Home to snapping salties, box jellies and spiders that hide in the dunny, Australia is famed for its reputedly deadly wildlife, but how scared should we be? Mike Unwin investigates the reality of the risks for traveller.
“So where the bloody hell are you?” With this cheerful if somewhat provocative question, Tourism Australia 2006 invited visitors to experience the rough-hewn charms of a holiday down under. “Back home, where it’s safe to take a walk, swim in the sea and sit on the toilet without fear of my life!” might have been a reasonable answer, given the hair-raising stories we hear about Australia’s reputedly deadly wildlife. After all, if the salties in the billabongs don’t get you – so we’re told – then it’ll be the box jellies on the beach, the great whites in the surf, the king browns in the bush or the redbacks in the dunny.
It didn’t help when on 4 September that same year, Australian TV legend Steve Irwin – a man synonymous with dangerous animals – became a victim himself, impaled on the venomous barb of a stingray while filming on the Great Barrier Reef. A freak accident, of course, but it helped fuel the popular myth that every other Aussie critter is hell-bent on our destruction. So just how scared should we be?
Yes, Australia does have an unusually high quota of animals with the capacity to kill us, including the world’s biggest man-eating reptile, its top three most venomous land snakes, and numerous creepy-crawlies loaded with venom. Yet statistics tell a different story. The average number of people killed annually by Australia’s wildlife over the last 30 years – by all these reputedly deadly creatures combined – is just five. Each death is, of course, a tragedy. But contrast these figures with, for example, the ten people that on average die annually in the UK from bee or wasp stings. Are they really so alarming?
It would seem, then, that the capacity to kill does not necessarily equate to ‘deadly’ – at least not in any way that need worry us on an everyday level. After all, the prospect of an asteroid strike does not cause us to live our lives cowering from the skies. So why the hysteria? Perhaps the prime suspects are worth a closer look.
Australia is home to some 140 species of snake, of which 12 have a potentially lethal bite. The inland taipan, related to Old World cobras, is the most venomous land snake in the world – its maximum recorded venom yield of 110mg could, in theory, kill 100 people – yet there is not one single recorded human fatality. All known bites havebeen to herpetologists, each of whom has recovered with the help of antivenom.
At number two in the venom charts is the eastern brown snake. Often found around settlements, this rather feistier species is responsible for 24 of Australia’s 41 snakebite fatalities recorded since 1980. But one death a year is hardly cause for national panic. Fatalities from other venomous species, including the tiger snake, coastal taipan and death adder, are extremely rare.
Like snakes anywhere, Australia’s do their best to avoid people. Bites are given only in self-defence; why else would a snake risk its life and waste valuable venom attacking a creature far larger than itself? The fact that you so rarely see snakes, despite their abundance, is testimony to their ability to slip away unnoticed. Of the 500–600 or so bites recorded every year, most arise when people attempt to kill, capture or generally mess round with snakes. And more than half are ‘dry bites’, ie. ones in which no venom is injected.
Contrast this with other parts of the world and you’ll see that Australians really have very little to worry about. Worldwide, at least one million people are bitten every year, resulting in – according to WHO estimates – at least 20,000 deaths, perhaps many times more. India and sub-Saharan Africa account for most of these. Medical care in such impoverished regions is often poor, and people’s lifestyles – for instance, walking barefoot and gathering firewood – leave them more vulnerable. In developed countries, snake bites are very rare: some 10–15 people on average die annually in Europe and 10–12 in North America. Australia, despite having the world’s most venomous snakes, is at the bottom of the list, with on average just over two fatalities per year.
For many, Australia’s spiders are even more terrifying than its snakes. In arachnophobic nightmares, these diminutive ‘killers’ get everywhere – into your kitchen, on your bike saddle, even under your lavatory seat. Certainly, there are some highly venomous species. Most notorious is the redback. Named for the red stripe on the female’s upper abdomen, this spider belongs to the Lactrodectus genus of ‘widow’ spiders and has a potently lethal neurotoxic venom. Also much feared are funnel-web spiders, whose bite can reputedly kill in two hours. Among some 35 different species, the Sydney funnel-webs of the Atraxrobustus genus are the most dangerous. A bite can, in extreme cases, cause death by cardiac arrest or pulmonary oedema.
That’s the theory, but what of the stats? Well, Australia has recorded only 27 deaths from spider bites in the last 100 years and none at all since 1980, when anti-venoms became available. Funnel-webs were responsible for 13 of these. Redbacks, despite the scare stories, are not known to have killed anybody since 1956. Certainly an unlucky few victims do occasionally suffer a highly painful bite, even ending up in hospital, but today’s medical know-how means that anything more serious is pretty much unheard of.
