Crocodile Culls

When animals compete with humans for space or resources, or there is a predatory event, there is usually a chorus of voices calling for culls. This is hardly surprising as when we are under threat, instinctively we lash out at the source. In addition to the post-event furore, in more recent times there has been an ongoing long-term concern about growing crocodile sizes and their lack of caution towards humans. In the south it just seems like an animal welfare issue, but in the humid north it’s a serious daily concern. In many areas it can be dangerous to take a midday dip, and humans are being forced out of popular swimming holes, fishing haunts and beaches as big crocs reclaim marginal habitat. Governments get pilloried for not doing enough, but there are several good reasons why culls aren’t especially effective. Firstly, its very expensive. In the old days people were paid for their ammo, car expenses and accommodation in the form of income from skins. Without a market driver for shooting, it’s going to cost a packet. It is also highly ineffective unless you basically exterminate all the crocs. As males will travel hundreds of kilometres to occupy new territory, shooting out the areas around your town can only provide temporary relief. If it lulls children (or tourists) into thinking it’s now safe to swim in the local river, then another fatality is only a matter of time. If something is going to cost taxpayers a packet, then it needs broad based support. While many people in the north are fearful of crocs, many fishermen have also adapted to them, like seeing them, and don’t want them wiped out. Around Darwin, the Larrakia people are unlikely to allow any shooting on their land, as they have a spiritual connection with saltwater crocodiles. Many other Aboriginal groups might shoot some, but only in a low level sustainable manner. They have small numbers of permits for guided trophy hunting. In the eastern States there is also the issue of widespread opposition from conservation groups. No surprises that the early attempts to control crocs have centred around the major population centres of the north, Darwin and Cairns. In Darwin it has long been about selective removal from the harbour, local tourist spots and swimming holes. Early attempts to relocate have been abandoned as the miscreants just reappeared in the same spot later, now they are given to crocodile farms or shot. With crocs appearing off Cairns tourist beaches for the first time, and a new conservative government in power, Queensland is also getting on board the culling bandwagon. Some areas of Qld crocodile habitat support a huge and valuable tourism industry. Cairns was literally developed from a swamp and has grown partly because croc extermination has allowed it to market itself as a safe tropical paradise. Page 20 There is no evidence as yet of a spike in attacks in Queensland, the scheme is more about competition for land as the human population grows, and about managing the fear of attack. The last fatal croc attack in Queensland was in 2009 on the Daintree River, which was only the seventh death recorded since 1985. According to Professor Webb, the creeks and “stumpy little rivers” around Cairns are relatively poor habitat for the reptile in any case and they are unlikely ever to support significant croc numbers. Qld PWS rangers also say the crocodile population is fairly constant. On their regular surveys of waterways around Cairns they expect to find one animal for every kilometre of creek. There is no doubt there are growing numbers of human inhabitants making increasing use of the waterways and beaches for fishing, boating, surfing and other leisure activities. There are 160,000 people living astride the Barron River. The new conservative Government has announced a new policy and says it’s trying to ‘rebalance’ the interests of humans and crocodiles. The LNP State Government has made the revitalisation of local tourism, hit hard by the high dollar and a lack of investment, a policy priority. Previously the Qld PWS only removed crocodiles selectively after they were creating a nuisance. A new “zero-tolerance” management plan for Cairns aims to rid populated areas of “problem crocs”, but basically it’s about reducing the overall population numbers. Private contractors will remove crocs from the Barron River, near Cairns, and the northern beaches. Separate crocodile management plans have also been developed for Hinchinbrook, Cassowary Coast and Townsville’s local government areas. Laws enacted in July allow for some areas to be made crocodile “exclusion zones”, with scope to put in barriers to keep the animals from returning. Only one of these has been designated so far: a short section of the Ross River above Aplin’s Weir in Townsville. Captured crocs are relocated to zoos or crocodile farms, but as that option has quickly become saturated, the rest are being shot. Professor Craig Franklin from the school of biological sciences at the University of Queensland says the removal of crocodiles can have negative environmental effects. “These ecosystems have evolved over millions of years and crocodiles are an integral component,” he said. He linked it to something fishermen would understand, “If you remove crocodiles from a river system, the catfish numbers increase and the barramundi start to disappear.” “They’re highly mobile, and the idea that you can make an area safe is irresponsible,” he said. It is always safer to assume that a crocodile is present and to take precautions by not swimming or wading, and/or adopting safe fishing and safe boating practices. Prof Grahame Webb, is a wildlife academic and Northern Territory crocodile farmer. He also isn’t concerned about the effects the plan might have on overall croc conservation, and doesn’t think shooting crocs is a problem if it’s needed for public safety. “What does it matter? There’s plenty of crocs.” He is still calling the policy “pseudo-science and bullshit”. “Queensland has always had a bit of an identity crisis with animals that eat people,” he said. He thinks the risks in this marginal habitat aren’t very high. Supporters of the policy say it is a case of better safe than sorry. “It’s just gone too far in the one direction. We are entitled to use our Page 21 beaches just like people down south. If they had crocodiles turn up on the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast there’d be a hue and cry on,” said Cols Sparkes, regional manager for Surf Lifesaving in North Queensland. The Minister is looking to appease that sentiment, but is falling short of promising a return to the ‘good old days’, “[There's] no question that we want to conserve the crocodile and make sure we have a thriving population in Queensland, but there are some genuine public safety issues in North Queensland and we need to sort them out”. As that policy is eventually going to run out of money and political support well short of total regional extermination, I’d suggest you still don’t don your budgie smugglers and try a marathon swim up the Barron River. Crocs are back, and they are here to stay!