In October of 1932, the Australian military declared war against an unlikely enemy: emus. These large, flightless birds, indigenous to the continent, were causing damage to crops. Farmers in western Australia—many of whom were, themselves, former soldiers—demanded that the government take action. To that end, soldiers armed with machine guns were sent in to make short work of the noisome birds. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy.
First, some background. In the wake of the First World War, the Australian government began implementing a plan sometimes referred to as the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The idea was to resettle returning war veterans to more sparsely-populated parts of the continent by giving out plots of land. By 1924, some 24 million acres of potential farmland had been set aside for the purpose and thousands of farms were established.
Life was rarely easy for these soldiers-turned-settler farmers, and their worries were about to be compounded as the Great Depression settled in. As the world economy struggled, so too did the Australian farmers, who had been encouraged to grow wheat with the promise of government subsidies, only to see those subsidies fail to materialize.
Into this unfortunate situation came an additional wrinkle: some 20,000 or more emus. Native to the region, emus were known to habitually migrate from inland areas to the coast after their breeding season. Finding the land along their migration route newly cultivated by the settler farmers, however, the emus discovered a habitat very much to their liking. There was plentiful food and water, that which had been provided for the growing of crops and the tending of livestock, and the emus made themselves at home.
In addition to consuming and spoiling crops, the emus wreaked havoc with the farmers' fences, which let in other pests—including rabbits, which had become a destructive invasive species since their introduction to the continent in the 18th century. In the 1920s and early ‘30s they were already a devastating pest animal, capable of consuming vast amounts of crops. Today, rabbits are still considered one of the leading causes of species loss in Australia.
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Having previously served in the armed forces, the settler farmers took their complaints to the Minister of Defense, who approved a plan to stop the emus by force. The “war” against the emus was launched in October of 1932. Major G. P. W. Meredith was assigned two soldiers who were armed with Lewis guns, a type of World War I-era light machine gun, and given the task of eradicating the emus—or at least reducing their numbers to more manageable levels.
The early days of the campaign were not encouraging. “The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated,” ornithologist Dominic Serventy wrote. “The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.”
It is unknown how many emus were actually slain during that month, but it was certainly not as many as the military force had hoped for. “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world,” Major Meredith said, in reluctant awe of his victorious foes. “They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”
By the end of the month, some 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired, and estimates of emu casualties ranged from less than 50 to as many as 500. Between the disappointing results and negative media coverage, the Australian government decided to curtail the project. Fortunately, Major Meredith reported that his side had suffered no casualties during the conflict.
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Despite these early setbacks, the destructive emu population was still a problem in need of a solution, and in short order, Meredith and his men were back in the field. This time they fared better, and by December 2, 1932, they were reportedly killing as many as 100 emus per week. By the end of this second campaign, on December 10, Major Meredith claimed to have slain some 986 emus with only around 9,800 rounds—giving his men an average of one emu slain for every 10 rounds fired. Not bad odds, unless you’re an emu.
Besides those birds killed immediately by the gunfire, Meredith estimated that an additional 2,500 had perished from their wounds, bringing the total body count to more than 3,000—impressive, until you remember that there may have been more than 20,000 total emus devastating farmland in the region. Still, it was regarded as a somewhat successful mission. “Although on the last occasion [the emus'] destruction by soldiers with machine guns was criticized in many quarters,” the Coolgardie Miner wrote three years later, “the method proved effective and saved what remained of the wheat.”
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While the outlook may have been slightly rosier at the end of the second major sortie of the Great Emu War, the conflict proved to be far from over. Indeed, farmers in the region requested more troops to be sent in to fight off the ruthless birds again in 1934, 1943, and 1948. Each time, their requests for more soldiers were turned down by the government—which was perhaps not too eager to commit resources to a campaign whose previous returns had proven so doubtful.
Instead, the government chose to rely on placing a bounty on the birds, a policy which had first been implemented as far back as 1923. In 1934, more than 57,000 bounties were claimed that year alone, making the bounty system more effective than the so-called Emu War. One could conclude that guerilla tactics worked better against the emus than all-out warfare.
Whether war or bounty, not everyone was a fan of the government’s attempts to curtail the emu population. Dominic Serventy, the eminent ornithologist whose words we previously used to describe the ill-fated first campaign, decried the entire operation as an “attempt at the mass destruction of the birds.”
Despite these attempts, however, emus remain plentiful in Australia, with extensive fencing now used to keep them out of farmland. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as a “least-concern species,” meaning that their population is sufficient that they needn’t be a focus of species conservation. So, if we’re trying to tally up ultimate victors in the Great Emu War, that trophy just might go to the birds themselves.