The return of crocodile rule

© Provided by ABC Business A crocodile sunbakes on the banks of the Daly River. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

The Northern Territory’s saltwater crocodile population has soared since the species was almost shot to extinction 50 years ago. Now crocs are getting bigger and edging closer to urban centres.

In the hothouse blooms of Australia’s tropical north, these canopies have been hiding a big secret.

Underneath, in January this year, wildlife rangers removed a crocodile nest.

The discovery was less than 1 kilometre from the suburban fringes.

The nest was found at the edge of Palmerston, a city of approximately 40,000 people, about a 15-minute drive south of Darwin.

Rangers in the Northern Territory are used to seeing crocodiles on their patrols. In the past 50 years, saltwater crocodile numbers in the NT have grown from 3,000 to 100,000.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain images of people who have died.

But this was the first time the saltwater crocodile, one of the deadliest predators on the planet, had been recorded laying eggs within 50 kilometres of the NT’s capital city.

The find baffled Ian Hunt, a crocodile ranger with the NT government.

“It’s really bizarre to find a nest up here … It’s real close,” Hunt says.

Yusuke Fukuda, a leading crocodile researcher in the Territory, is working to find out where the crocodile has come from.

To unravel the mystery, in his laboratory Fukuda takes a DNA sample from the hatchling.

Hundreds of crocodiles are trapped in Darwin Harbour each year, and Fukuda is building a database that maps their origins.

He says the nest discovery near Palmerston is a sign the Top End’s migratory crocodiles are pushing into new places.

“I think it means good crocodile breeding habitats are getting saturated,” he says.

“We might be finding more and more nests where we think they should not be, or where we do not think they would be.”

Survival instinct

At Crocodylus Park, a tourist attraction on the outskirts of Darwin, park owner and croc expert Grahame Webb points to one of his biggest crocodiles.

“Crocodiles are predators, serious predators, and they’ve been preying on the most primitive of people all through human evolution,” he says.

Crocodiles, and experiences like a croc cruise at Webb’s park, are synonymous with the Territory.

But for a long time, it was rare to see a large crocodile in the wild in the NT.

Only 50 years ago, large numbers of saltwater crocodiles were being killed by hunters, as depicted in this vision from the National Film and Sound Archive.

Hunting pushed crocodiles to the brink of extinction in the NT.

It was estimated at the time that from the end of World War II, 113,000 crocodile skins had been exported from the NT.

It left the croc population teetering at a perilously low 3,000.

But a hunting ban, introduced in 1971 in response to fears the lucrative resource would vanish and evolving societal attitudes to wildlife protection, saved the species from extinction.

The NT’s crocs have now been a protected species for decades.

Yearly monitoring reports indicate there are now 100,000 saltwater crocodiles swimming around the NT.

Experts say while the crocodile population has stabilised, crocodiles are getting bigger on average each year as more of them reach maturity.

NT government monitoring of Top End rivers has found a shift in the total weight of crocodiles observed.

“In broad terms, there has been a decline in the proportion of crocodiles in the 1-to-3-metre size range in the population in recent years, and increases in the proportion of crocodiles in the 3-to-4-metre size range and in the proportion greater than 4 metres in length,” a 2019 monitoring report says.

In the NT’s waterways, big crocs are abundant in places where Territorians once swam without fear.

Living with crocodiles

Contact between humans and crocodiles in the wild doesn’t get much closer than on the Top End’s Daly River, about 220 kilometres south of Darwin.

This kind of protected landscape is the lure for many visitors to the NT.

The river is a mecca for barramundi fishers.

Pulling big fish out of a croc habitat into little boats, anglers are particularly alert to the re-emergence of the species.

“We don’t want to count [croc] numbers anymore,” Rob Cook, a fisher on the Daly, says.

However, increasing croc numbers is not the only thing concerning anglers.

“They seem to interact a lot more with boats now than they used to,” Cook says.

These trends are making some on the water nervous, sparking calls for a culling program.

“Once I think they start doing that, the crocs will be a bit scared of the boats like they used to be,” says Russell Walton, who fishes in the Daly every year.

Stuart Brisbane has made a living on the same river with his fishing business since the 1990s.

And he has seen the crocodile population soar.

“People used to swim in the river here,” he says.

“But you wouldn’t swim here now.”

For Brisbane, however, culling would be contrary to the Territory way of life.

“The scenery, it’s untouched. The birdlife, the crocodiles … there’s not many places left that are like that.”

Eyeing a crocodile swimming around his boat, he says he does not think humans need to take up arms again.

“It’s their backyard, they live here,” he says.

“If they’re not causing a huge problem to us, why disturb them?”

However, overly familiar crocodiles — and calls for a cull — aren’t new to the Top End’s rivers.

The calls date back to the late ’70s when, around the time of two fatal attacks, the notorious 5.1 metre “Sweetheart” began regularly attacking dinghies at a popular fishing spot.

Back in Darwin, wildlife researchers Erin and Adam Britton have been tracking crocodile attacks in Australia and around the world through their online database.

And they’ve discovered some trends in the data compiled from more than 5,250 incidents in Australia and overseas.

Erin says the data shows the likelihood of a crocodile attack rises the longer an area goes without an incident.

