|When the President of IWMC, Eugene Lapointe, visited Darwin in
November 2000, he got a snapshot of a crocodile conservation and
sustainable use program. One that evolved through adaptive management over
the last 30 years. The history of management, and the research upon which
management is based, is now available to the public in a large crocodile
museum within "Crocodylus Park" - a crocodile research and
education centre built by WMI, and a popular destination for tourists and
Head of a 4.5 m long saltwater crocodile that killed a man.
The story of saltwater crocodiles in the
NT starts way back in history. Well before Australia was colonised, the
indigenous Aboriginal inhabitants of the north had learnt to live with
crocodiles - over some 40,000 years. They ate the eggs, killed and ate the
crocodiles, and incorporated crocodiles into the many stories and
"business" that lies at the heart of Aboriginal culture. Of
course, crocodiles also preyed on Aboriginal people from time to time.
With settlement of the remote north in the
mid-1800ís, and attempts to raise livestock, crocodiles were considered
vermin and the "stuff" of adventurous sport hunting in the
colonies - complete with pith helmets and black powder guns. Saltwater
crocodiles are big and awe-inspiring. Males reaching 5 m long regularly and
some odd individuals reaching 6-7 meters.
But access to the remote swamps and rivers
was still very limited in these early days, and many areas were
"off-limits": occupied only by Aboriginal people. There is no
doubt that crocodiles sustained this level of harvest, because they were
still abundant by the 1930ís and 1940ís.
In the immediate aftermath of World War
II, in which millions of people had been killed, the situation changed. The
market for Saltwater crocodile skins increased, spotlight hunting
developed, and the fishermen working the remote north coast found an
abundant new resource that could be harvested. No one cared much - if at
all - about crocodiles. And no one considered that the abundant populations
could ever be adversely affected by hunting.
Starting in 1945-46, the first phase of
hunting saw some 80,000 animals taken up to 1959. These included animals
that existed in 1945, when the wild population was thought to be about
80,000, and animals born between 1945 and 1959.
The result was that crocodiles ceased to
be an abundant, common animal in the rivers, although strongholds still
existed in remote swamps. The hunting continued until 1971, by which time
crocodiles were rarely sighted anywhere. Flights over all rivers in the
Northern Territory in 1973 revealed only a handful of crocodiles. Spotlight
surveys confirmed that adults were few in number, extremely wary, but were
still nesting in some remote locations. Most rivers contained hatchlings
and one-year olds emanating from 1 or 2 well hidden nests.
In response to effective protection,
numbers of juveniles started to build. But as it takes around 15+ years to
mature, there was a long way to go. By the late 1970ís the public were
seeing large juveniles everywhere .... more crocodiles than they seen since
the 1940ís ... and they started to become concerned about public safety.
Efforts to win public support for crocodile protection and recovery at that
time tended to ignore the publicís concerns, and were largely esoteric
ecological arguments - none of which were really based on facts. For
example, the suggestion that crocodiles may eat catfish (low value fish)
which in turn may eat barramundi (high value fish), with the implication
that barramundi numbers would increase if crocodile numbers increased!
In 1979-1980, the NT had 2 fatalities, 2
serious maulings, and a 5 m long crocodile which started attacking fishing
boats. The "cull the crocodiles" lobby built strength. It was
very clear to people such as myself that unless the NT public as a whole
"valued" crocodiles, their long-term recovery was simply not
going to be realised. I valued crocodiles .... and still do today ....
simply because I like them. But large predators that will eat you and your
children if given the opportunity, are just not something that the public
as a whole "warms" to, no matter what ecological role may be
proposed for them.
The Government of the Northern Territory
started 3 programs: an education program so that people understood what was
happening with the recovering populations, a problem crocodile program that
removed crocodiles attacking cattle, and in Darwin Harbour, where the
probability of an attack was highest, and a commercial use program, which
through crocodile farming, aimed to make crocodiles an economically
The rest is really history. We now have
farming programs, captive breeding programs, limited wild harvest programs,
lots of tourist operators showing crocodiles to visitors, vibrant markets
for crocodile skins, products and meat. There are around 200 people
employed through crocodiles out of a total NT population of around 150,000
people. Perhaps most important, all harvests have been sustained, the
population continued to increase while it was being used (it has now
stabilised), and through television, crocodiles moved became the frontline
icon promoting the NT as an international, adventure tour destination. An
important role given tourism is the NTís second biggest industry and the
largest employer of people in the NT.
By the year 2000, the wild population is
estimated to be 75,000 - close to the pristine population - and there are
now lots of large crocodiles, just as there were historically. These in
turn eat the smaller ones, controlling their own populations. They occupy
all coastal rivers and swamps across the complete NT coastline, and it is
only really in Darwin Harbour that the population is deliberately reduced
through a "problem crocodile" program to improve public safety.
So what are the main lessons learnt:
- Crocodiles are tenacious survivors, and
if their habitats are intact, depleted populations can recover surprisingly
quickly if their habitats are intact and they are given the opportunity.
- Crocodile populations can sustain
significant ongoing harvests, even while they are recovering.
- The public were not prepared to accept a
complete recovery of large, dangerous predators, in all rivers and
wetlands, until their value to the community was improved through tangible
economic benefits to the community.