Feature Image: Michael Schwab
Demands for a cull of Saltwater Crocodiles in Northern Australia and Queensland are an ever-present whisper in the ears of the regions masses. Every now and then these whispers intensify, often following a tragedy, and reach national headlines, where the subject and discourse polarise people.
“How can we stop the next crocodile attack?”
Answers to this question are broad and diverse. But, culling advocates have a ubiquitous presence in these discussions.
As of July 2018, the most recent calls for a crocodile cull have come from Northern Australia politicians. The most vocal proponents of a cull being far-right figures, such as Bob Katter, whom renewed their advocacy to the public after the non-fatal mauling of a teenage boy and the fatal mauling of a spearfisherman.
The teenager entered the Johnstone River on the drunken dare of a friend. He staggered into the croc-infested waters and, surprisingly, was mauled by a crocodile, but lived to tell the tale. The spearfisherman’s death is unfortunate. He was taken from the coast of Northern Queensland near Innisfail, in an area known to be inhabited by crocodiles. His body was later found with lacerations consistent with a crocodile attack.
It is important not to adopt knee-jerk reactions in response to such events. The legitimacy of a cull is important, as bills have been proposed, and rejected for now, on several occasions. It would only take one successful bill, implemented in hysteria, to once again threaten the future of a keystone species.
What legitimacy does a crocodile cull have?
Such a question can only be understood in the context of the last century of crocodile populations fluctuation. During this time, they were pushed to the brink of extinction. (This article uses the general term of ‘crocodile’ to denote purely the saltwater species, as this is the most active target of culls).
A bleak history?
In the 1970s, several bills were introduced and implemented in state parliament that assigned ‘protected’ status to crocodiles across Northern Australia. It took close to a decade to achieve this outcome because, in spite of scientific recognition, the parties in power were highly reluctant and oppositional to this protection on the grounds of ecological importance.
Nonetheless, by the late 1970’s crocodiles were unanimously protected across all jurisdictions of Australia – this protection was extended to Freshwater Crocodiles.
Before this, the species had been hunted relentlessly for their hide and out of contempt. Due to a lack of regulation, it was essentially open season year-round. Crocodiles were on the brink of extinction. In the era before protection, intense hunting wiped out 95 to 98 percent of wild crocodiles.
The total population of Saltwater Crocodiles was down to roughly 3000 individuals in Australia – its lowest populous since the days of the Asia-Australia consummation.
The protected status was a welcome embrace for the species, which bounced back with a vengeance. It is estimated that there are now around 100,000 Saltwater Crocodiles inhabiting the waters of Australia.
In fact, the revival of the crocodile population is one of the conservation success stories of Australia. (Hence, the question mark in the title of this subsection). But, not everyone has embraced this rejuvenation.
“Crocodiles are now a serious risk to humans”
Some suggest that the population of crocodiles living in proximity to humans has reached such a level, that they are now threatening the safety of humans.
Too many crocodiles?
Visit any local venue in the Northern Territory and you will likely hear long-term Territorians recounting a time when they used to swim in the regions waterways. But, many are now hesitant to walk the banks of those same waterways.
To many, this is evidence of a problem. Crocodiles are now of a populous which is infringing on human safety. While many people do not remember the time before the crocodiles near-extinction, they demand a resolution to the situation. They demand a return to a time when waterways were safe to swim in.
In the 40 years following the total protection of crocodiles in Northern Australia, there has been a total of 33 fatalities directly attributable to crocodile attacks – the Northern Territory is the main location of these attacks, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the fatalities. Rates of attack have increased slightly over this period, although they remain an extremely rare incident – from around 1 attack to 1.4 attacks per year.
These deaths, while unfortunate and in most cases avoidable if care were taken, are not indicative of a population explosion beyond sustainable levels.
Most scientists argue that crocodiles are almost fully recovered, verging on a near optimal level that sustains and can be sustained by the ecosystem. In most waterways, populations have reached a plateau, with said waterways reaching carrying capacity.
The increased sightings are an outcome of the recovery of the population. When a population of any species increases from 3,000 to above 100,000, there will be notable differences in its composition and density – naturally with such an increase, people are going to see more crocodiles.
As to the associated claim that waterways used to be swimmable and safe. This too is fallacious on rational grounds. The waterways in Northern Australia have never been safe to swim in. They have been less risky in the same way that an Olympic swimming pool hosting 1 crocodile is less risky than a pool with 3 crocodiles.
In 1975, just after Queensland’s protection of crocodiles, Peter Reimers was attacked and killed by a crocodile near Mission River – it is difficult to discern how many attacks occurred before this point as records only began following crocodile protection.
Crocodile awareness has been heavily promoted by Australian municipalities in recent years. It is possible that waterways in previous decades were perceived as ‘safe’ because people were not aware of the dangers and crocodile attacks did not receive as much coverage, owing to the times.
A second anomaly has amplified the chance of interactions – humans. Specifically, the explosion of the human population in regions that overlap into crocodile territory. The human population in Northern Australia has more than doubled over the period mentioned above. With millions more people and the attraction of urban sprawl, we have advertently encroached into crocodile habitat. Inevitably this has increased the chances of unwanted interactions.
The social perception of the crocodile population explosion has been a big driver for culling advocates. While it is founded on incomplete knowledge and counterintuitive logic, it is nonetheless part of the public discourse. But, in the context of this issue, it is only a single pro-cull argument. And, unfortunately, the only partially reasonable one.
