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Crocodiles are creeping close to the suburbs. Is it time for a cull?

The Northern Territory’s saltwater crocodile population has soared since the species was almost shot to extinction 50 years ago. Now crocs are getting bigger and edging closer to urban centres.

An estuary in Durack.(

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In the hothouse blooms of Australia’s tropical north, these canopies have been hiding a big secret.

Underneath, in January this year, wildlife rangers removed a crocodile nest.

An aerial photo of trees. In the distance are homes.

The discovery was less than 1 kilometre from the suburban fringes.

The nest was found at the edge of Palmerston, a city of approximately 40,000 people, about a 15-minute drive south of Darwin.

Rangers in the Northern Territory are used to seeing crocodiles on their patrols. In the past 50 years, saltwater crocodile numbers in the NT have grown from 3,000 to 100,000.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain images of people who have died.

But this was the first time the saltwater crocodile, one of the deadliest predators on the planet, had been recorded laying eggs within 50 kilometres of the NT’s capital city.

Rangers walk through grassy bushland.
Rangers were alerted to the nest after a woman discovered it while collecting pandanas leaves for weaving.(

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The find baffled Ian Hunt, a crocodile ranger with the NT government.

“It’s really bizarre to find a nest up here … It’s real close,” Hunt says.

Yusuke Fukuda, a leading crocodile researcher in the Territory, is working to find out where the crocodile has come from.

A hatchling crocodile is held by a scientist in rubber gloves.
New genetic tools are helping scientists better understand crocodile movement and population size. (

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To unravel the mystery, in his laboratory Fukuda takes a DNA sample from the hatchling.

Hundreds of crocodiles are trapped in Darwin Harbour each year, and Fukuda is building a database that maps their origins.

A crocodile ranger checks a trap in Darwin Harbour.
As scientists uncover where salties in the harbour are coming from, croc rangers work to remove them.(

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Dr Yusuke Fukuda stares across a research lab.
More than 1,000 tissue samples have been compiled as part of Yusuke Fukuda’s research.(

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An overhead shot of Dr Fukuda taking a sample in a research lab.
Yusuke Fukuda says young female crocodiles could be looking for new places to nest.(

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He says the nest discovery near Palmerston is a sign the Top End’s migratory crocodiles are pushing into new places.

“I think it means good crocodile breeding habitats are getting saturated,” he says.

“We might be finding more and more nests where we think they should not be, or where we do not think they would be.”

Survival instinct

At Crocodylus Park, a tourist attraction on the outskirts of Darwin, park owner and croc expert Grahame Webb points to one of his biggest crocodiles.

“Crocodiles are predators, serious predators, and they’ve been preying on the most primitive of people all through human evolution,” he says.

A crocodile lays on the bank of the river at Crocodylus Park.
Crocodiles are getting bigger on average every year in the NT.(

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Grahame Webb at Crocodylus Park.
Grahame Webb is the chair of the International Union of Nature Conservation’s crocodile specialist group.(

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Crocodiles, and experiences like a croc cruise at Webb’s park, are synonymous with the Territory.

But for a long time, it was rare to see a large crocodile in the wild in the NT.

Only 50 years ago, large numbers of saltwater crocodiles were being killed by hunters, as depicted in this vision from the National Film and Sound Archive.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
The unregulated crocodile hunting period nearly wiped out the species in the Northern Territory.

Hunting pushed crocodiles to the brink of extinction in the NT.

It was estimated at the time that from the end of World War II, 113,000 crocodile skins had been exported from the NT.

It left the croc population teetering at a perilously low 3,000.

But a hunting ban, introduced in 1971 in response to fears the lucrative resource would vanish and evolving societal attitudes to wildlife protection, saved the species from extinction.

The NT’s crocs have now been a protected species for decades.

Yearly monitoring reports indicate there are now 100,000 saltwater crocodiles swimming around the NT.

A crocodile swims at Crocodylus Park with trees reflected in the water.
During the unregulated hunting period between 1945 and 1971, crocodile skins fetched top dollar in Europe.(

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Experts say while the crocodile population has stabilised, crocodiles are getting bigger on average each year as more of them reach maturity.

