February 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Are there too many crocs in the Top End?

By Anthony Ham
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
A recent spate of attacks is a reminder that Darwin was founded in the middle of crocodile habitat

In September last year, wildlife rangers in the Northern Territory discovered a saltwater crocodile nest on the outskirts of Palmerston, population 40,000 and just 20 kilometres from downtown Darwin. Later the same month, a tour operator on the Adelaide River, south of Darwin, nearly lost a hand to a crocodile bite. In November, a dog on its daily walk was bitten by a 3-metre-long crocodile while playing in the shallows at a Darwin beach.

It’s 50 years since the Northern Territory introduced a ban on crocodile hunting. An estimated 100,000 saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) now inhabit the territory’s tidal rivers, swamps and coastal waters. Amid the publicity surrounding incidents such as these, the inevitable question arises: are there too many crocs in the territory’s Top End?

Most historians date the slaughter that drove saltwater crocodiles to the brink of extinction to the years following World War Two. At the time, the Northern Territory was an economic backwater, and the trade in crocodile skins was one of few resources for a region that was yet to attract tourists. In 1946, there were an estimated 100,000 saltwater crocodiles. By 1970, there were barely 3000.

According to Grahame Webb, biologist and founder of Darwin tourist attraction Crocodylus Park, those figures were even worse than they sound. “In 1971, a lot of the population were hatchlings or maybe one-year-olds,” Webb says. “You hardly ever saw a crocodile that was 1.5 or 2 metres long. It was a rare event, even in remote areas. They were hidden away in the swamps with some wary adults. The total biomass had probably been reduced by 99 per cent since 1946.”

Thanks to the 1971 prohibition on hunting, saltwater crocodiles recolonised their favoured tidal rivers and by the end of that decade were well on the way to population recovery. Under the right conditions, females can lay up to 70 eggs, although the average is closer to 50. In good years, 10 to 15 per cent of these survive to adolescence; the greatest threat to their survival comes from the floods that are common in the waterways of the Top End. With little competition from other crocodiles, and without humans to prevent these adolescents reaching maturity, numbers recovered quickly.

As they moved back into their preferred habitats, they inevitably came into conflict with a human population unaccustomed to sharing rivers and beaches with dangerous predators. From 1974 to 1979, “Sweetheart”, a 5.1-metre-long saltwater crocodile, terrorised fishing boats along the Finniss River; wildlife authorities captured the male croc, but he drowned during transportation and his body is now on display in Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. The first fatal attack in the post-hunting era occurred in 1979, when Trevor Gaghan was killed near Nhulunbuy, on the Gove Peninsula.

Near-hysterical accounts of killer crocs became something of an NT staple in the decades after Sweetheart captured the headlines. Human–crocodile conflict seemed inevitable as the territory’s human population grew by nearly 250 per cent, to around 250,000, in the five decades after the hunting ban had been introduced.

“Darwin was built smack-bang in the middle of crocodile habitat,” says Adam Britton, wildlife researcher and crocodile expert. “The crocodile population is increasing and many of these rivers are reaching their carrying capacity. A greater number of these crocodiles are moving out of these river systems into habitat which is perhaps not the best for the crocodile – that includes Darwin and the outskirts of Darwin.”

Human–wildlife interactions can often be problematic. “It’s not restricted to crocodiles; it’s shared with any animal that competes with people in some way,” says Britton. “It’s just that crocodiles happen to be 5 metres long, have a mouthful of teeth, and they tend to eat people occasionally.”

It doesn’t help, of course, that not only are there more crocs, they’re also getting bigger. According to a 2018–19 report from the territory’s Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security, “there has been a decline in the proportion of [saltwater] 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”.

Yet the number of crocodile attacks has been relatively stable, even declining, for almost two decades. In the decade to 2014, saltwater crocodiles killed 15 people in the Northern Territory. In the seven years since, only two fatal attacks have occurred; both were in 2018.

Nonetheless, declining attack numbers can actually increase the danger. As attacks become less frequent, people can become “blasé” and less careful around crocodiles, says Britton. “If no one’s been attacked in 20 years by a crocodile, people will assume that it’s safe. Then people will do what they want and take increasing risks.”

At the same time, he points to the successful management of the animals. “Every time someone’s bitten by a crocodile, it’s ‘oh my God, how can we turn this into a fantastic story that will sell a lot of papers and get a lot of clicks?’ But the reality is, we’re actually doing a really good job here. The first person was attacked by a crocodile in the Northern Territory when the population was probably up to around 8000 or 9000. Now we’ve got 10 times that, and we’re still only seeing the same number of people per year being attacked by crocs. That’s a pretty impressive statistic when you consider how many people put themselves in risky situations around crocodiles.”

The reason, says Britton, is simple. “The way we manage crocodiles here in northern Australia is really the envy of the world. We have a very mature management plan where crocodiles are removed from specific areas in the wild.” Every year, the territory’s wildlife authorities remove between 200 and 300 problem crocodiles, 96 per cent of which (or 249 in 2019–20) are taken from Darwin Harbour.

Frightening evidence of what can happen without such management of wild crocodile populations can be found across the water, in Timor-Leste. According to some estimates, crocodile attacks on people there have increased twentyfold in recent decades, and fatal crocodile attacks now average around one a month. No one knows for sure why attacks are increasing, but there are concerns that Australian crocodiles displaced by their growing populations may be moving north.

Saltwater crocodiles from northern Australia have turned up at oil platforms in the Timor Sea in the past, and scientists at Charles Darwin University are studying the DNA of some of the crocodiles in Timor to see if they’ve made it a little further. If they have, it would be the longest confirmed migration of saltwater crocodiles. It would also change the conversation about the consequences of crocodile abundance in Australia.

In the Northern Territory, Britton says the discovery of the crocodile nest near Palmerston was less newsworthy than it seemed, and not necessarily a sign more needs to be done to keep animals away from human populations. “It’s a rare, isolated incident. It was created as this giant story – it’s really not. Clearly, the crocodile that was involved in that was not removed. But I don’t think anyone has the expectation that it’s possible to remove every single animal.”

Another pillar of croc management NT-style is extensive public education about crocodile safety. “Be Crocwise”, the territory government’s public awareness platform, is direct in its campaigns: “Any body of water in the Top End may contain large and potentially dangerous crocodiles.”

There’s also the importance of crocodiles to the territory’s economy. “Whenever there’s an attack, there’s always the danger of a knee-jerk reaction from politicians,” says Grahame Webb. “But they know that crocs represent an economic asset to the Northern Territory.”

Therein may lie the crocodile’s best defence in the court of public opinion. The lesson learnt, says Webb, is that “you’ve got to make crocodiles something that have a tangible value in the eyes of people”.

Most of those benefits come from tourism: in the 2019–20 financial year, it contributed $852 million to the territory’s revenue, with crocodiles often central to tourism advertising campaigns. The benefits also flow from crocodile farms where animals are bred for their skins. According to the Northern Territory government’s 2020 monitoring report on saltwater crocodiles, there are more captive crocodiles in farms than there are crocs in the wild. These farms pay Indigenous communities royalties for crocodile eggs collected on their land, and they contribute a further $100 million to the local economy.

Webb knows that it’s not always easy to convince people these sometimes-frightening creatures should be protected. “The toughest thing in the conservation world is trying to save a predator. If your conservation works, you start increasing the numbers, they start eating people, and people get the shits with them. But they don’t have to like them. They’ve just got to see crocs as a positive thing. The more people who benefit through crocodiles, the better off crocodiles will be.”

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

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