Learning To Love Killer Crocs
By Bernard LaganDecember 12, 2012
Australia’s Northern Territory has seen crocodile numbers soar since the territory government put protections in place. Now though, the humans are being taken again. Is it time to let in the big-game hunters?
The wet is upon Northern Australia — a season of lashing cyclones, roaring monsoonal rains, cracking thunder storms and a leaden humidity. The earth is mud red and the great rivers of Australia’s top end — the Finniss, the Mary, the Victoria — are swelling outwards, submerging trees and surging up long-dry water holes.
In a watery land of predators, the largest of all are on the move; the saltwater crocodiles are breeding and nesting. The males are restive, patrolling territory, warding off rivals. Females are jumpy, fiercely protective of their riverbank mounds, which will have chambers containing 50 or more eggs.
It is peak danger period for people living and travelling around the rivers of Australia’s north.
Estuarine crocodiles are the largest of all living reptiles. The biggest ever caught — according to records at the Australian Museum — was a male monster pulled from the Mary River in 1974. It measured 6.15 metres long.
Not the largest but perhaps the strangest croc character was Sweetheart. He hated the outboard motors that racketed through Sweet’s Billabong on the Finniss River, and he unleashed his first attack on Dulcie Pattenden’s outboard; as Dulcie was fishing one night in 1974, he tossed the boat, pitching her into the river. Sweetheart swam away.
The five-metre crocodile then launched a series of boat attacks throughout 1976, once hoisting a craft containing two adults and two children out of the water and whipping it around in a half circle. Soon afterwards, he sank a dinghy, tossing two men into the lagoon. More attacks on boats followed, and by 1979 Sweetheart was an international crocodilian celebrity.
But Sweetheart posed a dilemma for the Northern Territory’s then-fledgling protection regime for saltwater crocodiles after decades of unrestrained killing that had left them close to wipeout. Introduced in 1971, the laws banned crocodile hunting.
Sweetheart had never attacked a human despite numerous chances but the rights of fishermen to be protected outweighed Sweetheart’s claim on his lagoon. And if Sweetheart did, eventually, kill a human, the already brittle public support for the protection of crocodiles might collapse. Plus he was loathed by local boat-hire operators whose businesses he was hurting.
Eventually Sweetheart was snared using a dead dingo for bait; wildlife rangers had intended to relocate him to a crocodile farm, but he drowned when the steel cable towing him on the river snagged and pulled his head under water. His body is on show at the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin — a totem to man’s mistrust.
Not that such mistrust is misplaced. In the past decade crocodiles have killed 13 people in Australia, including six children. The two most recent fatal attacks happened in quick succession, within three weeks of each other during this wet season, on remote waters.
Both victims were local kids. The first, a seven-year-old girl, was swimming in a waterhole on an Aboriginal outstation, west of Maningrida in the heart of Arnhem Land, on November 16. The crocodile lunged at the man with her, then dragged her beneath the water. Two days later police shot and killed a three-metre crocodile at the billabong. The girl’s remains were found in its stomach.
Then, on December 1, a nine-year-old boy from Nhulunbuy Aboriginal community, on the northern tip of Arnhem Land, was grabbed while swimming. Frantic adults tried to spear the crocodile, but it dragged the boy into deeper water. His remains have not been found.
These attacks have triggered renewed fears across Northern Australia and re-ignited calls for a crocodile cull.
Saltwater crocodile numbers have exploded, from less than 4,000 when they were given legal protection in 1971, to an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 today, according to scientists.
They’re bigger now, too and are turning up in remote waterways and billabongs they have not been seen in for decades.
In total, the biomass of salt-water crocodiles in the Northern Territory is estimated to have increased 100 times since killing them was outlawed; that is because a far greater proportion of the overall crocodile population has lived long enough to enter the larger size classes of four metres and beyond. Before they were protected, far fewer crocs survived long enough to reach the larger sizes.
The Northern Territory government has so far stopped short of authorising a cull but is lobbying the federal government to allow wealthy foreign trophy hunters onto the more remote rivers and billabongs to shoot the big ones.
FEW CREATURES INSPIRE AS MUCH AWE AND FEAR as large crocodiles. For all their mass and ungainliness, they are among the planet’s most stealthy, rapid killers. Under water a crocodile can stem the blood flow to its muscles and slow its heart rate to one or two beats a minute, creating barely a surface ripple. From this near-dormant state it explodes above the surface to attack its prey. It can also rocket across land at up to 14 km/h in a short burst. The saltwater crocodile has the mightiest bite force of any living animal, and is capable of crushing a human skull in a single bite. Its jaws are not just designed for killing prey — they are also primed with sensory organs so finely tuned that crocodiles are able to detect minute changes in water pressure that telegraph movement.
