The Emu War, often humorously termed the Great Emu War, is a unique chapter in Australian history. Taking place in 1932, it was not a traditional “war” in any sense. Instead, it was a wildlife management operation focused on addressing the significant damage caused by large numbers of emus to crops in the Campion district of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region.
Background: Emus, large flightless birds native to Australia, migrate annually from inland regions to the coast. In 1932, a sizable number of these birds descended upon the agricultural lands of the Wheatbelt in Western Australia. The freshly cleared lands and abundant food from crops attracted thousands of emus. Farmers reported extensive damage as the emus consumed and trampled over crops, leading to significant financial losses.
The Military Intervention:
Call to Action: Concerned farmers sought assistance from the Australian government. Given that many of the farmers were World War I veterans, they approached the Minister of Defence for support. The government, in response, deployed the Royal Australian Artillery to address the emu problem.
Armed Response: Soldiers, led by Major G.P.W. Meredith, were equipped with two Lewis machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The expectation was that the military’s involvement would quickly and efficiently reduce the emu population, thereby protecting the region’s crops.
Engagements: Several operations were conducted against the emus. However, the birds proved to be more formidable opponents than anticipated. They were fast, agile, and seemed to have an uncanny ability to scatter and regroup, making them difficult targets. In one notable engagement, only a dozen emus out of a group of over a thousand were killed.
Outcome and Media Reaction:
Despite the soldiers’ best efforts, the emus continued to wreak havoc on crops. The military operations were deemed unsuccessful, with only about 1,000 emus killed out of an estimated 20,000.
The media had a field day with the story. They dubbed the event the “Emu War”, highlighting the irony of the military’s struggle against a bird population. The coverage was a mix of amusement and criticism, with many questioning the wisdom of using military resources in such a manner.
The emu onslaught on crops persisted even after the military withdrew. Farmers continued to seek assistance, leading the government to introduce a bounty system. This approach proved more effective than the military operations, resulting in over 57,000 bounties claimed over a six-month period in 1934.
The Emu War serves as a reminder of the unpredictability of nature and the challenges of wildlife management. It’s a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the emu, a bird that inadvertently found itself at “war” with a nation. This quirky episode in Australian history continues to be a source of fascination and amusement to this day.