“We’ve found that the vast majority of crocodile attacks are occurring because locals feel quite comfortable with interacting with crocodiles in the environment and they’re taking far more risks,” she says.

From 2005 to 2014, 15 people were killed in crocodile attacks in the NT.

Since 2014, there have been only two fatal attacks, both in 2018.

Frightful beauty

Stunning sunsets are a staple of life in the Top End.

And when the raging heat of the day softens, and the Sun descends on the horizon, this is when families flock to Darwin’s beautiful beaches.

Beach-going is part of the lifestyle of many Territorians, despite full knowledge there could be deadly animals lurking in the water.

“The public is often complacent,” the Northern Territory government’s Parks and Wildlife Commission executive director, Sally Egan, says. 

“I’m not comfortable that people are making the right choices necessarily.

“There are a lot of small children playing close to the water’s edge on beaches, which truly makes me go cold to the bone.

“When it comes down to it, is the behaviour of the public good enough for them to stay safe, such that we won’t have another fatality in the next little while? No.”

Under the Northern Territory’s crocodile management plan, rangers remove every crocodile found in waters around large populations.

But Egan warns that does not remove the risk of an attack.

Given the ever-present threat, Egan says it’s the Northern Territory government’s position that it cannot be responsible for public behaviour when it comes to crocodile risk.

“We can’t keep you safe. You have to do it yourself,” she says.

“That’s part of why I need to publish as much information about what the risk is … so people can make their own choice.”

Be Crocwise, the NT government’s long-running public awareness program, warns: “Any body of water in the Top End may contain large and potentially dangerous crocodiles.”

Crocodile kings

In Arnhem Land, rangers armed with long oars rush into a crocodile nest near Maningrida.

It’s not egg-laying season when the rangers arrive at the nest, but the mother could still be lurking.

In case she emerges, they wield the oars to keep her at bay.

The mother has fashioned a network of grass channels into the nest from which she can attack.

Dirty water or shuffling blades of grass could be signs the rangers have company.

“She hides herself there in the grass,” Bawinanga ranger Greg Wilson says.

“That’s a track here going in, straight up to her nest.”

For decades, the rangers have been conducting crocodile egg collecting, which helps keep croc numbers down.

“There’s too many crocodiles right now,” says Wilson, who has been collecting eggs since 2003.

But it’s also a good earner for the rangers, whose collected eggs will hatch in crocodile farms around Darwin.

These farms are estimated to contribute more than $100 million to the Northern Territory’s economy.

Aboriginal rangers and traditional owners such as Wilson are permitted to trap, relocate or shoot problem crocodiles.

For traditional owners like Jonah Ryan, such decisions are complicated.

He has totemic connections to the crocodile through the songlines of his ancestors.

“I’m part of the crocodile, too,” he says. “They are called Baru around Arnhem Land, and that’s my grandmother’s totem.

“When I was a kid, she used to tell me, ‘One day you get the right to decide what to do with the crocodile.'”

Just 110 kilometres east of Maningrida, in Ramingining, local rangers are building Australia’s only Aboriginal-owned crocodile farm.

The prototype farm is big enough for almost 1,400 crocodiles.

Community leaders have long advocated farming crocodiles as a way to create jobs.

“The old people, they’ve been talking about putting in that crocodile farm,” says elder and Arafura Swamp ranger Peter Djigirr.

“Now they’ve passed away, and we were for a long time asking, and now we’ve made it.”

Northern Territory croc farmer Mick Burns has wanted to see crocodile farms in remote communities for decades.

“[Indigenous Australians] have lived with this apex predator for thousands of years, and we learn more from them about crocs than we teach them,” he says.

Burns is now in discussions with multiple Aboriginal communities to establish crocodile farms that are owned and operated by Aboriginal people.

‘We’re in uncharted waters’

As the crocodile recovery brings profits, it also raises questions about how humans and crocodiles will continue to live together for the next 50 years.

The discovery of a saltwater crocodile nest near urban Palmerston, Grahame Webb says, is a wake-up call for the NT government’s crocodile management program, and shows more research on crocodiles is needed.

“The fact that some crocodiles have escaped detection and escaped capture and gotten into some hidden swamps where they are nesting just means the program probably needs to be looked at,” he says.

“Is it achieving its aims?”

The NT government says its crocodile management program will be reviewed this year.

But to get the management program right, Webb says the NT’s research capability and investment, once the envy of the world, needs a considerable overhaul.

“We have no research capacity [in the NT],” he says.

“There’s no institutional commitment to research. We’ve lost all that.”

For Adam Britton, humans are once again entering the unknown when it comes to crocodiles.

“I think we’re in uncharted waters,” he says.

“We’re seeing higher densities of larger crocodiles, we’re seeing crocodiles appearing in places that people haven’t expected to see them before, we’re seeing behaviours from crocodiles that we haven’t seen before because they’re now starting to act in a more natural way.

“I think there’s a lot more that we need to learn over the next few decades to try and keep this relationship between people and crocodiles at a level that is acceptable.”

Credits

Reporting: Emma Masters and Steve Vivian

Photographer: Michael Franchi

Digital production: Steve Vivian


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