NT government monitoring of Top End rivers has found a shift in the total weight of crocodiles observed.

“In broad terms, there has been a decline in the proportion of crocodiles in the 1-to-3-metre size range in the population in recent years, and increases in the proportion of crocodiles in the 3-to-4-metre size range and in the proportion greater than 4 metres in length,” a 2019 monitoring report says.

In the NT’s waterways, big crocs are abundant in places where Territorians once swam without fear.

Living with crocodiles

Contact between humans and crocodiles in the wild doesn’t get much closer than on the Top End’s Daly River, about 220 kilometres south of Darwin.

A crocodile moves through the Daly River near fishos.
Many anglers say they take more precautions on the river due to rising croc numbers.(

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This kind of protected landscape is the lure for many visitors to the NT.

The river is a mecca for barramundi fishers.

Pulling big fish out of a croc habitat into little boats, anglers are particularly alert to the re-emergence of the species.

“We don’t want to count [croc] numbers anymore,” Rob Cook, a fisher on the Daly, says.

A croc jumps into the Daly River.
Some anglers think culling would make crocodiles more wary of boats and humans.(

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A crocodile is seen from a drone lurking in the shallows of the Daly River.
Grahame Webb says crocodiles are now controlling their own population.(

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A drone shot of croc tracks on a sandbar.
Scientists say crocodiles have reached “carrying capacity” in the NT, which is the limit to which the environment can sustain crocodiles.(

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A drone shot of the Daly River.
The Northern Territory’s rivers are home to the majority of its saltwater crocodiles.(

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However, increasing croc numbers is not the only thing concerning anglers.

“They seem to interact a lot more with boats now than they used to,” Cook says.

Fishos reel in a barra on the Daly River.
Fishers on the Daly say crocs are getting more comfortable around boats on the water.(

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These trends are making some on the water nervous, sparking calls for a culling program.

“Once I think they start doing that, the crocs will be a bit scared of the boats like they used to be,” says Russell Walton, who fishes in the Daly every year.

Stuart Brisbane drives his boat on the Daly River.
Stuart Brisbane drives his boat on the Daly River.(

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Stuart Brisbane has made a living on the same river with his fishing business since the 1990s.

And he has seen the crocodile population soar.

People are seen swimming in the Daly River.
The modern Daly River is a very different proposition for holiday makers than it was in the 1970s.(

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“People used to swim in the river here,” he says.

“But you wouldn’t swim here now.”

For Brisbane, however, culling would be contrary to the Territory way of life.

“The scenery, it’s untouched. The birdlife, the crocodiles … there’s not many places left that are like that.”

Eyeing a crocodile swimming around his boat, he says he does not think humans need to take up arms again.

“It’s their backyard, they live here,” he says.

“If they’re not causing a huge problem to us, why disturb them?”

A man stands near the very large crocodile called Sweatheart, which has been tied up on a riverbank.
In the 1970s, Sweetheart gained a reputation for biting boat propellers and spooking fishermen at its namesake, Sweet’s Lagoon, along the Finniss River.

However, overly familiar crocodiles — and calls for a cull — aren’t new to the Top End’s rivers.

The calls date back to the late ’70s when, around the time of two fatal attacks, the notorious 5.1 metre “Sweetheart” began regularly attacking dinghies at a popular fishing spot.

Back in Darwin, wildlife researchers Erin and Adam Britton have been tracking crocodile attacks in Australia and around the world through their online database.

And they’ve discovered some trends in the data compiled from more than 5,250 incidents in Australia and overseas.

Adam and Erin Britton chat at a table with a laptop open.
Data compiled by the Brittons show that while fatal attacks in the Top End have decreased in recent years, complacency could result in a fatality.(

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Erin Britton is seen feeding her pet crocodile from overhead.
The Brittons describe Smaug, their pet croc, as “moody” and “sensitive”.(

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Smaug the crocodile lies down in the backyard of the Britton's property.
“He’s a very smart animal,” Adam Britton says of Smaug. “He’s learned to listen to commands and respond to commands.”(

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Erin says the data shows the likelihood of a crocodile attack rises the longer an area goes without an incident.

“We’ve found that the vast majority of crocodile attacks are occurring because locals feel quite comfortable with interacting with crocodiles in the environment and they’re taking far more risks,” she says.

