The Fascinating Real-Life Account of How Man Waged War Against Emus with Machine Guns ... and Lost
There have been many terrible wars throughout history, vicious and bloody affairs that left millions dead, and even more destroyed but staggering on through the rest of their lives. We’ve fought for love, for honor, for ideas, for freedom, for vengeance, and most of the time just because it’d been long enough since the last go around that it felt like time to hop in the ring for another few rounds. We fought on the savanna once, maybe not wars per se, but it must have seemed like it to those first few who stood again the lion’s charge with nothing but a crude spear. We fought the Neanderthal once, by some accounts massacring them gradually in our first genocide. We’ve fought other peoples, other religions, other nations. We’ve fought ourselves if you want to be poetic.
But only once have we waged war on the emu.
It was the 1930s, in the scorched heart of the Great Depression, and Australia found itself under siege in the war forgotten to time due to its hiding between the two world wars. Rabbits were the start of the problem. Twenty-four of them to be exact, released in the late 19th century into the Australian wild in order to be hunted, as proper British gentlemen are wont to do.
But rabbits breed you see, and not just in the metaphor. These rabbits bred like the proverbial rabbits. By 1950, those 24 rabbits had become 600 million, in the most monumental example of inbreeding since European royalty. The rabbits were hemophiliacs though, just rampant sex machines tearing through the southern Australia like, well like many of the very terrifying creatures that actually are supposed to live in southern Australia.
A classic case of an invading species annihilating the local ecosystem, the rabbits basically ate everything in their paths, leaving native life to starve and collapsing even the geology of areas as they so thoroughly destroyed plant life that subsequent rain and wind swept away the countryside. They devastated farmland too and the Australians pioneered modern biological warfare by recruiting Louis Pasteur to develop a disease to wipe out the rabbits. He failed. Yes, the rabbits proved a match for the father of microbiology and he returned to easier tasks like developing vaccines for rabies and anthrax. You know, little stuff.
So the Australians turned to more mundane measures. Over six years, they built an 1100 mile long fence, to cut off the rabbits from the western half of the country. Designed to be rabbit proof, it featured barbed wire, extending six inches under ground to foil the burrowing bastards. It was the project was the longest fence in the world when completed in 1907. It only marginally helped, but it was rendered almost useless by the subsequent emu invasions of the 1930s.
Emus had since time immemorial migrated in huge herds of tens of thousands across Australia seasonally. They were unimpressed by the new rabbit fence and proceeded to simply walk right through them. Flightless they might have been, but then so is a bulldozer. The rabbits hopped right on through the holes left in the fence, swarming like locusts into the farmlands. At this point, the Australians did the only logical thing: they deployed the army with truck-mounted machine guns to eradicate the emus.
It was a bit embarrassing when the emus won.
One should read the wikipedia article at the very least, or try to find an actual book on the entire brilliant affair. But I will summarize it simply by quoting ornithologist Dominic Serventy who witnessed the events:
“The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. 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.”
That right there is a movie waiting to happen. I’m thinking George Clooney in some capacity, because all movies set from 1930 to 1960 should star George Clooney. Perhaps as the ornithologist of note. As commander of the soldiers deployed against this inhuman menace that proved completely immune to modern military hardware? Hugh Jackman. Let him off leash, tell him to channel George C. Scott and go full Aussie Patton.
And as for the rabbits? Well in 1950 the Australian government released a specially prepared Myxoma virus on the wild population of rabbits. It killed 85% of the rabbit population within a couple of years, and they’ve to date only recovered about half those population losses. So in 1991, they began experimenting with a virus that originated in China that can only be described as Rabbit Ebola. It “accidentally” escaped containment and killed 10 million rabbits in 8 weeks. It was a victim of its own success, so virulent that it killed so quickly as to burn out, killing individuals faster than they could spread the disease.
Yet their numbers continue to mount. Watching, waiting.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.