How’s this for a holiday from hell? A yacht drops a tourist on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia with 200 L of water, food, a tent and a canoe to explore the nearby inlets. But the moment he tries to launch his canoe, he’s confronted by a 6-m saltwater crocodile. The man scampers away in the nick of time and escapes to higher ground. Yet every time he tries to relaunch his canoe, the crocodile returns. The man ends up spending more than a fortnight on the island flashing a shaving mirror at passing boats, while being stalked by a monster, until a sailor finally sees him and brings the ordeal to an end.
While the story is unusual, attacks on humans by saltwater crocodiles in Australia’s tropical north are not — and they’re becoming more frequent. In August, a man was killed in front of several partygoers in the Northern Territory while attempting to swim across the crocodile-infested Mary River. It follows two separate fatal attacks on children in the territory in November — a boy taken while swimming in a river and a girl taken from an inland waterhole.
“The impact of the attack stays fresh in my mind … a 100-ton weight dragging me underwater,” Perth woman Tara Hawkes tells TIME, recollecting a crocodile attack while swimming in a shallow freshwater pool in Western Australia last year. “It wasn’t until I looked through the muddied water that I saw it — a 2.5-m croc latching onto my leg. Let me tell you, it wasn’t a pretty sight.”
According to the Queensland-based Crocodile Specialist Group, saltwater-crocodile attacks in Australia have increased from one every two years in 1971 to seven every two years today. The increase is correlated to laws introduced in the 1970s to protect the animals from a lucrative and unregulated skin trade that saw “salties,” as they’re nicknamed, hunted to the point of extinction.
Within 10 years of the introduction of conservation laws, the population bounced back from 4,000 to 30,000. Today there are thought to be anywhere from 80,000 to 150,000 salties in the Northern Territory alone, making it the most effective predator-conservation program ever conceived. Its success is credited to the concurrent launch of incentive-based income streams: crocodile farming and the growth of a tourism sector underpinned by the crocodile.
In the Northern Territory’s capital Darwin, visitors pay to attend crocodile feedings at wildlife reserves like Crocodylus Park and to swim in the Cage of Death, a glass cylinder dropped into a crocodile pool at Crocosaurus Cove. Around the corner, retailers like di CROCO and Croc Stock and Barra sell crocodile handbags and wallets made of skin obtained from local crocodile farms. High-end fashion houses Hermès and Louis Vuitton even have their own crocodile farms in Australia to ensure a supply of what’s considered the best crocodile skin in the world.
Crocodiles have been removed from highly populated areas like Darwin Harbour, and there’s a public-safety program that’s part of the school syllabus. But attacks, it seems, are inevitable.
“It does not matter how well you educate people. Occasionally, through misadventure, someone is going to get taken,” says chairman of the Crocodile Specialist Group Professor Graeme Webb. “It’s like speeding or driving through a red light. People let their guard down for a second, often when they’ve been drinking and snap — they’re gone.”
After the last fatality in August, calls for crocodile culling are once again resounding through the community. “The time for dithering and pandering to the radical green element is over. We need urgent action,” says Queensland Senator Ian MacDonald in response to increasing reports of crocodiles trespassing into coastal communities, including a 5-m monster seen sunning itself on a riverbank behind a primary school. Those calls are being seconded by ranchers in northern Australia who say they are losing more stock to crocodiles every year.
But Northern Territory minister for Primary Industries and Fisheries Willem van Holthe says culling crocodiles would be a backward step. “We are not going back to how things were done before when shooting crocodiles was a pastime,” he tells TIME. “We’ve learned a great deal about crocodiles in the last decades and are employing a number of strategies to keep them under control.”
One new strategy van Holthe’s government is kicking around is opening up Australia to foreign trophy hunters willing to pay up to $10,000 to shoot a saltwater crocodile. But with the move meeting strong opposition from conservationists like Bob Irwin — father of the late Steve Irwin a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter — and requiring approval from the just-elected federal government that campaigned under a platform of “no surprises,” salties are set to remain at the very top of Australia’s food chain.