From 2005 to 2014, 15 people were killed in crocodile attacks in the NT.

Since 2014, there have been only two fatal attacks, both in 2018.

Frightful beauty

Stunning sunsets are a staple of life in the Top End.

Two children stand on the beach watching a rowing boat at sunset.
Crocodiles are sometimes seen swimming near beaches around Darwin.(

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And when the raging heat of the day softens, and the sun descends on the horizon, this is when families flock to Darwin’s beautiful beaches.

Beach-going is part of the lifestyle of many Territorians, despite full knowledge there could be deadly animals lurking in the water.

“The public is often complacent,” the Northern Territory government’s Parks and Wildlife Commission executive director, Sally Egan, says. 

“I’m not comfortable that people are making the right choices necessarily.

Children play on the sand at Mindil Beach as the soon goes down on the horizon.
Children play on the sand at Mindil Beach as the soon goes down on the horizon.(

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“There are a lot of small children playing close to the water’s edge on beaches, which truly makes me go cold to the bone.

“When it comes down to it, is the behaviour of the public good enough for them to stay safe, such that we won’t have another fatality in the next little while? No.”

Under the Northern Territory’s crocodile management plan, rangers remove every crocodile found in waters around large populations.

But Egan warns that does not remove the risk of an attack.

A crocodile warning sign is seen on a fence at Cahill's Crossing.
Cahill’s Crossing is one of the most notorious croc hangouts in the NT, yet many Territorians still fish there.(

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A fisherman holds is rod in front of a memorial at Cahill's Crossing.
In 1987, 40-year-old Kerry McLoughlin was attacked and killed at Cahill’s Crossing while fishing.(

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A woman and a girl fish in the shallow water at Cahill's crossing.
Around waterways across the Top End, many Territorians and tourists remain relaxed about the threat of crocodiles.(

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Given the ever-present threat, Egan says it’s the Northern Territory government’s position that it cannot be responsible for public behaviour when it comes to crocodile risk.

“We can’t keep you safe. You have to do it yourself,” she says.

“That’s part of why I need to publish as much information about what the risk is … so people can make their own choice.”

Be Crocwise, the NT government’s long-running public awareness program, warns: “Any body of water in the Top End may contain large and potentially dangerous crocodiles.”

Crocodile kings

Greg Wilson inspects crocodile nest near Maningrida.
Greg Wilson inspects a crocodile nest near Maningrida.(

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In Arnhem Land, rangers armed with long oars rush into a crocodile nest near Maningrida.

It’s not egg-laying season when the rangers arrive at the nest, but the mother could still be lurking.

In case she emerges, they wield the oars to keep her at bay.

Rangers are seen placing oars into murky swamp water at a crocodile nest.
Rangers check a channel near a crocodile nest for crocodiles.(

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The mother has fashioned a network of grass channels into the nest from which she can attack.

Dirty water or shuffling blades of grass could be signs the rangers have company.

“She hides herself there in the grass,” Bawinanga ranger Greg Wilson says.

“That’s a track here going in, straight up to her nest.”

Three rangers arrive at a crocodile nest near Maningrida.
It’s rare to see images of rangers in a crocodile nest, but croc egg collecting has been going on in remote communities for decades.(

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For decades, the rangers have been conducting crocodile egg collecting, which helps keep croc numbers down.

“There’s too many crocodiles right now,” says Wilson, who has been collecting eggs since 2003.

But it’s also a good earner for the rangers, whose collected eggs will hatch in crocodile farms around Darwin.

These farms are estimated to contribute more than $100 million to the Northern Territory’s economy.

Greg Wilson points his finger while at a crocodile egg nest.
Egg collecting provides an income for remote communities while also incentivising sustainable land management.(

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Greg WIlson points out a crocodile trap while on a boat in Maningrida.
Greg Wilson says it is important to trap and remove crocodiles to keep children who swim at the beach safe.(

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Aboriginal rangers and traditional owners such as Wilson are permitted to trap, relocate or shoot problem crocodiles.

For traditional owners like Jonah Ryan, such decisions are complicated.

He has totemic connections to the crocodile through the songlines of his ancestors.

