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A Few Crocodile Tears

Crocodiles are remarkable evolutionary survivors. They have inhabited the earth in their current form for millions of years. On top of that (or maybe because of that) they are quite ubiquitous, continuing to survive in healthy populations in Africa, Asia and Australia. Their predominant diet is fish but they are very partial also, when the opportunity provides itself, to partake of warm-blooded animals.

 
In Australia we have two species of crocodile viz the freshwater crocodile and the saltwater crocodile.

 
Freshwater crocodiles are endemic to Australia and occur in inland waters of northern Australia. In Queensland, they are found mainly in the rivers and swamps of Cape York Peninsula, and areas bordering the Gulf of Carpentaria and the north-west. There are also east coast populations found in the upper Herbert River, the Burdekin River catchment and the Ross River. Freshwater crocodiles also live in tidal reaches of some rivers.

 
Freshwater crocodiles can be distinguished from their saltwater cousins by the fact they are generally smaller, have finer needle-like teeth, long slender snouts and don’t seem to have any appetite to eat humans!

 
Saltwater crocodiles, also known as estuarine crocodiles, are far more widespread than freshwater crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles are found from India to northern Australia, and across to Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. In Queensland, they are known to occur between Bundaberg and Cape York Peninsula, and throughout the Gulf of Carpentaria. Although most commonly seen in tidal reaches of rivers, they also occur along beaches and offshore islands in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait, and (contrary to what their common name suggests) also in freshwater lagoons, rivers, and swamps up to hundreds of kilometres inland from the coast. And these crocodiles, even whilst mostly pursuing fish are quite disposed to eating humans!

 
In my youth, crocodiles were extensively hunted for their skins. However because of diminishing numbers and concern for their long term survival, in 1974 in Queensland they were declared a protected species and it became illegal to kill them.

 
When I was younger my brothers were friends with a property owner on the lower Burdekin. He related how during the depression years he augmented his income by shooting crocodiles. He showed us a high bank on the southern side of the river where he used to watch for crocodiles. They tended to come out of the water and bask in the sun on a sandbank on the northern side. From this vantage point he would shoot the reptiles. When we asked what happened then, he nonchalantly told us how he would then swim across the river and skin them. I am glad I have never needed a dollar so desperately!

 
[As an aside he also related how he used to shoot feral pigs. Pigs at that time attracted a bounty and one was required to cut off their snouts and take them into the local shire council officer where they were counted and an amount paid for the evidence of each pig killed. Because the snouts were in various states of decay the council official would take them out the back, use a stick to separate them before counting them. Our friend related that he often took advantage of the squeamishness of the council official by throwing a handful of dried apricots into the mix which were duly counted as pig snouts!]

 
But after such an extensive period of protection crocodile numbers have surged. Now they are making an appearance at boat ramps, popular beaches and swimming holes and posing a real hazard to the population. They are not only reappearing in areas where 40 years ago they were seldom seen, but their range seems to have extended further southwards.

 

 

Most Queenslanders live by the sea for the amenity that brings. The resurgence of crocodile numbers is compromising that amenity.
Crocodiles are notoriously shy. Even where they exist in reasonable numbers they are seldom spotted by members of the public. But now we seem to hear of many instances of their sightings in popular tourist areas and even in populated urban areas in Central and North Queensland.

 
One North Queensland regional newspaper reported, “They have been spotted in suburban swimming pools, gated communities, residential estates, sugar mills, attacking crab pots, and stalking boat ramps.”

 
It would appear (admittedly from my unscientific point of view) that there are now self-sustaining populations of the reptiles in remote areas. Consequently I believe that we should be taking steps to protect the general population from their threat by reducing their numbers in more developed areas and return to us the amenity of living by the sea.

 
No doubt my more conservation inclined friends will be appalled by this suggestion. But it seems to me that whilst there is certainly a place for crocodiles in our extensive landscape, that place is not in suburbia, boat ramps frequented by recreational fishermen or in popular beaches and swimming places.

