Forget the Sharks, Here Come the Crocs: Why Australia’s Monsters Are Multiplying

A supremely successful conservation program has crocodile numbers spiraling upward

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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.”

(MORE: Look Out — 15,000 Crocodiles Escape From South African Farm)

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.

(MORE: That’s Rich — Hermès Is Selling a $91,500 Crocodile T-Shirt)

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.

MORE: Super Crocodiles May Have Dined on Dinosaurs

27 comments
KAll4567
KAll4567

@TIME @TIMEWorld you didn't mention that we also use the croc for its meat - usually a meat patty in a burger. Tastes like fish. Serious

spot60spot
spot60spot

@TIME @TIMEWorld The crocs are in the sparsely populated north of the country. Most Aussies will never see a croc.

BrandonSideleau
BrandonSideleau

Fatal attacks by saltwater crocodiles are still relatively rare in Australia compared to the rest of the range of the species; the saltwater crocodile kills somewhere over 100 people annually throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, etc. How much over 100 is unknown. The fact is that, in Australia, attacks are easily avoided and most involve humans partaking in risky activities in areas where crocodile warning signs are clear and present (which was the case in the most recent attack along the Mary River). 

ZacMan9966
ZacMan9966

@TIME easy fix, bring in the swamp people, they'll have it fixed in no time!

Cuttlefish1
Cuttlefish1

I lived in the Northern Territory for years. Lagoons and rivers where crocs live are very well sign posted and children are raised from a young age not to swim in unknown waterholes and to respect and be aware of crocodiles. If you are taken by a croc you are either ignorant, complacent or drunk. It's not like they come up to your house and steal you out of your bed. 

h3ggsy
h3ggsy

@simonefiasco Seven attacks every two years isn't too bad. Jumping straight to culling seems a bit drastic. Stop swimming in their habitat!

88anastasha
88anastasha

@TIME we have lots of crocs in PHL. check them out in the web ;/

Nemetuit
Nemetuit

@wkia jajajajaja. Es evidente que si Dios puso a Australia tan lejos fue por algo.

1954candanga
1954candanga

@MikeHitchen Hi Mike, when I visited your beautiful country continent,I was astonished reading the crocodile warnings in the west beaches..

brocwest
brocwest

@mediamonarchy I'm so happy this is finally getting reported, they are becoming a real problem for all the kangaroo's we ride around on.

AdamBritton
AdamBritton

@BrandonSideleau Absolutely. This story has it all backwards, it should be focused on how successful Australia is being in mitigating the risk of crocodile attack for people who live around them. With less than 2 fatal attacks on average each year, the risk of croc attack pales in comparison with driving to the location where you might get attacked, never mind drowning in the water where the crocodile might attack you. That doesn't mean it's safe or wise to go swimming, but that's because most people understand this basic safety advice because of near-saturation in the media and in crocodile habitat, and why it's so surprising that the attack on the Mary River occurred last month; the equivalent of throwing yourself in front of a train and expecting to live. Human-crocodile conflict is an increasing issue around the world, so the Australian situation is one we should be learning from rather than implying there's a serious problem.

mediamonarchy
mediamonarchy

@brocwest: I'm so happy this is finally getting reported, they are becoming a real problem for all the kangaroo's we ride around on.” Zing!

Nemetuit
Nemetuit

@wkia muchas gracias, que si es "quina" llevo una semana haciendo el ridículo.