Jonah Ryan stares across the water on a moving motor boat off the coast of Maningrida.
Bawinanga ranger Jonah Ryan.(

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“I’m part of the crocodile, too,” he says. “They are called Baru around Arnhem Land, and that’s my grandmother’s totem.

“When I was a kid, she used to tell me, ‘One day you get the right to decide what to do with the crocodile.'”

Just 110 kilometres east of Maningrida, in Ramingining, local rangers are building Australia’s only Aboriginal-owned crocodile farm.

The prototype farm is big enough for almost 1,400 crocodiles.

A ranger shovels dirt during the construction of a crocodile farm in Ramingining.
Community-owned farms are expected to exponentially increase the profit landowners make in the crocodile industry.(

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A ranger and a builder crouch down in the dirt to work on the construction of a crocodile farm.
The Arafura Swamp Rangers entered a partnership with crocodile farmer Mick Burns to establish their own facility.(

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A drone shot of the construction site of a crocodile farm being built at Ramingining.
The farm at Ramingining is designed to grow crocodiles up to around 80 centimetres.(

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Community leaders have long advocated farming crocodiles as a way to create jobs.

“The old people, they’ve been talking about putting in that crocodile farm,” says elder and Arafura Swamp ranger Peter Djigirr.

“Now they’ve passed away, and we were for a long time asking, and now we’ve made it.”

Peter Djiggirr looks across the camera from close range in the bush near Ramingining.
Peter Djiggirr was airlifted into crocodile nests from the earliest days of egg harvesting.(

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Northern Territory croc farmer Mick Burns has wanted to see crocodile farms in remote communities for decades.

“[Indigenous Australians] have lived with this apex predator for thousands of years, and we learn more from them about crocs than we teach them,” he says.

Burns is now in discussions with multiple Aboriginal communities to establish crocodile farms that are owned and operated by Aboriginal people.

Mick Burns looks across the camera with his arms folded.
The farming interests of Mick Burns are tied up with French high fashion labels, which are the key backers of the industry in the NT.(

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‘We’re in uncharted waters’

As the crocodile recovery brings profits, it also raises questions about how humans and crocodiles will continue to live together for the next 50 years.

People on a boat take photos of a croc jumping out of the water.
In the NT’s $2 billion tourism industry, the crocodile is the star.(

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A crocodile's head is seen just below the water.
As croc numbers have grown since the 70s, so too has the commercial value of crocodiles.(

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A crocodile tail is seen from above on top of the water.
Researchers say the crocodiles’ return is considered one of the greatest success stories in wildlife recovery and conservation.(

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The discovery of a saltwater crocodile nest near urban Palmerston, Grahame Webb says, is a wake-up call for the NT government’s crocodile management program, and shows more research on crocodiles is needed.

“The fact that some crocodiles have escaped detection and escaped capture and gotten into some hidden swamps where they are nesting just means the program probably needs to be looked at,” he says.

The NT government says its crocodile management program will be reviewed this year.

A crocodile trap sits on top of the water near mangroves in Darwin Harbour.
Rangers on average trap 200 to 300 crocodiles in Darwin Harbour each year.(

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But to get the management program right, Webb says the NT’s research capability and investment, once the envy of the world, needs a considerable overhaul.

“We have no research capacity [in the NT],” he says.

John Dalton works at Crocodylus Park

“There’s no institutional commitment to research. We’ve lost all that.”

For Adam Britton, humans are once again entering the unknown when it comes to crocodiles.

“I think we’re in uncharted waters,” he says.

“We’re seeing higher densities of larger crocodiles, we’re seeing crocodiles appearing in places that people haven’t expected to see them before, we’re seeing behaviours from crocodiles that we haven’t seen before because they’re now starting to act in a more natural way.

“I think there’s a lot more that we need to learn over the next few decades to try and keep this relationship between people and crocodiles at a level that is acceptable.”

A crocodile slides down into water at Crocodylus Park.
Grahame Webb believes the NT government should step up its monitoring, trapping and removal of crocodiles in Darwin harbour.

Credits

Reporting: Emma Masters and Steve Vivian

Photographer: Michael Franchi

Digital production: Steve Vivian


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