The Great Emu War Of 1932 (Yes, really)

By | September 23, 2019

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An Emu. Source: (Photo by Reinhard Dirscherl\ullstein bild via Getty Images)

In 1932 the Australian Army was called to the wheat belt of Western Australia to do battle with a foe with literally inhuman intuition. The enemy was neither an invading army nor a militia of desperadoes looking to overthrow the Australian government. The adversary was Dromaius novaehollandiae, better known by its common name, the emu.

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Contemporary image of Emus in a plantation of Narrow-leaved tea-trees, New South Wales, Australia. Source: (Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


In the days during and after the First World War, Australian veterans returning home took advantage of a soldier settlement act that allocated land to the returning veterans. The idea was that the ex-soldiers could convert these lands into working farms. While throughout the program the government had been purchasing land throughout the country, by 1920 it was settling about 5,000 veterans in the more remote, arid Western Australia in the vicinity of Perth. Despite the marginal climate, these settlers managed to establish somewhat profitable wheat and sheep farms.

However, after the Great Depression struck in 1929, wheat prices plummeted. The new farms struggled even though the crops were good. The government for its part made unfulfilled promises of subsidies and urged the farmers to grow more wheat to make up the difference.

The final straw came in the form of an invading horde of 20,000 five-to-six-footish, gangly emus that were looking for water sources on their migratory route. They trampled and devoured crops, much to the dismay of the farmers. The farmers, who had tolerated the emus only so much before (in fact by the pressure they had Western Australia reclassified from endangered to vermin after World War I) now demanded action. They didn’t trust the Ministry of Agriculture, so the ex-soldiers naturally sought a military solution.

The problem was explained by one government official for the uninitiated, “... the use of rifles for the extinction of the birds was quite ineffective because only one or two birds could be shot before the remainder scattered far and wide. Ordinary fences such as keep out dingoes and kangaroos offer no obstacle to emus, for the birds take them in their stride, or knock them down, and thus let the rabbits into the crops.” Rabbits, of course, were a feral invasive species that was decimating the Australian landscape.