Inside Australia’s Hapless Campaign Against Emus, The Great Emu War Of 1932

Published June 7, 2017
Updated December 16, 2017

A Determined Foe

Smirking Emu


By the time he sent that report, Meredith had been driven to the edge by his continued inability to get a decent kill tally. Part of the problem was that the birds were so fast that, no matter how many were gathered in one spot, after the first few shots they’d all scatter faster than any man could run.

At one point, Meredith ordered a Lewis gun to be mounted on the back of a truck to try to keep up with the running birds. It still didn’t work — it turns out that a truck that can do 65 mph on a paved road struggles to make 20 mph over rough land, and you can’t stabilize a machine gun on a static mount or shoot with any accuracy. Worse, a single truck can only chase one emu at a time, and the hundreds of others will invariably run away from the vehicle, making a clean getaway almost every time.

On November 8, the Australian Parliament paused operations and withdrew the force. One month later, under renewed pressure from the regional government, they recommitted the men to the Great Emu War.

Major Meredith led his second offensive against the emus on November 12. Initial results were no better than they had been before, but by the end of the month Meredith’s men were claiming up to 100 emus a week. On December 10, Meredith was recalled and his team withdrew from the field.

In his final report, Major Meredith claimed that his teams had expended 9,860 rounds of ammunition and killed 986 emus; a ratio of exactly ten rounds per dead bird. This is consistent with the experience of a farmer who hit an emu with his truck that December. On examination of the dead bird, he found nine bullets in its body, which must have been there for at least two weeks before the bird was killed by the truck.

The Great Emu War: Peace And Reconciliation

Australia seems to have learned its lesson from the Great Emu War. When the farmers again called for military aid in 1934, they were turned down, as they were again in 1943 and 1948.

Instead of brute-forcing the culling of emus, the government set aside money for bounties and let the farmers themselves do the hard work of tracking and shooting the emu menace. This was much more effective. In 1934 alone, nearly 58,000 bounties were claimed.

When word of the Great Emu War reached London, environmentalists were aghast, as they often are, by what they saw as the totally unjustifiable killing of “rare” emus. The fact that there were tens of thousands of them, and that not a single one ever ate the livelihood of a London environmentalist, went unmentioned in the many articles written condemning the “barbaric” attacks on the gentle emu.

Meredith and his men never entirely lived down their role in the Great Emu War. At one point, an Australian MP jokingly suggested that the government commission a medal for the campaign, only for the suggestion to be made that the medals should all go to the emus.

In time, the laughter faded and everything went back to normal. Another emu cull was carried out in 1994, but this time it was done by volunteers who put the animals out of their misery while they were dying of thirst in a drought, thus saving precious water for, among other things, the hundreds of thousands of other emus still living in the interior. The peace has been won at last.

For more on Australia’s checkered history with native and invasive species after this look at the Great Emu War, check out how rabbits, feral cats, and koalas have fared in the land down under.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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