Australian Animals - Really So Dangerous?

Every animal in Australia has the potential to kill you! Whether on land or in the water. Well, a little bit of an exaggeration, but sometimes it seems as if this is what some visitors to the land down under think. The cliché is prevalent. So, is there any truth to it and if so, how much? How dangerous is Australia’s wildlife really?

Snakes - dreaded animal by lots of backpackers
Deadly snakes - one of the things Australia is famous for (source: flicker, author: Ed Dunens)

First the short answer. You shouldn’t worry too much about it. This one fits perfectly with the Australian mentality. While a small portion of Australian wildlife can really kill you this danger is blown completely out of proportion. Which doesn’t mean that a little bit of precaution and common sense are good advise when traveling this beautiful continent.

Some hard facts

When thinking about deadly or just dangerous animals, what comes to your mind? Probably, spiders, snakes, crocodiles, sharks and jellyfish. There are even more, but these are probably the most famous ones. So how likely are they then to cause you harm and which precautions can you take?

Venomous animals:

So let’s first have a look at the dreaded venomous animals. According to this study hardly anyone died because of a venomous animal during a 12 year period.

Out of 64 people who got killed about half of them died because of an anaphylactic shock (your immune system overreacting) following the person being stung by a bee, an ant or a similar incident. This is a very real danger and if you are allergic to bees and the like you should be careful. But so should you be when you are in your home country! So, this is not typical to Australia.

Moreover, there was not a single person killed by a spider bite and only about two people per year died because of a snake bite (compared to about 100.000 people dying because of snake bites worldwide each year). And there are another three people (in the whole 12 years) who lost their lives because of a venomous water creature.

Nevertheless, in case you ever get bitten by a spider or by a snake know what to do and especially what not to do after such an event. To avoid being bitten in the first place bear the following in mind. Watch out for those dark corners where red back spiders like to hide as for example in storage rooms, etc. Watch out for snakes, especially when it is dark (more in national parks as in the Sydney CBD). Carry a torch with you! If you ever get bitten by a snake it is probably, because you accidentally stepped on it. In the very rare case that a snake bites you, most important don’t keep moving and follow these guidelines!

But I can only repeat, these things are nice to know, but please do not stress out about it and let this stuff not hold you back from exploring the wonders of Australian nature.

 

The dreaded red back spider
The dreaded red back spider

Nonvenomous animals:

Not every animal in OZ is poisonous, yet there are more dangerous ones. So what about all those sharks and crocodiles and what not? First off, crocodiles are only found in the far north of Australia. And then again, only the way taller saltwater crocodile (salty) poses a real threat to you compared to the rather small freshwater crocodile (freshy).

Up north you should be careful when take getting too close to the water and estuaries. But don’t become paranoid, in those areas where crocodiles pose a threat you will usually find warning signs that will tell you to stay clear of the water. And if you find such a sign you better take it seriously! There is an average of 2.3 people being attacked each year and less than one dying.

And the sharks? They can be found just about anywhere around Australia. And quite like crocodiles they can harm you and can be considered as a potential threat, but still the numbers are neglectable compared to other hazards.

Recently, there were around three people killed because of sharks each year in OZ and in a period prior to that only one person per year. An increase of 200%, yeah, but still not worth the headlines it gets, so be careful when you read numbers, take a moment and think about it. On top of that this increase is also due to a rise in human population and other factors. This is great material on how to read statistics and how you can also use them to convey certain messages.

So, altogether crocodiles and sharks will most likely not kill you. In fact, you should much rather look out for horses, cows, and dogs!

 

This is Schnappi
A saltwater crocodile - you should have some respect, but not fear them (source: flickr, author: Francesco)

Putting things in perspective

So, while it is true that some people die because of wildlife related incidents in Australia, the deaths caused by those animals that visitors often are afraid of are in the single digits. So you should relate this to the following causes of death in Australia each year.

– less than 10 people killed by spiders, snakes, jellyfish, sharks, crocodiles, etc.

– there are 16 people that died, because they inhaled or ingested food and stopped breathing (2015)

– a total of 18 persons dying from falling down stairs (2015)

– around 25 deaths caused by horses, cows and dogs

– well over 100 being assaulted by others

– around 300 people drowning

– more than 1200 people killed in traffic accidents with around 30 people riding bicycles

So, apparently riding a bicycle is more dangerous than any of the animals in Australia. This should not discourage you from riding a push bike. No, rather the other way round. You know, that riding a bicycle can be dangerous and even more so if you are not used to cars driving on the left lane, but you are not going crazy because of that. And the same applies to Australian wildlife. It is one of a gazillion everyday threats, but it is not out there to kill you.

The ocean - way more dangerous than Australia's fauna

Personal experience

This is a topic I am passionate about on several levels. As a German I am culturally programmed to be afraid of just about anything (exaggeration alert again). Then as a mathematician I am also a numbers person and I am curious about the divergence of the threat perceived by people compared to the actual threat. I could really drift off on this one, but as Tony Wheeler (founder of Lonely Planet) shows in this talk, the world is not always as dangerous as portrayed by the media!

On top of all that I have encountered quite a few of these dangerous animals. I met them every other day and especially while working on a prawn vessel (LINK) and working in the Bush (LINK) and in the Outback (LINK). And I survived!

In fact, no red back spider jumped at me and pretty much all snakes I saw were gone so fast that I would not even be able to tell you the exact color or size of it.

I just couldn’t believe when someone told me she wouldn’t want to go for a swim at Broome’s cable beach because she was afraid of crocodiles and there are so many more stories like that. Of course I don’t want to push anyone in any way, but please just be rational about this one.

Survived the encounter with a red back spider! Notice how small it is (right to my hand)

To sum it up, animals in Australia do not really pose a threat you should worry about too much. Definitely not more than in a lot of other countries, also including the place you live in. However, there is no harm in taking a few precautions and making use of some common sense to avoid unnecessary dangers.

At the end of the day, newspaper articles about snake bites and the like sell way better than similar articles about bicycle accidents. They willingly or unwillingly also serve the purpose of portraying Australia as quite exotic. And I think this should get you even more excited to visit this country with its breathtaking landscapes and sometimes peculiar wildlife rather than making you want to avoid coming to OZ.

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