One encounter between three young men and a large crocodile on the Finniss River in 2003 was so terrifying and drawn out that it inspired two movies. Rogue won critical acclaim and Black Water struck international commercial success. The attack occurred in the December high-danger period. The young men had been riding their quad bikes on the lonely salt plains on the edge of the Territory’s Litchfield National Park. Late on the still, cloudy afternoon they went to the swollen river’s edge to wash mud off their boots and clothes. The oldest one of them, Brett Mann, 22, lost his footing and was sucked into the current. His friends Ashley McGough and Shaun Blowers swam out and managed to manoeuvre in front of him, seeking to guide him to a spot where all could climb out.
Blowers’s statement to the police tells what happened next: “Ashley yelled out, ‘Croc, croc, I’m not joking, there’s a fucking croc. Head for a tree, get out of the water.’ I didn't see a croc, but swam to the nearest [partially submerged] tree and climbed up into the first fork. I helped pull Ashley up into the same tree. We looked around for Brett and called his name out. I didn’t see Brett anywhere or hear him call out. I didn’t hear a call or a splash or anything. It wasn’t long after we got into the tree, maybe two minutes later, that I saw a croc pop up with Brett in its jaws. Brett wasn't moving. He was lying face down in the water and the croc was gripping him by the left shoulder. I know it was Brett because he was wearing his O’Neill riding gear, which was mainly yellow with black and white stripes. The croc was only about five metres away from us at the time. It was only a couple of minutes that the croc remained looking around at us. It went under the water with Brett and swam away. I did not see Brett again.”
Five minutes later the crocodile, described by Blowers and McGough as big, black and aggressive, re-appeared at the base of their tree out on the river, which was in flood and five kilometres wide. Terrified and just above the water, the teenagers clung to their tree as night fell. In the middle of the night, Shaun Blowers, who was in the lower fork, tried to climb higher. He fell into the river. Petrified he scrambled back into the tree, which was swaying alarmingly in that night's high winds.
At 10am the next day a friend of the boys, who was with searching police officers, heard their shouted warning to stay out of the water. Their rescue was perilous; the down draft from a rescue helicopter shredded the top of their flimsy tree and nearly put them back in the river. Eventually, a raft moved them to an island mid-stream from which they were winched aboard the chopper.
For days afterwards rangers returned to look for the crocodile, but Brett Mann’s remains were never found.
The attack on Brett Mann led to calls for the culling of the Northern Territory’s saltwater crocodiles. Back then, the Northern Territory government resisted the pressure. But that was nearly a decade ago. There are far more crocodiles today.
THE TERRITORY’S BEST-KNOWN CROCODILE BIOLOGIST and a global authority on the species, Professor Grahame Webb, believes its numbers are up to levels that preceded the beginning of commercial hunting in 1945, which had sparked a frenzied trade in valuable skins. Protection laws halted the trade in 1971, by which time fewer than 4,000 crocodiles remained across the Northern Territory — an expanse of Australia’s remote north a little larger than Peru.
Today, with 80,000 crocodiles stalking the same region, numbers may be at saturation point — and the crocs know it; that's when they start eating each other.
Says Professor Webb, who operates Darwin's famed Crocodylus Park: “In a lot of the rivers, the population is abundant. As a population recovers, it follows a J curve; it sort of gets to the top and starts to level off. That means you’re reaching carrying capacity. It doesn't matter how many more crocs you put in at the bottom — there’s no more coming out on top.”
He adds: “That means you cannot put any more crocs into the system because other crocs will just eat them. That’s controlled by the crocs — not us.”
The enforcers of this zero-population growth policy are the big males, and herein lies a fascinating paradox of the croc dilemma: were the government to allow a serious cull of the crocodiles perceived to be the most threatening — full-grown males — the chances are that the overall population of crocs would spike still higher.
We know this because because the Venezuelans tried it; they culled the big males for decades in some populations of their caiman crocodiles, but left other populations alone. When they compared the two groups, they found that the overall numbers within the culled populations had increased, whereas numbers had remained more or less static in those they’d left alone. Once the big, dominant males were reduced, the sub-adult males — the young bucks —grew faster to maturity in greater numbers, and bred.
That’s not to say that Professor Webb lines up with those groups such as the RSPCA or Bob Irwin — father of the late crocodile hunter, Steve — who are flatly opposed to even limited crocodile trophy hunting in the Northern Territory.
