides to a dealer for dollars 6 ( pounds 2.20) each. They are then re- sold in Europe for 10 times this amount, where they are converted into football boots, leather coats, golf stick covers and high fashion garments. The meat is exported for human consumption mainly to Europe and Japan, where it is promoted as high quality game with fewer cholesterol-inducing fats than beef or lamb.

Farm lobby groups are now joining with scientists in an attempt to overcome Australia's psychological barrier against consuming the kangaroo. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the country's leading research centre, has launched a Kangaroo Project to promote the idea of kangaroo farming as an alternative to sheep.

John Stocker, the organisation's chief executive, said: 'We'll have to ask whether cloven- hooved animals such as cattle and sheep are really the most appropriate for the future. If we tackle it from the perspective of saying kangaroos are the most adaptable species to Australia's semi-arid regions, it means we're working with nature rather than against it.'

(Photograph omitted)