News & Media

Emu underpass plan to save threatened Australian bird

by Damian Gill (Reuters-UK)
September 5, 2012

(Reuters) – In Australia, the question is not why did the emu cross the road, but how?

Australian road officials have proposed building emu underpasses beneath the east coast Pacific Highway so a population of endangered flightless emu can safely cross one of Australia’s busiest and most dangerous roads.

But wildlife experts say the emu, the world’s 3rd largest bird and one which can run as fast as 50 kph (30mph), is unlikely to use the underpasses.

“Emus are big birds with little brains,” said Gary Whale of Birdlife Australia.

The New South Wales state roads authority said it was working on a plan to minimize the impact of a Pacific Highway upgrade on a small emu population on Australia’s east coast.

Between 20 and 40 people have died on the Pacific Highway each year over the last decade, prompting authorities to spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading the highway to get rid of accident prone “black spots”.

But Birdlife Australia said the suggested new route of the highway would bisect emu foraging and breeding areas and endanger the lives of the emus in Clarence Valley.

“It could see the extinction of the coastal emu,” said Whale.

Special pathways to “provide safe passage under bridges” were being considered as part of an environmental impact statement, said a spokesperson for the New South Wales Roads and Maritime Service.

“There are also four dedicated underpass structures designed for the emus, three 5.5 meters (18 feet) high and the other four meters (13 feet) high,” said the spokesperson.

Emus can stand up to two meters (6.6 ft) tall.

Animal highway tunnels already exist for koalas and reptiles and suspension rope bridges span the Pacific Highway for animals like possums.

A final decision on the emu underpasses will be made later in the year, but Whale said he was pessimistic about the birds ever using them, given their lack of intelligence – a problem that can make it hard simply to shoo them out of fenced fields.

“(Farmers) open their gate to try and encourage them to go out,” Whale said.

“Five meters away the emu is butting at a five-strand fence, but can’t work out that there is an opening there that it can get through.”

(Reporting by Damian Gill; Editing by Michael Perry and Elaine Lies)