TOE IN THE WATER
Various venomous invertebrates inhabit Australia’s coastline. Among the most feared are the blue-ringed octopus species of the Hapalochlaena genus, which squeeze their golf ball-sized bodies into crevices, empty shells and even discarded cans. These retiring molluscs deliver a powerful nerve toxin called tetrodotoxin, which can induce paralysis within ten minutes. Death through respiratory failure is possible, and scientists have calculated that one blue-ringed octopus packs enough venom to down 26 humans. But to get bitten you would have to rummage around in crevices. With only three fatalities reliably recorded, and none at all since 1960, it is hardly a reason to stay away from the beach.
Tropical waters are also home to box jellyfish – an entire class of marine invertebrates, among which certain species, notably Chironex fleckeri (locally dubbed ‘sea stinger’), possess some of the most potent venoms in the animal kingdom. Stings, from the trailing tentacles, are hard to detect, and can cause respiratory failure or cardiac arrest in minutes. One or two deaths do occur annually, most often among children. Of the 80 or so fatalities attributed to jellyfish in Australian waters since 1883, this species was the culprit in all but two cases. The others were caused by the diminutive but also highly venomous irukandji jellyfish.
Every creature described thus far has absolutely no interest in attacking a human, except in self-defence. The same cannot be said of Australia’s two biggest killers, the great white shark and saltwater crocodile. Both of these apex predators do, from time to time, feature Homo sapiens on their menus.
In the case of sharks, attacks are rarer than headlines would have us believe. In Australia, as of July 2012, there have been 877 shark attacks since records began in 1791, of which 216 have proved fatal. Some 25 deaths were recorded between 2000 and 2012. Experts believe that attacks by great whites – known in Australia as white pointers – are largely a case of mistaken identity: the fish mistakes the swimmer for a seal, and withdraws after an exploratory bite reveals its mistake. Other sharks that occasionally attack humans include the bull shark and tiger shark.
A crocodile attack is less likely to be an accident. These formidable reptiles inhabit both fresh and salty waters in tropical northern Australia. Big ones are eminently capable of killing a human being, seizing their victim in the strongest known jaws of any animal, and dragging them under to drown. Attacks have increased in recent years as this impressive animal – once heavily hunted – has expanded its range. Victims seldom live to tell the tale.
Again, however, the stats are comforting. Crocodiles have killed some 40 people in the last 40 years – just one per year on average. Almost all attacks have occurred in known crocodile haunts, the victims persisting in swimming or fishing despite the warning signs. These tragic accidents were, in other words, avoidable ones. They bear little relation to the much higher incidence of crocodile attack in sub-Saharan Africa, where rural communities depend upon rivers for their washing and drinking water.
So, given the modest statistics, why are we so convinced that Australia is the land of deadly beasts? For a start, it’s far from easy even to lay eyes on many of these alleged killers. “I’ve probably spent 5,000 hours diving in our so-called white pointer-infested seas and never even seen one,” says renowned naturalist, conservationist and former Australian of the Year, Nick Mooney, “And I’ve spent much more time in so-called snake-infested bush and never had a close call of any sort.”
CALL OF THE WILD
The question may be more one for the social anthropologist than the naturalist. “I think Oz has this reputation because the climate can be so harsh,” suggests Mooney. “People need something they can ‘aim’ at and do something about, so animals cop it, either by reputation or directly.” And for the modern urban householder – which, today, describes most Australians and tourists – the idea of dangerous wild animals holds a certain primal thrill. “The world is getting short of ‘natural’ adventure and danger,” Moon explains, “so anything on offer gets milked for drama.”
The most dangerous animal in Australia is, in fact, the domestic horse – with an unlucky fall or kick accounting for some 20 fatalities a year. And meanwhile far greater perils than any wild animal await the visitor to the great Australian outdoors, from drowning and dehydration to – worst of all – driving. Road accidents, as so often, are the greatest killers, proving that by far the most dangerous species is our own.
So don’t panic. All of Australia’s wildlife deserves our respect. A few species are potentially dangerous but, as with most wild animals, your chances of a dangerous encounter are minimal. Those of a nervous disposition can take comfort from the statistics. Meanwhile, if you do meet an eastern brown crossing an Outback highway, go cage-diving among great whites off the Neptune Islands or watch a saltie cruising a Top End billabong, just count yourself lucky to be watching some of the most exciting wildlife on the planet.