Australians trying to rebuild in the wake of Cyclone Yasi have been warned to stay away from cassowaries – huge flightless birds with claws that can disembowel a human – on the hunt for food after their habitat was destroyed by the storm.
Residents of communities around Mission Beach, on the north Queensland coast, which was almost flattened by the category five cyclone earlier this month, have been advised to beware of the 6ft tall birds, which are known to attack if they feel threatened.
Famed for their long talons – their dagger-like middle claws measure 12cm long – and powerful legs, the birds, which are unique to the rainforests of northern Australia, are said to be able to disembowel humans, dogs and horses with just one kick.
Weighing more than 10st, cassowaries resemble an emu, and in 2007 were named the most dangerous birds in the world by the Guinness Book of Records.
However, thanks to land clearing and development along the coast, the fearsome birds are seriously endangered, with just 1,000 left in the wild.
Queensland authorities and green groups have warned that over the coming weeks the birds will be forced out of the rainforest after violent winds from Cyclone Yasi stripped trees of their main food source, fruit.
The government, which is arranging emergency aerial food drops for the birds in an attempt to keep them away from residential areas, has warned locals to be on the lookout for hungry cassowaries.
"It's vital that members of the public don't feed cassowaries – for their own safety and in the interests of the birds' survival long term, Kate Jones, the Queensland sustainability minister, said.
"Cassowaries that come to expect food from humans can become aggressive and dangerous."
The warning comes after several cassowaries were spotted close to towns following Cyclone Larry, which hit the same stretch of coast in 2006. After the storm, one third of the population of cassowaries died, and conservationists fear that without intervention the same could happen.
Bob Irwin, a conservationist and the father of late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, said it could take 18 months for the rainforest to grow back and that in that time scores of cassowaries could starve to death.
"As well as losing their food they are losing their homes so they will be very disoriented.
"Like any other animal, if you interfere with them there could be a risk, but the main threat is to the birds themselves."
While the birds, which resemble emus, are known to be highly aggressive if approached, there is only one documented human death caused by a cassowary.
In 1926 Philip McClean, 16, was killed after he and his brother attempted to beat a cassowary to death. The bird fought back, charging at McClean and knocking him down and slashing his neck with a claw.