In writing my blog about the wildlife of Australia I’ve tended to focus on the more benevolent animals – partly because frankly almost all of them are, and partly not to scare off potential visits from overseas friends. Australian wildlife has a fearsome reputation outside the country which is largely undeserved – and certainly some Aussies like to play this up. However there are a couple of beasties you do need to be a little careful of like Sydney funnel web spiders, and a few less well-known ones such as irukandji jellyfish and our subject today, the drop bear. Happily these are all uncommon if not downright rare, and can easily be avoided with some simple precautions (like not going to Sydney!). As is so often the case a little knowledge goes a long way.
So what is a drop bear? The Australian Museum sums them up pretty well – they’re like particularly large koalas, but are distinctly not cuddly, with much more powerful forearms and rather vicious teeth. Like koalas they hang out near the tops of trees in more remote areas, but rather than being fussy eucalyptus-munchers they’re ambush predators, waiting until some unsuspecting marsupial wanders underneath. When this happens they jump directly onto their unsuspecting victim, using their large teeth and claws to go for the jugular. Occasionally someone brave (or foolish) enough manages to get this on film. Like leopards they’ll frequently drag their quarry back up into a tree to feast on at their leisure.
They’re really quite rare – we’ve only definitively seen a couple and then from a distance. Like big crocs you simply can’t wander up close and ask them to pose for the camera. I’m pretty sure the picture at the top is one, taken by an abandoned hut in the depths of the Toolangi State Forest – the distinctly red eyes are bit of a giveaway, if you can safely get close enough. This was taken with my longest lens and is heavily cropped. I can be a little less risk-averse than Ginny, but I was still giving it plenty of room – they have been known to chase people. Another way to spot them is if they’ve been feeding recently there’s often a bit of gore around their mouths. Like many large carnivores they’re messy eaters. Nice!
They’re both territorial and wide-ranging, and so like cassowaries habitat loss has particularly affected them. In addition attacks on people are frequently under-reported. Tourism Australia has enough issues with concerns about other potentially dangerous animals scaring people off that they heavily play down any issues with drop bears. You can’t really pretend crocodiles and sharks aren’t around, but because drop bears can easily be mistaken for koalas (with unfortunate results) they do a good job of pretending they simply don’t exist. Like other dangerous animals such as crocodiles there is controversy over how (or even if) to manage the drop bear population, as seen in the following news report:
The easiest – if not hugely pleasant – method of avoiding drop bears is simply to smear a bit of Vegemite behind your ears if you’re out bushwalking – drop bears find the pungent aroma deeply offensive and will stay well clear. The original slip-slop-slap campaign which has saved so many Australians from skin cancer was also used for Vegemite in drop bear prone areas, with similarly effective results. However more recent research casts doubt on the efficacy this, and actually links drop bear attacks to non-native accents. Certainly our boys hate having their Vegemite on almost as much as they hate having sun cream on, but now we’ve been here a couple of years we’re fairly confident we sound enough like locals to generally not bother with the Vegemite.
If you’re visiting and staying in a hotel or B&B I recommend pocketing a couple of those single-serve Vegemite portions that are invariably served at breakfast – we’ve found one of these is enough for a family of four if you’re careful. Don’t worry about being discrete when doing this – we’ve had friends who were spotted by the waiter, who then actually came over and made sure they had enough to spare for their trip.
Simple vigilance also goes a long way – if you’re out looking up at the tree canopy a lot using those aeroplane neck cushions really helps. If you see people around with them on I’d recommend going carefully! Vegemite behind the ears is a lot easier, but if you’re caught short in the bush you won’t have much choice. The government has tried to inform people, but with limited success after the ‘look up and live’ campaign was appropriated in a rather cack-handed way by the electricity industry to warn of overhead power lines.
Drop bears are a recurring topic at our 4WD club meetings – because we tend to get out into more remote areas the likelihood of running into drop bears increases significantly. The Pajero club we’re in uses channel 15 on the UHF radio (that’s CB for UK readers, they’re essential for any 4WD) and it’s not unusual to hear a crackle and ‘Drop bears above, windows up and stay in your vehicles’ from the trip leader as we’re hacking through the bush. There are even a couple of tours that specifically go out looking for them if you fancy seeing one for real.
So there we have it – a lesser-known Australian icon, and like many others only dangerous if you’re not being sensible. Just go carefully in the deep forest, particularly around mating season (start of April) when they’re more active…