Rather, Professor Webb supports the case for trophy hunting of crocodiles. He believes the money earned by local people in guiding hunters and allowing them access to their lands would be one way of bolstering the benefits that flow to them from managing the wild-crocodile population.
It would build on the unusually adventurous policy the territory government chose in the early 1980s to ensure the survival of the saltwater crocodiles: an incentive-driven conservation strategy that set out to garner public support for the crocs by giving local people the chance to make money from them.
The government wanted the money to buy love for the crocodiles.
As a result of this policy, commercial crocodile farms were established to produce skins for sale, and to attract tourism. Later, crocodile ranches were established to rear crocodiles (also destined to be slaughtered for their skins, meat, teeth and skulls) from eggs taken from the wild. Locals are paid for eggs they collect and thus have an incentive for ensuring the protection of wild-crocodile nesting areas.
In June the Northern Territory renewed a push to get the federal government to agree to let fee-paying crocodile hunters shoot up to 50 big crocs a year. Aboriginal land-holders already collect $1,500 a pop for every buffalo shot by trophy hunters, and $2,500 for each feral banteng (a wild cattle species originally from South East Asia). According to the Territory government’s draft hunting guidelines, land owners could expect far larger fees from trophy-seeking croc hunters — up to $10,000 for each kill.
For years, the Territory government has issued permits thar allow the harvesting of up to 500 wild crocodiles each year for their skins. But less than 100 permits are actually used. The government says that the trophy hunters will be able to draw their kills from this allocation.
Professor Webb sees no problem with this approach: “At the moment we kill crocodiles in the wild so that someone can own a handbag. There is nothing different in killing a crocodile in the wild so that someone can own a trophy.”
He puts it another way: a farmhand equipped with a permit to kill a wild crocodile might get $500 for the skin. But if the farmhand were accompanied by a trophy hunter from New York who wanted to pull the trigger, that farm hand might collect $5,000.
Federal Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, may have agreed to consider the push to allow big-game crocodile hunters into the wild regions, but he appears in no hurry to make a call. Three weeks ago he said: “I think we are some way from a decision on that, quite some way from a decision on that. There’s a whole lot of information that would still have to come to me."
Dr Adam Britton is a British-born zoologist who pursued a boyhood dream to live and work among crocodiles; he now operates the Big Gecko crocodilian research institute in Darwin. He is less enamoured with the prospect of trophy hunters, believing that more information is needed before a final decision is made.
He says: “For many, the intrinsic value of a well-respected, 17-foot-long crocodile in the wild is still considerably greater than its value hanging on someone’s wall.”
Many of the children — including the latest victims — killed by crocodiles in Northern Australia have been Aboriginal. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that indigenous people often live in remote communities very close to crocodile habitat.
Such logic hasn’t prevented an unpalatable reaction from some quarters, that says the kids’ parents, rather than marauding crocodiles, are to blame. After Darwin’s local newspaper, the Northern Territory News, published accounts of the deaths, those critical of the parenting of the dead children leapt onto the paper’s comments section.
One wrote: “My kid won’t get eaten mate. I’ve been responsible enough to teach him to respect crocs and follow the rules. If yours gets eaten — don’t blame the croc. The responsibility lies totally with you.”
And another: “If you cull the crocs then you watch the child drowning rate go through the roof. Then what will the irresponsible parents call for? Draining of waterways?? Use your heads!! Cull the idiots, save the crocs!”
Says Dr Britton: “Many Aboriginal people that I’ve met have great respect for crocodiles, and feel that they have earned their right to exist in wild areas. Others are more ambivalent, but nearly everyone understands crocodiles and the role that they play.”
And what to make of the evidence that big, killer crocodiles actually lure tourists to the Territory, boosting its economy? Researcher and lecturer at the Northern Territory’s Charles Darwin University, Dr Pascal Tremblay, has discovered that international media stories about fatal attacks by crocodiles may attract more, not fewer, tourists to northern Australia. Dr Tremblay based his findings on a study of German tourism in the Territory, in the wake of wide coverage in Germany about a female German backpacker having been taken by a crocodile.
Her death led to a spike in German visitors.
Graham Webb, our crocodile expert from Darwin, has no doubt that the Northern Territory should prepare for another jump in tourist numbers following the latest fatal attacks. He wrote this week: “More tourists will learn about the NT through the media, and in a macabre twist, there will be an increase in tourist bookings.”
Who said money can't buy love?
This story has been changed from the original to reflect that the Northern Territory did not receive self-governance until 1978.