No land anywhere is more earnestly and energetically committed to sport than the wonderful world down under, where tennis buffs and sometimes even Olympic swimmers play and practice long into the night and sunbrowned surfers swarm its spectacular shores. Nor are there many people as athletically capable or as admirably competitive as the Australians.
It is all the more shocking therefore that a nation so single-mindedly dedicated to the sporting life is also so singularly amoral about its wildlife. With something of the same determination they bring to the pools and courts, Australians seem to be engaged in an all-out war on everything finned, furred and feathered that moves.
In the less than 200 years since Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay and claimed Australia in the name of George III, more than 30 species of native birds and animals, among them some of the oldest and most interesting in the world, have been either annihilated or so nearly eliminated that they have rarely been seen on the continent for decades.
Uncountable thousands of majestic wedge-tailed eagles are poisoned, trapped and shot each year. One Australian alone has killed 2,500 in the past 30 months; another took more than 300 eagles in one day this spring. Some are destroyed for the 28� bounty paid on each head, others for apparently no better reason than that they are there.
Along the barrier reef in Western Australia anyone with an outboard dinghy, an eight-foot spear and a strong rope can claim 30 to 40 giant green turtles in a single morning. In a 10-week period recently one chap caught 3,000, ranging in size from 200 to 350 pounds. Most were shipped to Germany, where they were turned into skin creams, suitcases and soups.
Unlike the turtles, Australia's unique emu is turned into nothing, although outbackers do paint and sell to tourists those of its eggs they do not smash. Thousands of these ostrichlike birds are shot annually by ranchers, bounty shooters and weekend plinkers, but the country has yet to match its record bag of the '30s when government machine gunners cut down some 20,000 emus at a crack.
This seems a paltry figure, however, when compared with spectacular koala-bear bags of the previous decade. Without the aid of a single machine gun, annual kills hit two million in the '20s. By 1927 the little bear had disappeared entirely from South Australia and almost entirely from New South Wales and Victoria. A few managed to survive in Queensland, and the state government took prompt action. It licensed 10,000 trappers, who wiped out 600,000 koalas in less than a month, thus assuring one of Australia's most winsome wild creatures an equally valid claim to being one of its rarest.
But the most spectacular Australian crime against wildlife, the one for which all Australians will be judged most harshly by present and future generations, is the mass murder of its kangaroos. This is not solely an Australian tragedy, but one that reaches far beyond national boundaries.
There is not a schoolchild anywhere who does not know and love these gentle, whimsical wonders of an ancient age. Kangaroos bounce and banter in most of the zoos and circuses of the world, are the subject of games, songs, jokes, stories and, currently, of the latest teen-age gyrations. They have leaped feet first into show business (Victoria, a New York-based kangaroo, is a top TV talent), into politics (an albino kangaroo named Miss once belonged to Harry Truman), into society (a well-heeled kangaroo named Joey set Palm Beach on its diamond-studded ear when it moved in near the Kennedys), and even into midtown traffic (an impatient mother kangaroo named Gertrude found herself stalled on Madison Avenue and startled blas� cabbies by leaping, papoose and all, over the roofs of cars).
But for all their extracurricular endeavors abroad, kangaroos are distinctly Australian to the bottoms of their built-in bassinets. No country has a more familiar national emblem. Kangaroos appear on Australia's coat of arms, its stamps, its coins, its airliners and, until recently, on its plains and in its fields.