For the urbanites among us, whose mornings consist of hurriedly sipping coffee while we jostle off the tram, running 10 minutes late for our office jobs, where our ensuing days are spent tapping away under fluorescent lights and imbibing yet more coffee, a crocodile is as other-worldly as the dinosaurs it is so closely related to. But for our brethren up in the wild and sweaty north, crocodiles are a tense and unsettling reality. Especially now that Australia’s crocodile numbers have been restored to the same population level as they were before hunting nearly wiped them out in the late ’70s. That is to say there are about 100,000 of them living in the Northern Territory, and some 50,000 more in Queensland.

On Sunday morning, 18-year-old Lee de Paauw was mauled by a crocodile as he clambered out of the Johnstone River in Innisfail. As he was climbing out of the river, a waiting croc attacked De Paauw and latched onto his arm. The teenager eventually freed himself by repeatedly punching the croc in the head and was helped from the water by his friends.

News of this crocodile attack comes one day after a 35-year-old spear fisherman was reported missing when his empty dinghy and spear gun were found floating in waters just north of Innisfail on Saturday.

It is no surprise that the debate around whether or not we should “manage” croc populations reignites when attacks like this take place. It seems to be human nature to wonder, as our population grows and we encroach further onto traditional croc habitat, whether crocodile numbers ought to be somehow reduced, and therefore the threat to human life decreased.

In the eyes of Graham Webb, renowned crocodile expert and owner of Crocodylus tourist park in the Northern Territory, managing populations is a “common sense call”.  

“You can’t sugar coat-crocs,” he said. “It’s easy for people to say that this kid was silly, but young people do things that are a little bit risky sometimes” and they should be able to emerge from their period of risk-taking behaviour with their lives, Webb believes.

There’s mixed conjecture around the most effective approach to reducing incidences of crocodile attacks. While the word “cull” might not sit well with some, others are much more likely to see it as a logical next step to co-existing with crocodiles. Or as Webb asserts, “the value system needs to change … you can’t have the same value system for an endangered species as for a predator whose population levels have been restored”.

He points out that the Northern Territory crocodile population has increased by 20 times what it was before protection, and the biomass (meaning the size and weight of the crocodiles) has increased by 100 times. This is to say that the majority of crocodiles living in the NT are larger animals, with some measuring up to four metres long.

On the topic of crocodile management, Webb would probably describe himself as a realist, and his views may ruffle the feathers of the Bondi urbanite he ascribes to the anti-culling group. “We’re looking at trophy hunting in the NT,” he said when asked about culling. “We would like to have an upmarket hunting industry … that way a hunter from Austria or somewhere who wants to shoot a big croc can come out and do that, he can pay five to ten thousand dollars to the land owner and shoot a crocodile.” Webb believes that this would ensure that crocodiles remain a “valuable resource”, if you will. Webb believes that if the landowner can make good money out of selling crocodiles to wealthy trophy hunters, he or she would look after and preserve them rather than culling them.

Webb points out that crocodile populations have increased dramatically while the population of certain tiger sub-species have continued to decrease worldwide, despite conservation efforts. “That’s because nobody benefits from tigers,” he said; they’re protected and therefore to “use” them, in the way that crocs are used and sold as commercial resources in the NT, is illegal. Webb seems to think that might be the problem. “When it comes to predators the word is pragmatism.”

A slightly alarming suggestion from NT researchers has found that as crocodile populations increase and vicious turf wars break out between these territorial animals, smaller and weaker crocodiles are making their way further south than they’ve ever been before. In light of this, the Queensland government has announced plans to embark on its first ever comprehensive crocodile count, which will give rangers and researchers a clear idea of exactly how many crocs call Queensland home. Even if this count proves that Queensland’s crocodile population is thriving, Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles has confirmed that he favours removal of crocodiles rather than a cull.   

Whatever approach is taken towards growing crocodile populations in the NT and Queensland, one things is clear: the water is pretty muddy on this one.  

Peter Fray

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