Correspondence: ‘Our tempestuous relationship with crocodiles’May 3rd, 2011
In 1981, after decades of humans hunting them for their valuable skins, only 3,000 documented saltwater crocodiles remained in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Consequently, conservation measures were implemented and the saltwater crocodiles were classified as a protected species.
After becoming protected, their numbers showed significant growth. The most recent figures indicate that the saltwater crocodile population is currently more than 75,000.
This growth in numbers has resulted in the crocodile being listed as a species of least concern under the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act (2001).
During this time, the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service assumed responsibility for the conservation for the saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory. However the due to the increase in the saltwater crocodile population, the Wildlife Service also manages saltwater crocodiles that enter areas where there is a risk of adverse interaction with people and their livestock and pets.
For example, approximately 220-240 saltwater crocodiles are removed annually from Darwin Harbour by wildlife rangers, in the interest of public safety. Crocodiles are captured live, often in baited traps, and removed to crocodile farms to be used as raising or breeding stock. However, because of the tendency of relocated crocodiles to return to their site of capture, relocation is not an effective management strategy.
The north of Australia has often had a tempestuous relationship with local crocodiles. The dramatic increase in the saltwater crocodile population, coupled with recent weather events such as floods and Cyclone Yasi, have drawn the saltwater crocs closer inland closer to the townships and cities that are sprinkled at the very northern regions of Australia.
Recent weeks have seen an increase in crocodile-related incidents as well as more sightings of crocodiles within urban and rural areas of the Northern Territory. People have become much more vocal within the community and opinions are becoming increasingly polarised.
When crocodile attacks occur, these incidents often receive widespread national and international attention, and have become an emotive topic in Australia. This has lead to a revival of the age-old debate of what the most effective strategy would be to manage the local crocodile population.
One side of the debate argues that the government wildlife agency responsible for crocodile management does not have adequate staff to control the increased numbers of crocodiles moving into these areas of concern. This has then increased the danger to the public who are accustomed to the numbers being minimal.
Another segment of society are strong proponents of widespread culling of the crocodile population. However, the logic of this approach has often been questioned particularly as this strategy would seemingly return us to the pre-1981 position of the crocodile population facing possible extinction.
Another fact that is rarely presented is that there are an average of 3 crocodile attacks in the Northern Territory each year (in the last 25 years there have been a dozen crocodile-related fatalities). Whilst any loss of life is tragic, when these figures are compared with the 52 people who lose their lives on Northern Territory roads each year, the number is put firmly into perspective.
Driver education is mandated prior to an individual being licensed to drive on the roads – perhaps widespread education should be implemented in the northern states to encourage respect of the crocodiles and their habitat?
After all, as our population grows, we further encroach on the natural habitat of the saltwater crocodile. The truth is, we are just borrowing their land and we have to pause and ask ourselves: “Whose territory is it?”