Australian road officials have proposed building emu underpasses beneath the east coast Pacific Highway so that a population of endangered flightless emus can safely cross one of Australia’s busiest and most dangerous roads.
But wildlife experts say the emu, the world’s third largest bird, which can run as fast as 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 minimise the impact of a Pacific Highway upgrade on the small emu population on Australia’s east coast.
Between 20 and 40 people have died on the road each year over the last decade, prompting authorities to spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading the highway to eliminate accident “black spot”.
But Birdlife Australia said the suggested new route of the highway would bisect emu foraging and breeding areas and endanger the lives of 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 metres (18ft) high and the other 4 metres (13ft) high,” said the spokesperson.
Emus can stand up to 2 metres (6.6ft) tall.
Animal highway tunnels already exist for koalas and reptiles and suspension rope bridges span the Pacific Highway for animals such as 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 metres 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.”