As I have been tramping around the local woods this spring photographing orchids and birds I noticed something that I’d never seen before. That something was teddy bears tied to trees in odd remote locations. At first I thought it was strange game being played by the local kids, but after I saw my tenth one I decided to ask about and find out what was going on. It took ages to find someone who would answer my questions. Eventually an acquaintance told me to go and see Cliffy.
Cliffy wasn’t that easy to find. The directions up to his shack in the wandoo forest were very vague – turn off the Great Southern Highway onto Talbot Road, drive for 10 Km and then take the third track on the left. Turn right at the dead tree that looks like an “excited” Tony Abbot in Speedos and then right at the big rock. I found the shack. When I say shack that really sounds better than it is. A few sheets of corrugated tin and some bush poles was all it was. When I saw Cliffy it was plain to see that he’d had a hard life. He is a compact sinewy man with skin the colour of tanned leather and hair like iron filings. His hands were a testament to hard physical labour – even the callouses had callouses. As to his age, well if you told me he was 100 I’d believe it and if you said he was 50 it wouldn’t surprise me either. So after the usual “Howz yer doin’?” Followed by a quick discussion about rainfall and rain gauges* I asked him about the bears. Cliffy sucked his single tooth and rolled a couple of strands of tobacco in some paper that looked like it had been torn from a pocket Bible. Slowly and quietly he says in a voice that sounded like he’d been gargling on razor blades “They’re memorials to victims of Drop Bear attacks”. He lit up and took a long drag and then told me the strangest tale. I scurried home to do some research.
Most people throughout the world know about the Koala Bear or to give them their proper scientific name “Phascolarctos cinereus”. Well firstly they are not a bear but a tree-dwelling marsupial that feeds on eucalyptus leaves. Secondly they are relatively harmless because all they do is eat and sleep. Occasionally you come across a grumpy one but all you’ll suffer is a few scratches. Well apparently the koala has an evolutionary cousin, the Thylarctos plummetu. Most animals in Australia are known by their Aboriginal name, but this one hasn’t got one as the Aboriginal Peoples are so scared of it they refuse to talk about it. Colonial settlers came to refer to them as Drop Bears for reasons that will become apparent later. Few people have seen the animal, and of those that have only a couple have lived to tell the tale. I’ll quote the Australian Museum’s description:
“Around the size of a leopard or very large dog with coarse orange fur with some darker mottled patterning (as seen in most Koalas). It is a heavily built animal with powerful forearms for climbing and holding on to prey. It lacks canines, using broad powerful premolars as biting tools instead.”
“120kg, 130cm long, 90 cm at the shoulder.”
“Vegetation Habitat: closed forest, tall closed forest, tall open forest, tall open shrubland”
Feeding and Diet
“Examination of kill sites and scats suggest mainly medium to large species of mammal make a substantial proportion of the animal’s diet. Often, prey such as macropods are larger than the Drop Bear itself. Drop Bears hunt by ambushing ground dwelling animals from above, waiting up to as much as four hours to make a surprise kill. Once prey is within view, the Drop Bear will drop as much as eight metres to pounce on top of the unsuspecting victim. The initial impact often stuns the prey, allowing it to be bitten on the neck and quickly subdued. If the prey is small enough Drop Bears will haul it back up the tree to feed without harassment from other predators.”
The Australian Geographic magazine did an article in 2013 about a University of Tasmania (UTAS) research project looking at who were more susceptible to attacks. In 2012 there was a research project looking to track Drop Bears in bush and see how many there actually are. An excerpt from that paper can be read here. I even managed to find online an old public announcement film for new migrants dating from the 1950’s warning of the dangers posed by Drop Bears.
When Cliffy had finished his tale of horror I had to lift my jaw up from the floor. “But why oh way don’t the government send in the police or the army to do something about it?” I say incredulously. This sent the old man into a fit of hysterical laughter. After ten minutes he managed to regain his composure. “Yer dopey pommy bastard, don’t yer know nothin’? The last time the Australian Army was called in to deal with an animal problem was in 1932 when Emus invaded Western Australia and that was a complete fu*king fiasco and made them look like complete idiots. It would be too dangerous to let that mob loose in the bush. The bloody pollies are all too busy guzzling at the trough to care about a few bushies goin’ missing.”
So if you venture into the Australian bush and see teddy bears tied to the trees be aware that Drop Bear attacks have happened in the area and you’d be best advised to leave.
* All conversations in this part of the world follow this pattern. It’s considered very rude not to ask about someone’s rain gauge.