A watercolour by William Porden Kay depicts emus at Stanley during the 1840s. (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania)
It’s hard to imagine free-ranging emus foraging across Tasmanian plains in 2019.
But, there is a reason why Burnie used to be called Emu Bay. The large flightless birds once called the island state home.
The University of Tasmania’s Tristan Derham said the birds were throughout Tasmania’s midlands and the north-east and north-west of the state.
“It’s not really clear why the emu went extinct in Tasmania,” he said.
The emus were said to be a smaller sub-species of the mainland emus but there are few detailed descriptions of the bird.
Mr Derham said he had researched eyewitness accounts of emus through reports by divisive colonial leader George Augustus Robinson, explorer Matthew Flinders and the diaries of clergyman Robert Knopwood.
“I haven’t found a lot of evidence they were much different from mainland emus,” he told ABC Radio Hobart.
European settlers recorded feasting on emus and kangaroos upon arrival in Van Diemen’s Land.
“The early colonists were crazy for hunting emus and kangaroos,” Mr Derham said.
The species survived in the wild until 1865, and the last captive bird died in 1873.
The Tasmanian emu was said to be smaller than its mainland counterpart. (Supplied: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania)
A sustainable relationship between emus and Aboriginal people
Mr Derham said there were several theories as to why the emu went extinct in Tasmania.
One is the hunting pressures from settlers.
“At the same time, Aboriginal people were being torn off the land and were no longer burning in the way that they used to burn and that probably affected what habitat was available for emus to travel through and the food that they ate,” Mr Derham said.
“Land was being cleared. There were 280,000 sheep in Tasmania by 1830 or 1840.
“When you think about it, the forester kangaroo barely escaped extinction in Tasmania, there are very few left here now.”
University of Melbourne research fellow and Indigenous Australian Greg Lehman said Aboriginal people had a close connection with both the kangaroo and emu in Tasmania.
“The emu was a really important food source and just like the kangaroo, the emu benefited from Aboriginal burning,” he said.
Dr Lehman said Aboriginal people hunted emus, but in relatively low numbers.
“Emus were pretty hard to catch, they were fast runners and could defend themselves,” he said.
“Europeans had dogs and guns and that made the emu a lot more vulnerable.”
He said by the mid-1830s, emus were considered to be rare.
Emu eggs from the Burnie Regional Museum, a town once known as Emu Bay. (Supplied: Burnie Regional Museum)
“Europeans had almost wiped out emus within 25 years of arriving in Van Diemen’s Land,” he said.
“That’s in contrast with the fact that Aboriginal people had coexisted with emus for 40,000 years.”
Dr Lehman said emus featured in stories and songs, and there were lots of different names for them, including gonanner, ponanner and tooteyer.
Feathers were used to decorate inside Aboriginal huts, and served as insulation, he said.
An engraving from 1880 depicting kangaroos, emus and ‘tiger wolves’ in the Tasmanian bush. (Supplied: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania)
Should the emu be re-introduced?
Both Mr Derham and Dr Lehman said they’d like to see emus reintroduced to Tasmania.
Mr Derham said the emu could thrive in parts of Tasmania today and were good seed dispensers.
“I think they are a really interesting and important part of the cultural landscape,” he said.
“But, you have to be careful about reintroducing anything.
“There are a lot of people who would love to see emus roaming around on their properties or in national parks, but there’s people who would really not like to see emus hit by cars or wandering through crops.”
Dr Lehman agreed the emu was important to the landscape.
“I’d love to see emus back out there in the bush,” he said.
“There would be some parts of Tasmania where they would present fewer challenges.”
He pointed to the north-east of the state, where the forester kangaroo was still common.
“Emus and kangaroos used to coexist. Whenever I see kangaroos up there, I think, ‘Where are the emus, they look a bit lonely’,” he said.
Maria Island ranger Rex Gatenby feeds emus in 1970. (Supplied: Jack Thwaites Collection, Tasmanian Archives)
Rogue emus on Maria Island
Emus roamed free on Maria Island in the state’s south-east until the early 1990s.
It’s believed emus were introduced on the island from mainland Australia in 1960.
Former emu worker Dennis Turner remembers the birds being quite aggressive.
“They had no fear of anything,” he said.
“They would just come up and peck the food out of your hands.
“They can get quite territorial.”
By the 1980s, the population had increased to about 30 emus and they became a pest to visitors.
The emus were eventually removed, with the last said to have been shot in 1994.
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