Is Australia the deadliest place on earth?

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Dear Cecil: I’ve often heard Australia contains more things that can kill you than anywhere else on the planet, often coupled with the proud assertion that our deadly wildlife is deadlier than everywhere else’s deadly wildlife. I live in suburban Sydney and have personally encountered funnel web spiders, redback spiders, red-bellied black snakes, and a blue-ringed octopus. So I’m not surprised by the idea that there are lots of things in Australia that can kill you. But are we Aussies really blessed with a more lethal fauna than the rest of the world? Christine Moffat


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Your letter provoked yet another controversy here at the Straight Dope. I too had heard boasts about Australia’s dangerous wildlife, and was happy to believe it was the most noxious pesthole on earth. However, my assistant Una felt Oz’s creeping perils were all bark and no bite. Declining my offer to airdrop her into the outback to investigate personally, she proposed the next best thing: a book-off.

I knew immediately my weapon of choice: travel writer Bill Bryson’s entertaining volume about Australia, In a Sunburned Country (2000). Bryson lovingly catalogs the many horrors infesting the land down under, leading him to declare it “the most extraordinarily lethal country.” Pulling out my copy, I recounted the notable vermin for Una’s benefit:

  • First, at least 14 different types of poisonous snake, including the taipan, the most toxic land snake known, whose venom clots the victim’s blood. Una groused that by Bryson’s own admission the last fatal taipan bite had occurred in 1989.
  • Next, I continued, spiders. These include the funnel web spider, which Bryson claims is “the most poisonous insect in the world.” Una was scornful, noting that spiders aren’t insects but arachnids. Whatever you call them, I retorted, they’re murderous little bastards, responsible for at least 13 deaths. Meanwhile, the redback spider, a relative of our American black widow, has slain at least 14.

Tragic, said Una. But let’s consider the matter in the cold light of dawn. All 13 funnel web fatalities happened before 1980, and all 14 redback deaths occurred before 1955. In other words, the danger in affluent Australia is largely theoretical. If we consider actual body count — snakebite deaths, say — we find Australia isn’t even in the top ten worldwide. India has a mortality rate at least 30 times as high. Australia has less than a quarter the venomous bite rate of southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, and its death rate is laughably low.

  • Don’t get technical on me, I said. Let’s turn to aquatic monstrosities. To hear Bryson tell it, on some Australian coasts merely dipping a toe in the water will result in certain death. You’ve got box jellyfish, snotty jellyfish, poisonous sea snails. There are stinging coral, sea snakes, stonefish, lionfish, and scorpion fish. Giant groupers. The blue-ringed octopus. And let’s not overlook sharks.
  • Other menaces include the cassowary, a large flightless bird capable of administering a fatal kick to the neck.

I concede middle-class white people spook easily, said Una. However, consider South America, specifically the Amazon jungle — there’s my idea of scary.

She produced David Grann’s The Lost City of Z (2009), about the search for a mythological El Dorado in Brazil. Never mind the cannibals, she said. Here’s a land where you can be crushed by anacondas, eaten by piranha, and jolted by electric eels. Angry wild pigs roam the forests; colorful frogs are deadly to the touch.

But it’s bugs that give the region its charm, she continued. Look here on page 83. Poisonous flesh-eating fire ants can drive you mad or strip you to the bone. Berne flies deposit their eggs under your skin, which turn into hungry wriggling larvae. I’d also watch out for cyanide-squirting millipedes, blindness-causing parasitic worms, and flesh-eating bees.

Una, I said, these vermin are indeed worrisome if you’re dumb enough to embark on an expedition through the rain forest. But it’s unfair of you to suggest Australia’s reputation stems solely from bourgeois paranoia. Remember those deadly funnel web spiders? The deadliest variety is found only within 100 miles of Sydney. Our suburban letter-writer herself said she’d had run-ins with numerous lethal critters.

And humans don’t always escape. The fearsome saltwater crocodile reliably eats an Australian every year or two, and likely holds the record for most people killed by animals at one go. During the Battle of Ramree Island in February 1945, British forces chased 1,000 Japanese soldiers into a croc-infested swamp. No more than 20 were taken prisoner; presumably hundreds were eaten alive. OK, that was off the coast of Burma, not Australia. But I say close enough.

Feh, said Una. You’ve forgotten about a South American fish with a horrifying talent once considered mythical. You yourself showed it wasn’t. I speak of the impromptu urology exam administered by the inquisitive …

Crap, I said, crossing my legs. The candirú.

Exactly, said Una. The slithery, stream-climbing candirú. Consider yourself pwned.

What could I say? Australia is a dangerous place, Christine. But we live in a dangerous world.

Cecil Adams

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