 
Although statistically it is said that only one person a year dies from a crocodile attack in Australia, those statistics belie the major effect crocodiles have on lives in places where they are prevalent. Because of our concern about the likelihood of attack we are unable to partake of some of the most enjoyable recreational opportunities our coastline, estuaries and waterways offer.

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  1. 3 Comment(s)

  2.   By Ron McGuigan on May 11, 2015 | Reply

    Having been raised in Cairns from 1937 to 1953, there were virtually no crocs left. I recall when I was 15, a friend and I visited his relatives on a cattle station near Daintree. We swam every day in a sandy clear part of the Daintree River, convinced the crocs lived in the murky holes in the quiet parts of the river. Wouldn’t be game to do it now. Shoot em out, I say. New industry, help unemployment, provide food for restaurants.

  3.   By David Price on May 11, 2015 | Reply

    Estuarine crocodiles are not just a problem for Queensland, their populations have grown impressively right around the north tropical coast. And as you say they are regularly found very far up fresh water rivers and creeks as well as, from time to time, in backyard pools in Darwin’s rural area as well as on the beaches and creeks in Darwin’s suburbs. In the early eighties we lived at Milikapiti on Melville Island. You could watch the croc parade from the front yards of some houses on the waterfront. My six year old son used to go down to the beach with the other kids to watch the big salties go cruising past. My wife and I were worried sick. I stopped running on the beach because the locals told me that the crocs watched for regular activity on beaches then lay in wait for the unwary at the appropriate times. I also watched Tiwi men hunting crocs using a dog as bait (it just ran up and down the beach it wasn’t tied up) to lure tan animal into rifle range.

    Soon after I went down into the mangroves near the, then functioning, abattoir at Wyndham in the Kimberley to watch dozens of them playing on the mudflats. Since then the population has exploded and I have seen very large animals about every 100 metres or so along the East Alligator river in Kakadu Park in recent times. There has been a very strong push to allow safari hunting that has come from Aboriginal communities along the Arnhem coast. The idea is strongly supported by experts with decades of experience in crocodile research, framing and conservation. Coastal Aboriginal people have lived with crocodiles for tens of thousands of years and have always hunted them. The idea was to charge hunters a significant fee which would go to the relevant traditional owners, the head being taken as a trophy, the meat and skin being sold on the market. This would have generated a significant income as well as employment opportunities for the relevant communities. It would also have increased the safety of the locals, especially the children, of these communities. Every now and then a child is taken. It would not have significantly reduced the wild population of the animals. The coastal people respect the animals they hunt. There are those who won’t hunt crocodiles because of their totemic relationship to them but this does not stop anybody else from hunting them and they don’t mind others doing it in a strictly controlled way that generates income and employment for their communities. Now crocodiles that are seen as a potential threat to populated areas are trapped and taken to crocodile farms where they often end up as skin and meat products anyway.

    Unfortunately it was the Federal Minister, Greg Hunt’s, call. He refused to approve the project. We now have even Conservative ministers in thrall to the urban based Green Left who would rather the world had no people especially in the bush where the population is mostly Aboriginal. To them crocodiles come before people. Greg Hunt’s kids’ lives and those of the urban Greenies are not threatened with agonizing and terrifying death by one of nature’s most efficient killing machines. Those of the people living on our tropical coasts are. We can protect the wild populations of these animals, protect our kids and establish a small sustainable industry in depressed, welfare dependent communities but first we have to get past the unimaginative, authoritarian ideologues of the southern cities who have far too much influence on our governments.

  4.   By tedscott on May 13, 2015 | Reply

    Thanks Ron and David.

    I cannot help but endorse the sentiments in your closing paragraph David. It is a shame that crocodiles could not be managed in a way that allowed the creation of an aboriginal business enterprise. The Green Left, as you call them,do not have the breadth of vision to contemplate such an initiative.

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