Specialist retailers stock kangaroo leather belts, wallets and bags, while in souvenir shops, small cases of male scrotums are a novelty item sold as gifts for people who have everything.
So sportswear giants Nike and Puma have announced they will stop using kangaroo leather in their shoes, amid moves by US state and federal lawmakers to try to ban the sale of kangaroo products.
Nike will phase out the material, known as “k-leather,” by 2023, it said this week. Instead, his football boots will use a “proprietary” synthetic material. The announcement follows Puma’s announcement two weeks ago that it will replace kangaroo leather with a 20% recycled, non-animal material called “k-better”.
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The companies did not say they were phasing out the material because of animal welfare concerns. But, along with Adidas, they have become targets of a campaign called Kangaroos Are Not Shoes, run by the US-based Center for the Humane Economy.
Asked if Adidas also planned to phase out kangaroo leather, spokesman Stefan Pursche said it “plays a minor role and is significantly below 1 percent because we have been able to replace 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 is in 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 that has banned their sale.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the center, said in a statement that the announcement was “a seismic event for wildlife conservation” that would “bring relief to these iconic marsupials.” (Pacelle resigned as Humane Society CEO in 2018 amid sexual harassment allegations reported by the Washington Post, which he denied.)
But the view of kangaroos is quite different in their homeland.
Kangaroos are wild shot, not farmed in Australia. The government estimated in 2021 that there were more than 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 had no impact on the overall number of kangaroos in the wild, University of New South Wales researchers wrote in 2015.
There are more of them now than before British colonization, said Gordon Grigg, emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Queensland. Since 1788, sheep and cattle ranchers have turned areas of the continent into the kangaroo’s preferred habitat by clearing land and putting up dams. At the same time, they have dramatically reduced dingoes, the roo’s main predator.
Kangaroos are often seen on golf courses at dusk in regional Australia, and sometimes even try to play a little football: In 2018, a puffin jumped onto the course during a National Premier League match and laid down in front of the goal.
But in lean years kangaroos starve by the millions, Grigg said. Their populations swell in the wet and collapse in the country’s brutal dry land. He is in favor of culling and a commercial industry – a dominant view among conservationists, he said.
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“This is the country of periodic droughts, which can often be very long, and that was before any climate change happened,” he said. “An animal that is shot while unaware of danger is much better than an animal that spends 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 harvested.
“It’s quite horrible to see when kangaroo numbers get too high and they overgraze,” he said. “You end up with gruesome images of starving kangaroos and landscapes largely devoid of grass.” They also take away food sources from other, sometimes threatened, 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 purchased billboards in Nike’s home state of Oregon, lobbied US lawmakers, organized a petition and protested outside Nike stores.
The organization points out that the joeys are taken out of the cases and fatally hit in the head after their mothers are shot, which is the most humane practice enforced by the government. Hundreds of thousands of joeys die during commercial shooting each year, according to a 2009 report commissioned by Animal Liberation NSW, either from deliberate head injuries or starvation after the death of their mother.
Animal Liberation NSW chief executive Lynda Stoner said the decision by Nike and Puma could set a precedent for other major companies to move away from kangaroo leather. Its animal rights groups and some others dispute the official and industry figures for the number of kangaroos in the country, arguing that the methodology is flawed and inflated.
“These are beautiful, social, family-friendly, iconic animals that we need to protect,” he said.
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Kangaroo leather has long been used in sportswear, particularly football boots. It has also long been the target of animal welfare campaigns. Almost 20 years ago, after watching a video of Joeys being killed, English soccer star David Beckham stopped wearing Adidas boots that used kangaroo leather.
But only in recent years have large companies moved away from its use. In the fashion world, Prada, Versace, Chanel and H&M are among the brands that have abandoned kangaroo leather, according to PETA.
University of Adelaide ecologist John Read said it was “disappointing” that lawmakers and companies in the United States and Europe would make decisions affecting Australia’s environment in the face of domestic expert opinion. Read authored a statement calling for management of the kangaroo population through commercial harvesting on behalf of eight wildlife scientists and 25 conservation, agricultural and Aboriginal organizations last year.
But Animal Liberation NSW’s Stoner pointed out it was a US 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 nearly a century ago.
“Maybe it will take the US to save our kangaroos too,” he said.