IMAGE: Kangaroos
Mark Graham  /  AP
Some of the 400 eastern grey kangaroos set to be culled at a site near Canberra are seen Saturday.
updated 3/16/2008 5:02:52 PM ET 2008-03-16T21:02:52

Protesters gathered over the weekend at an abandoned military site in the Australian capital to prevent the planned slaughter of 400 kangaroos blamed for ruining the habitat of rare lizards and insects.

Dozens of protesters congregated at the gate of the disused naval communications station in suburban Canberra, vowing to stop government contractors from entering and killing the eastern gray kangaroos, a species featured on Australia's coat of arms.

The planned cull has triggered international protests by animal rights activists and split Australians over the merits of killing their beloved national symbol to protect rare lizards and insects that share their grassy habitat.

Citing possible danger to the public, the Defense Department does not plan to shoot the animals. The contractors will instead fire darts to tranquilize them before administering lethal injections.

"We are all determined to see that the kangaroos are not killed," said protest leader Pat O'Brien, president of the Wildlife Protection Association of Australia, whose patrons are the family of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin.

"There is a lot of anger in a lot of people about this. We will stand in between the kangaroo and the darts if necessary," he said.

Australia's Defense Department declined to say when the cull would start, but O'Brien said he has heard rumors it would begin in the coming days.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett, a former head of Australia's conservation movement, said he would not intervene. "Programs like this, humanely and properly administered, are sometimes necessary," he told reporters.

Original plan to cull 3,000
The plan is a scaled-down version of a proposal last year to eradicate about half of the more than 6,000 kangaroos at two military sites in Canberra.

Scientists point out that eastern gray kangaroos are abundant and they are destroying the native grassland of threatened species such as the grassland earless dragon, striped legless lizard, golden sun moth and perunga grasshopper.

European settlers built Australia's cattle and sheep industries on grass seeds imported from Britain, and native grassland, which is imperative for some species, is now rare. In some parts of Australia, it can only be found in old cemeteries where livestock never grazed.

In 2004 there was an international outcry over the shooting of 900 kangaroos at a dam supplying water to Canberra. The animals were causing erosion problems through grazing.

Garrett said the cull would not damage Australia's anti-whaling campaign, which has angered Japan amid international efforts to close a loophole permitting scientific whaling.

But Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown said it would bring "further notoriety" for Australia's treatment of wildlife.

"(Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd could begin by saving those kangaroos and making sure they are transported to a safe haven ... rather than be given a deadly injection and left as a heap on the ground," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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