Australia is notorious for its historical wildlife management operations of varying success. Since the late 19th century, attempts at containing species to portions of the continent have taken the form of vast exclusion fences, while Australia’s record for intentionally introducing damaging invasive species is spectacular.
Cane toads brought over from Hawaii in 1935 were meant to control native beetles. Instead, the gigantic, toxic toad colonised Queensland and now numbers in the estimated billions, threatening wilderness thousands of kilometres from where it was first released.
Just a few years before the cane toad arrived, another remarkable wildlife control operation took place. In 1932, the Australian military undertook an operation to subdue the tall, flightless bird known as the emu. And they lost.
Here’s the story of Australia’s so-called ‘Great Emu War’.
A formidable foe
Emus are the second largest bird in the world. They’re only found in Australia, having been exterminated by colonists in Tasmania, and have shaggy grey-brown and black plumage with blue-black skin around their neck. They’re highly nomadic creatures, regularly migrating after breeding season, and they’re omnivores, eating fruits, flowers, seeds and shoots, as well as insects and small animals. They have few natural predators.
Emus feature in Indigenous Australian legend as creator spirits that formerly flew over the land. As such they’re represented in astrological mythology: their constellation is formed from dark nebulae between Scorpius and the Southern Cross.
Emus occupied a different place in the minds of European settlers in Australia, who worked to make the land feed them. They set out to clear the land and plant wheat. Yet their practices put them at odds with the emu population, for whom the cultivated land, supplied with extra water for livestock, resembled the emu’s preferred habitat of open plains.
Wildlife fences proved effective at keeping out rabbits, dingoes as well as emus, but only so long as they were maintained. By late 1932, they were permeated by holes. As a result, there was nothing to prevent 20,000 emus breaching the perimeter of the wheat-growing region around Campion and Walgoolan in Western Australia.
The ‘Wheatbelt’, which extends to the north, east and south of Perth, was a diverse ecosystem prior to its clearing in the late 19th century. By 1932, it was populated by increasing numbers of former soldiers, who settled there after World War One to cultivate wheat.
Falling wheat prices in the early 1930s and undelivered government subsidies had made farming difficult. Now they found their lands stricken by emu incursions, which left crops trampled and fences, which otherwise prevented the movement of rabbits, damaged.
Mobilising for war
Settlers in the region conveyed their concerns to the Australian government. Given that many settlers were military veterans, they were aware of the capacity of machine guns for sustained fire, and that is what they requested. Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, agreed. He ordered the army to cull the emu population.
The ‘Emu War’ proper began in November 1932. Deployed to the combat zone, such as it was, were two soldiers, Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Halloran, and their commander, Major G. P. W. Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery. They were equipped with two Lewis light machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Their objective was the mass extermination of a native species.
The Great Emu War
Already forced to push their campaign from October due to rain scattering the emu across a wider area, the military struggled at first to make effective use of their firepower. On 2 November, locals tried to herd emus towards an ambush, but they split into small groups. On 4 November, an ambush on some 1,000 birds was foiled by a gun jamming.
Over the next few days, the soldiers travelled to locations where emus had been spotted and attempted to complete their objective. To this end, Major Meredith mounted one of the guns on a truck to enable firing at the birds while moving. It was as ineffective as their ambushes. The truck was too slow, and the ride was so rough that the gunner couldn’t fire anyway.
The invulnerability of tanks
A week in and the campaign was making little headway. An army observer noted of the emu that “each pack seems to have its own leader now: a big black-plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach.”
At each encounter, the emu suffered far fewer casualties than expected. By 8 November, between 50 and a few hundred birds had been killed. Major Meredith commended the emus for their ability to withstand gunfire: “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world. They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”
On 8 November, an embarrassed Sir George Pearce withdrew the troops from the front line. Yet the emu nuisance had not stopped. On 13 November, Meredith returned following requests by farmers and reports that more birds had been killed than had earlier been suggested. Over the next month, the soldiers slayed around 100 emus every week.
When asked if there was a “more humane, if less spectacular” method to undertake the cull, Sir George Pearce replied that only those familiar to emu country could understand the damage done, according to the Melbourne Argus of 19 November 1932.
But it was at a huge cost in ammunition, which Meredith claimed was exactly 10 rounds per confirmed kill. The operation may have saved some wheat, but the effectiveness of the cull paled next to the strategy of offering bounties to rifle-wielding farmers.
By contrast, farmers managed to claim 57,034 bounties over six months in 1934.
The campaign was beleaguered by errors and was hardly a success. And worse, as The Sunday Herald reported in 1953, “the incongruity of the whole thing even had the effect, for once, of arousing public sympathy for the emu.”