There have been many events throughout the history of mankind that seem absurd or comical in hindsight. Of these, Australia’s Great Emu War of 1932 must be placed near the top of that list.
The Emu War was not a nickname. It really was a type of war in which armed soldiers were sent out to kill these large, flightless birds. The most surprising aspect of this whole military operation is that the emus managed to defeat the Australian army. So, why was the army out fighting emus, and how did these birds win the war?
It all began after World War I, when the Australian government gave out plots of land to returning veterans. The idea was that these ex-soldiers would support themselves by farming the land, raising sheep and growing wheat. Unfortunately, some of this land, especially the plots located in Western Australia, was not very fertile and was difficult to farm. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, crop prices fell, and these farmers struggled even harder to eke out a living.
As the Depression ground on and these new farmers fought against their marginal land, emus began migrating into the area. The birds had always migrated during their breeding season, but the newly cleared land and water from irrigation systems made these farms very attractive to the birds. By 1932, about 20,000 emus began invading the cropland, destroying the growing wheat. Farmers tried to kill the birds themselves, but there were so many that their efforts had no impact.
The desperate farmers begged the military to help them get rid of the birds. The Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery was sent to the Campion district in November of 1932. They found a group of about 50 emus and prepared to gun them down, but the birds foiled their attempts by separating and running around all over the place. The army did manage to kill a few of the birds, but not near as many as they had hoped.
A few days later, another assault was planned on a group of 1000 emus that had been spotted nearby. This time, the army’s machine gun jammed, and the birds scattered yet again. Only 12 emus were killed in this maneuver, and the rest got away.
The army did not give up, though. They continued trying to ambush them, and they even tried shooting them from moving military vehicles. The soldiers had trouble aiming at the birds while moving, so this effort did little to aid the farmers in their fight against the emus. By the end of this first campaign, 2500 rounds of ammunition had been used, but only 200 emus had been killed.
Within a few weeks, the army tried again. This time they were more successful, in that they managed to begin killing roughly 100 emus per week. However, it was taking an average of ten bullets to kill each emu, making the campaign prohibitively expensive relative to results. The army was recalled, and the government began giving bullets to the farmers instead. Unlike the army, the ex-soldier/farmers managed to kill nearly 60,000 of the birds in six months.
Today, Australia has around 700,000 emus. It is now considered one of the country’s animal symbols and has protected animal status. Now, environmentalists are working to save wild populations of the bird in some areas where they are threatened, which is a major about-face from their stance some 80+ years ago.