LIFE LINES LIFE LINES LIFE LINES An upgrade and extension of a vermin control fence running across Western Australia (the State Barrier Fence) is nearing completion. When finished it will stretch coast-to-coast, completely cutting off the emu migration route. 20 000 emus were on the move, marching toward the wheat-growing region around Campion and Walgoolan. In previous years, many settlers had come to the area after fighting in the Great War, and they had planted a lot of magine thousands of emus stuck behind a fence, their wheat. Things went well for them at first, but now, suffermigration route blocked by wire and steel posts. Imagine ing from falling grain prices and understandably unwilling them dying of starvation, thirst, or exhaustion, their bones to see their livelihoods further endangered by a seemingly and feathers rotting in Western Australia's red earth. endless stream of hungry beaks and trampling feet, they It's coming. called the army in. Before the settlement of Australia's west, emus moved as It was on the morning of November 2nd that Major they needed, southwest toward the coast some time in win- GPW Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the ter, northeast in summer, or the other way around if the Royal Australian Artillery, along with Sergeant S McMurray rains so dictated. In some years, and Gunner J O'Halloran, first thousands joined forces to jouropened fire. They used a Lewis ney together, forming one of automatic machine gun, hoping nature's great spectacles. They to cut the birds down at a stroke, faced dangers, of course: dingoes, just as soldiers had cut each thylacines, and Aboriginal peoother down in France as they ple. Ingenious hunters, Aboriran in desperation to the next ginals captured emus across the trench. But on hearing the first continent. Some drugged their shots the birds scattered, the drinking pools; others put balls tight mass target evaporating of feathers on sticks or waved like mist. On the 4th, the solthings from behind trees to diers tried again, lying in wait attract the birds' attention before near a pool, ready to fire on jumping out with their clubs and about 1000 emus that were comspears. Some were even lured ing to drink. Again the gun spat, into traps by hunters tapping Migrating emus come up against the State Barrier Fence. but it jammed and only 12 birds their hands over a hole in a fell. On the 8th, the gunners branch hollowed out by termites, the soft booming sound- were recalled by politicians who were squabbling over ing like the birds' call. But the Aboriginals respected their who would pay for the bullets and facing ridicule over the prey. Among some groups, when a young hunter took an military's failure to wipe out their foe. But the settlers emu for the first time, his comrades would make him lie on demanded the army's return, and return it did, on the the lifeless body, thanking it for nourishing them. Some 12th. Over the next month, the campaign continued; honored the birds with a constellation in the night sky, and 9860 rounds were fired in all. The fact that only 986 birds others taught that the yolk of an emu egg was responsible were killed cannot hide the reality that this was an for the Sun's first rising. They took only what they needed, attempted mass extermination. Having lost what became just as the birds themselves took only the plants, grubs, and known as the Emu War, Meredith declared that the insects that sustained them, a balance set out in the enemy he could not eradicate "could face machine guns Dreamtime. with the invulnerability of tanks". If that were true, and European settlers, however, were different. They cleared greater bounties had not been offered on the birds' heads, the land and planted wheat. And so the emus, who could maybe the settlers' own rifles would not have taken only have seen the new cropland as a tucker basket just 57 000 of them over a single 6-month period in 1934. right for long seasonal walkabouts, became the enemy. Since then, Western Australia's emus have faced many There would be war. other shootings, and even strychnine poisoning, yet they In the early 1900s, Western Australian settlers began to still manage to gather in huge numbers in some years. build fences stretching hundreds of miles initially to keep But this new fence, reinvented, reinforced, and running out rabbits and dingoes, but handy as emu-stoppers as well. without end or breakage, could be their undoing. We To continue their migration the birds had to search for have been to the Moon and the bottom of the sea. gaps, or breaks, or go around the ends of the fences. We have built cities and civilizations. Can we honestly Fortunately for them these barriers soon fell into disrepair, believe that extinguishing emus slowly, agonizingly, leaving no solid coast-to-coast wire wall. behind a wire fence, is a step we have to take? Adrian Burton But in November 1932, events took a serious turn. Over Western Australia Dept of Agriculture and Food www.frontiersinecology.org © The Ecological Society of America
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment – Ecological Society of America
Published: Aug 8, 2013
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