Saltwater Crocodiles are the world’s largest reptile and Australia’s apex predators. These phenomenal crocs can grow up to 7 meters long and way up to a tonne. Considering that they can live for 70 years, they really are a dominant feature of Northern Australia’s beaches, rivers and estuaries.
The prospect of travelling the Northern Australian coastline is exciting in itself. What makes it even more thrilling is knowing that you will be sharing the water with a creature that has been calling it home since the dinosaurs walked the earth.
It is natural to be in absolute awe of such a powerful and ancient beast, but unfortunately the Saltwater Crocodile is regularly seen as nothing more than a pest. In fact during the 1970s, due to hunting, the population was down to a mere 3,000 worldwide. Thankfully, due to Australian law making it illegal to interfere with the Salties, there are now up to 75,000 in the Northern Territory alone. With the rising population of both people and Saltwater Crocodiles, encounters between the two are inevitable.
To manage human-crocodile interactions, the Northern Territory government look at the frequency and population of crocodiles in an area and the probability of them coming into contact with people. Based on this they decide if an area should be deemed as one of the following:
- An exclusion area; where the presence of a crocodile is rare and the aim is to prevent any crocodile entry, so that the area is safe for swimming and water activities.
- No tolerance area; here the chance of a crocodile is higher and there is a much higher human population. Therefore all crocodiles in the area are viewed as ‘problem’ and will be removed. For instance, Darwin harbour is a ‘no tolerance’ area.
- Or finally an area where only problem crocodiles are removed; where the human population is low yet the crocodile population is high.
From Darwin Harbour alone, an average of 185 ‘problem’ crocodiles are removed each year. Unfortunately these crocodiles cannot be simply relocated. Research by Australia Zoo, in partnership with the University of Queensland, showed that crocodiles have the ability of travelling hundreds of kilometres after being relocated to return to their home range. Therefore relocation is a completely ineffective method of removing these ‘problem’ crocodiles from highly populated areas. Due to this the fate of a ‘problem’ crocodile is to be transferred to a crocodile farm or destroyed.
Destroying a crocodile is far from ideal and thankfully it is stated to be the Northern Territory’s government’s last resort. However it can be argued that a croc farm isn’t a much better fate for a Saltie. Although the Queensland and Northern Territory governments do have codes of practice in place for the welfare and treatment of farmed crocodiles, it is easily a shockingly different lifestyle to the one they had previously experienced.
In the wild Saltwater Crocodiles are solitary animals and hugely territorial. Yet the Queensland code of practice does not state how many crocodiles can be kept in a set size enclosure, it only states that the enclosure size must be ‘suitable’. Due to this grey area crocodile farm enclosures are often seen to be hugely overcrowded and fairly small spaces.
Unlike the majority of other farmed animals, crocodiles are primarily farmed for their skins and their meat is just a by-product. The crocodile skin trade is a hugely lucrative business and the average international trade is 1.5 million skins a year. The most prized crocodile skin is that of a Saltwater Crocodile and the most expensive part of them is the skin on their belly. Therefore, to ensure no damage to the product occurs, crocodile farm enclosures usually consist of simply concrete and water. A far cry from their tropical, biodiversity rich homes.
In a sense crocodile farmers are doing nothing different from the agricultural farmers that we are all very familiar with, just a different animal for a different product. Furthermore, although I could not personally recommend a visit, crocodile farms do bring a great deal to Northern Australia’s economy, especially from tourism.
Who doesn’t want to go to Darwin and see a gigantic croc jump clean out of the water?
The issue is clearly the fact that wild Saltwater Crocodiles are sentenced to life in a crocodile farm in the first place. But for what crime?
At the end of the day the waterways of Northern Australia have belonged to the Saltwater Crocodiles long before they belonged to mankind. When we enter the water, we are trespassing into their territory; we are also a source of food, so it is natural for a crocodile to respond aggressively, making itself a ‘problem’.
Visitors to these waterways, and locals alike need to Be Crocwise.
Be Crocwise is an initiative started by the Northern Territory Government, which aims to educate people about the dangers of crocodiles and therefore minimise a human-crocodile encounter. Most of the information is very straight forward:
- Do not camp on the water’s edge
- Fish at least 5 metres back from the water’s edge
- Look for a sign to see if crocodiles are present in the water (Australian waterways and beaches are VERY well signed).
- If in any doubt, just stay away from the water entirely.
For more information on how to Be Crocwise and stay safe in Australian waters, visit the Northern Territory’s webpage which is filled with all the information you need to educate yourself and others, to help prevent a Saltwater Crocodile being labelled as a ‘problem’.
Whilst there are no dive operators that will venture into the water with Salties, there are many tours in Northern Queensland and the Northern Territories that will safely take you out onto the rivers to see these magnificent creatures in the wild.
I would personally recommend The Crocodile Express on the Daintree River, QLD. It is run by hugely knowledgeable and passionate guides, who genuinely care about their local area and its wildlife. No baiting is used, you just have a wonderful, relaxing cruise, learning and seeing lots of fascinating things, and with luck, some huge Saltwater Crocodiles in all their wild glory!