MELBOURNE, Australia — Australians, for the most part, are quite cheerful about allowing their national animal to be eaten and worn. Supermarket shelves stock kangaroo meat, and “kangatarianism” — refraining from meat except for kangaroos because of the low fat content and lack of factory farming — has become a fringe diet.
Specialty retailers stock kangaroo leather belts, wallets and bags, while in souvenir stores, small pouches made from the males’ scrotums are a novelty item sold as gifts for people who have everything.
So it has raised eyebrows Down Under that sporting goods giants Nike and Puma have announced they will stop using kangaroo leather in their shoes, amid moves from U.S. state and federal lawmakers to try to ban the sale of kangaroo products.
Nike will phase out the material, known as “k-leather,” through 2023, it said this week. Its soccer boots will instead use a “proprietary” synthetic material. The announcement followed Puma’s two weeks ago that it would replace kangaroo leather with a 20 percent recycled, non-animal material called “k-better.”
The companies did not say they were phasing out the material because of animal welfare concerns. But they, together with Adidas, have been targets of a campaign called “Kangaroos Are Not Shoes,” run by the U.S.-based Center for a Humane Economy.
Asked if Adidas also planned to phase out kangaroo leather, spokesperson Stefan Pursche said it “plays a minor role and is significantly below 1 percent because we’ve been able to substitute kangaroo leather with other innovative materials in many products.”
A federal bill to ban the sale of kangaroo products in the United States was introduced in 2021 by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), and sits with a subcommittee. Similar bills have been introduced in Oregon — where Nike is headquartered — Arizona, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey, the center said this month. But California is the only state to have banned the sale of such products.
Wayne Pacelle, the center’s president, said in a statement that the announcement was “a seismic event in wildlife protection” that would “bring relief to these iconic marsupials.” (Pacelle resigned as chief executive of the Humane Society in 2018 amid sexual harassment allegations reported by The Washington Post, which he denied.)
But the view of kangaroos is quite different in their native country.
Kangaroos are shot in the wild, not farmed, in Australia. The government estimated in 2021 that there were over 30 million of the bouncing marsupials — more than Australia’s human population of about 26 million. The commercial industry, which is allowed to kill about 15 percent of the most abundant species annually, has not had an impact on the overall number of kangaroos in the wild, University of New South Wales researchers wrote in 2015.
They are more numerous now than before British colonization, said Gordon Grigg, emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Queensland. Since 1788, sheep and cattle farmers have transformed swaths of the continent into exactly the kangaroo’s preferred environment by clearing land and putting in dams. At the same time, they have dramatically reduced dingoes, the roo’s main predator.
Kangaroos are often seen on golf courses at dusk, and on occasion, they even try to play a bit of soccer: In 2018, a roo hopped onto the field during a National Premier League game and lay down in front of the goal.
But in lean years the kangaroos starve in the millions, Grigg said. Their populations swell in the wet and collapse in the country’s brutal dry. He is in favor of culling and a commercial industry — a mainstream view among ecologists, he said.
“This is the country of periodic droughts, which can often be very long, and that was before there was any climate change going on,” he said. “An animal shot while it’s unaware of danger is a lot better than an animal spending days and weeks dying.”
Euan Ritchie, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at Deakin University, said he would be concerned if kangaroos were no longer being harvested.
“It’s quite horrific to see when kangaroo numbers get really high and they overgraze,” he said. “You end up with horrible images of kangaroos starving to death and landscapes that are largely devoid of grass.” They also take food sources away from other, sometimes endangered, native species when their numbers are too great, he said.
But animal rights groups say the commercial industry is cruel. The Kangaroos Are Not Shoes campaign launched in January 2020 and has bought billboards in Nike’s home state of Oregon, lobbied U.S. lawmakers, organized a petition and protested outside Nike stores.
The organization highlights that joeys are taken out of pouches and fatally hit in the head after their mothers are shot, which is the government-mandated practice seen as most humane. Hundreds of thousands of joeys die during commercial shooting each year, according to a 2009 report commissioned by Animal Liberation NSW, either through intentional head injuries or starvation after their mothers die.
Animal Liberation NSW chief executive Lynda Stoner said Nike and Puma’s decision could set a precedent for other major companies to move away from kangaroo leather. Her animal rights groups and some others dispute the official and industry figures for the number of kangaroos in the country, claiming that the methodology is flawed and inflated.
“These are beautiful, social, family-oriented, iconic animals that we need to protect,” she said.
Kangaroo leather has long been used in sportswear, for soccer boots in particular. It has also long been a target of animal welfare campaigns. Almost 20 years ago, after he saw a video of joeys being killed, English soccer star David Beckham stopped wearing Adidas boots that used kangaroo leather.
But it is only in recent years that major companies have stepped away from its use. In the fashion world Prada, Versace, Chanel and H&M are among the brands that have given up kangaroo leather, according to PETA.
University of Adelaide ecologist John Read said it was “frustrating” that lawmakers and companies in the United States and Europe would make decisions affecting the Australian environment in the face of domestic expert opinion. Read co-authored a statement calling for kangaroo population management through commercial harvesting on behalf of eight wildlife scientists and 25 conservation, farming and Aboriginal organizations last year.
But Stoner, of Animal Liberation NSW, pointed out it was a U.S. president who helped save another iconic Australian animal — the koala. Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, made the decision to ban the importation of koala skins almost a century ago.
“Maybe it will take the U.S. to save our kangaroos, too,” she said.