Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Great Emu War

Time for a history lesson, with a side helping of civics. (Sources here and here .)

The Great Emu War
In the aftermath of the First World War different countries wrestled with the problem of how to reintegrate their veterans into society. In Britain houses were built ‘fit for heroes’, in Italy soldiers coming home were invited to beat up socialists and in Australia veterans from that country  were given land to farm. These Australian veterans would be the instigators of one of the most bizarre episodes in their nation’s history: the celebrated Emu War of 1932.

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War about 5000 veterans were gifted farming lands in the badlands in the outback near Perth, Western Australia. These farming projects, in fact, prospered relatively well, compared with similar projects in other parts of the country: only about one in three of the farmers gave up or were forced out in the first decade. The successful farmers typically specialised in sheep and wheat farming and several good seasons made many of these farms, albeit on marginal land, into profitable concerns.
Then the emus struck.
Emus had been a protected native species up until 1922, when they’d made such a nuisance of themselves on the wheat farms – flattening crops, eating them down to a stub – that they were officially reclassified as ‘vermin’. By late 1932, there were 20,000 of them wreaking havoc on the marginal wheat farms of the beleaguered veterans, and even these men, trained riflemen, who felled thousands of the mighty birds, could not put a dent in their numbers. Bounties were put on their beaks, but to no avail.

The veterans couldn’t get access to the ammunition they needed, so they called on the Australian military to take action. It was a pretty ludicrous idea – sending the army to cull 20,000 flightless bird giants – but as Murray Johnson suggests in the Journal of Australian Studies, it could have been a propaganda exercise to show that the government was doing something to support its struggling war heroes.

Led by Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, the army set out on 2 November 1932, determined to gun down a group of 50 birds in the district of Campion. They moved in formation behind the birds, and the birds answered their organised assault with inspired chaos, scattering themselves in all directions to minimise the casualties. But despite their best efforts, says Johnson, “the first blood in the bizarre ‘Emu War’ had thus been drawn by the Australian army.”

It was Game On.

Two days later, the emus had their revenge. Concealed gunners sighted 1,000 emus nearby, and waited patiently for them to make their way over. At point-blank range, says Johnson, the soldiers open fired, felling maybe 10, 12 emus. But then the machine-gun jammed. The emus scattered once again... The media had a field day, quoting one of the recruits as saying:

“The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”

A platoon of emus patrolling the outback.

The problem was that from the beginning the emus proved to have considerably more acumen than their human opponents. Emus rarely formed into large groups and when they did it was difficult to predict where these big groups would come together.
It sounds like the emus thoroughly understood the concept of guerrilla warfare.
The army tried gunning them down in moving trucks, but found they couldn’t aim properly at their speedy foes. A lone victim rendered himself a nuisance all the way to the end, his corpse getting tangled up in the vehicle’s steering equipment, which caused it to veer off and destroy half a length of somebody’s fence.

“On 8 November, it was reported that Major Meredith’s party had used 2,500 rounds of ammunition – twenty-five per cent of the allotted total – to destroy 200 emus,” says Johnson. “When one New South Wales state Labor politician enquired whether ‘a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war’, his federal counterpart in Western Australia, responded that they should rightly go to the emus who ‘have won every round so far’.”

A second campaign was mounted by Major Meredith on 13 November 1932, killing 40 emus. Two days later, barely any, but about a month later its was reported that 100 emus were being killed every week. Even so, Meredith did the math and found that it took 10 bullets to bring down every one emu, which was a pretty dismal effort. He was recalled and – all praise our skittery warrior bird-giants – the Great Emu War had finally come to an end.

Emu warrior on the attack.

Unfortunately for the emus, however, the story doesn't end there. Although the gallant birds won the first round, they eventually lost the war. In a lesson that should be burned into the brain of every politician and government bureaucrat, the Australian government decided to get out of the emu extermination business and turn things over to those best equipped and motivated to solve the problem - the farmers themselves.
...the government decided to provide the ammunition that the locals needed to take care of the problem themselves, and some 57,034 emu lives were claimed over six months in 1934.
A classic case of the private sector being more efficient and effective than government.

The emus, however, managed to get the last laugh.
Now, the gangly bird that takes its place of pride on the Australian coat of arms with our other awkwardly-gaited native, the kangaroo, has had its status as a protected animal reinstated. The emu population around Australia is estimated to be around 600,000 to over 700,000, and nationally they’re classified as ‘of least concern’.


Old NFO said...

ROTF, it truly takes ALL kinds...

Bag Blog said...

There was a big emu craze in the 90's with people buying emus - hoping to get rich off their products. Then the price fell and emus were worth nothing. People could not even sell their emus. When we moved to OK in 97, we saw lots of emus running wild. People had just turned them out.

CenTexTim said...

NFO - history can be so fascinating ... And entertaining.

BB - we moved to our place in 2001. It was much more rural then, and we saw emus on ranches. Didn't know if they were domesticated or wild. Haven't seen any in the last few years, though.

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Seems to be people hanging on to emu raising.

Largest listing is Kansas. I don't think you can domesticate them, just build good fences.

CenTexTim said...

WSF - Well, Thanksgiving is coming. Maybe they can be marketed as giant turkeys...