CROCODILES VS PEOPLE

Two species of crocodiles, the Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylys johnstoni) and the Saltwater Crocodile (C. porosus) occur in Australia. Only ‘salties’, which can grow very large, have been responsible for fatal attacks on people.

In Australia, the ‘saltie’ ranges across the north and east between Broome, Western Australia and Maryborough, Queensland. Notwithstanding its common name, this crocodile lives in fresh, brackish and salt waters. It can be encountered in the open ocean, near the shore and in and near estuaries, freshwater rivers and the swamps and lagoons associated with them, sometimes hundreds of kilometre from the coast.

Unfortunately, skins from salties, especially big ones, make excellent, highly prized leather. Demand for skins (for use in shoes, belts, suitcases, briefcases and handbags), supported a significant crocodile-harvesting industry in northern Australia between the end of World War II and the 1960s. Two factors led to the industry's decline and final cessation.
Firstly, Saltwater Crocodiles progressively became more difficult to find as populations declined due to relentless, skilled hunting. Secondly, by the late 1960s-early 1970s, conservationists and governments were concerned that the species might become extinct in Australia. At a time when the industry had literally ‘killed the goose that laid the golden egg’, federal and state governments protected crocodiles by legislation. It was strictly this legislation that saved Australian crocodiles from becoming endangered.

In Queensland, despite such protection since 1974, the Saltwater Crocodile remains on the threatened species list as 'vulnerable'. Since the 1970s, crocodile populations have recovered to varying degrees. Remote areas now enjoy natural populations of crocodiles for the first time in over 50 years.

Unfortunately for crocodiles, the east coast of Australia has the highest population growth of humans. As the populated east coast of Queensland pushes further and further into crocodile territory, crocodiles will be encountered with increasing frequency, not only by adventurers in remote areas, but also by people in and near cities and towns. Some of these encounters have resulted in fatalities.

This problem can be reduced, possibly even eliminated, by instilling cautious, commonsense attitudes in people whose activities place them in potential contact with salties.
However, despite wide community awareness of, and response to, warning signs and educational information provided by fauna authorities, occasionally crocodiles continue to pose a threat to people.

It is very, very difficult to protect people from making mistakes - like swimming with crocodiles or feeding them. It is also alarming to see the amount of people who adopt an "Oh, it'll never happen to me" attitude.

One response to this problem has been devised by the Department of Environment in Queensland. The East Coast Crocodile Management Program was established in 1985 to deal with rogue or nuisance crocodiles. Under this program, potentially dangerous animals are captured and transferred to crocodile farms, wildlife institutions or back to the wild in areas remote from settlement. This strategy is costly, but seems to work. Certainly the problem is alleviated — at least in the short term. However, removing a crocodile from its domain does not make an area completely safe, merely safer than it was, and there is no way of knowing when another crocodile will move in to take its place.

Where there are healthy populations, salties usually live in communities. A permanent, deep, 1km long lagoon, where there is a constant food supply, could easily support between six and ten crocodiles. Such a community would have a well-defined ‘social ladder’. On the top rung would be a dominant, large male; next would be two or three breeding females; and then, at the bottom of the ladder would be varying numbers of immature crocodiles. Depending on the availability of food, the lagoon might also support another two or three young, sexually mature males. However, the dominant ‘boss’ of the lagoon would always keep these, through intimidation and fights, on the outer.

In such a situation, removal of the dominant male might solve a people problem temporarily. But, following battles for supremacy, another dominant male will reign, restore order to the lagoon and may again threaten people. Thus, while removal may eliminate immediate threats to human safety, it is hardly a definitive long-term solution.

During the 80s whilst I was capturing crocodiles in the Queensland Government's East Coast Crocodile Management Program, I quickly learnt that in waterholes that contained one single, dominant, 4-metre plus male crocodile - to remove this animal would actually do more harm than good.

In subsequent trials it was obvious that merely the capture, hands-on removal, overpowering and release of mature adult crocodiles was a highly successful human deterrent for crocodiles. Crocs that if captured and released, were never seen by humans ever again.

Given the brilliance of the crocodilians camouflage technique and secretive lifestyle, a population of crocodiles can live successfully in a waterhole under our noses and we'd never know. Therefore, whilst people who often complain about so-called nuisance crocodiles can't see them, there is harmony in the waterhole.

During the 1990s I successfully trapped, educated to avoid humans and released, two prominent crocodiles namely Nobby and Old Faithful with the local and district rangers with great success. Both of those crocodiles were currently the kings of their waterholes, ensuring a very natural well-balanced ecosystem which included a healthy population of Salt and Freshwater Crocodiles, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, insects etc.

Most importantly, 'better the devil you know than the one you don't'.

We know Old Faithful and Nobby never tried to kill me when I captured them and they've NEVER demonstrated TRUE nuisance and menacing behaviour. Whilst they rule the waterhole there is little or no chance of a smaller young rebel male moving in and causing havoc or stalking people.

Wildlife management is all about constantly evolving techniques to help the rapidly diminishing wildlife sanctuaries.

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