I want to swim. Cull the crocs!
People have equated a perception of historical safety in waterways with a croc population explosion. This perception is false, but understandable – if you played the odds, a dip in the refreshing water would be a pleasant experience. However, there are others that ‘remember’ these times and advocate a cull upon them.
Culling advocates are fond of citing a time when the waterways were safe, yet such a time never existed.
“We can’t ski out in our favourite skiing places and the rowing clubs have dropped in numbers” – Shane Knuth
Upon the insipid desire to swim or go out canoeing, people are driven to call for the eradication of a species. This kind of deplorable anthropocentrism does not often rear its ugly head. But, unfortunately, it has not completely disappeared from existence. To people who desire a cull on this premise, all I can say is:
Please, go for a swim.
Asides from the anti-humanity sentiment of desiring a cull for recreational activities, the whole notion of humans as reasonable and conscientious moral agents has gone out the window. This mindset sits atop the pinnacle of a human selfishness. A selfishness that has underpinned the mentality behind some of the worst environmental atrocities in the modern age.
Ethics aside, there is logic in rejecting calls for a cull on the basis of a desire to swim in crocodile infested waterways. Namely, even when the crocodile population was at its lowest in modern history, attacks still occurred.
“It’s possible that in the 1970s it was relatively safe to swim in Queensland waterways, but even then, there were fatal attacks. If you bring the population down, even then there will be fatal attacks” – Dr Adam Britton
A crocodile cull would not bring safety to waterways. These zealots claiming the they want “to swim in the rivers again, like when we were kids” seemingly do not realise that attacks did occur. A cull would not emulate safety.
The only way to guarantee safety while swimming in Northern Australian waterways would be to advocate the annihilation of an entire species.
An alternative option is that people could recognise that they have placed themselves in an ecosystem founded on a large reptilian predator. Short of exterminating a species for personal sentiments, you will have to accept that you wittingly live in close proximity to crocodiles not vice versa– crocodiles have existed in these same rivers for many millennia.
Despite the existence of these self-motivated views some are concerned extra-personal views; about macro-scale impacts to the local economy. Namely…
Crocs are driving away tourists.
Are crocodiles driving away tourists?
No. The resurgence of the crocodile population is having the opposite effect. Recent decade has seen the proliferation of the croc tourism industry – possibly due to the healthy crocodile numbers, but such a claim would purely be speculation.
If we consider the Northern Territory alone, the least visited region in Australia, tourism has increased year-on-year. Between 2015/16 period, tourism was up 28 percent to 1,735,000 international and domestic tourists.
The same period saw a 17 percent increase in foreign visitors to 800,000. During the 2013/17 period, the Northern Territories social media following increased 200-fold. Statistics after statistic indicates that the regions tourism industry has not suffered any major blows.
But, even if tourism to the region were falling, how can this be immediately linked to the crocodile populations resurgence?
No academic studies have formulated this connection, so who has?
Why should conjecture hold merit in the governance of wildlife management?
Why immediately target the crocodiles instead of issues, such as rurality, resource scarcity, negative perceptions of the local people, the high costs of visiting the region, the high crime rate?
What is the real issue?
There are easier ways to get yourself killed.
With a crocodile cull being tantamount to nothing, what can be done to mitigate the risks still posed. The problem is not with crocodiles, but people. Wildlife management is about managing people. Pre-empting and mitigating peoples lack of knowledge, fatal mishaps or blatant stupidity.
In every death or injury that has resulted from a crocodile attack, people have put themselves in a situation that increased the likelihood of an attack. No individual has been in a situation that could be considered completely innocuous, only to be mauled by a rouge crocodile in some abstract location.
From swimming and fishing in croc waters to camping on river banks to engaging in recreational activities in close proximity to crocs, every single person has put themselves in that situation. Should they have chosen to bask in the comfort of some inland activity, no injuries would have occurred.
Many deaths and injuries have been a result of alcohol and/or stupidity – people have a few drinks and throw caution to the wind. They go into waters that are known to have crocodiles and are surprised when they get attacked. More to the point, people believe that there is some issue with the crocodile population because of this attack. Should we legislate for stupidity?
“It will continue to happen; no amount of legislation is going to change anything.” – Professor Webb
The local governments have invested many resources into risk mitigation. From warning signs cluttering the banks of most rivers to radio and television campaigns to brochures. The Northern Territory and Queensland crocodile management program works remarkably well and has set a precedent for the world.
Despite such a large crocodile population, Australia has a disproportionate amount of attacks when compared to the rest of the world. The Philippines, for example, has a much lower population than Australia, but nearly twice as many attacks. The success of the public safety and awareness campaigns would only be tarnished by adopting nonsensical management strategies, in place of current ones that are proven to be effective.
Most crocodile attacks that do occur are outliers – the result of freak circumstance or stupidity. Furthermore, a cluster of incidents does not indicate a worsening situation. Similar to shark bites, it commonly indicates a blip in the numbers. We must be cautious not to adopt knee-jerk reactions to outlier events and rely on ‘solutions’ that are proven to have no legitimacy.
It is difficult to suggest something that can mitigate the risks associated with people acting on whims. But, this is not to say that nothing can be done. The best option is to build on top of the strong foundations provided by current crocodile management strategies.
Firstly, rule out any suggestions of strategies that are counter to scientific evidence. There are real world examples of how this can have unforeseen issues.
The Western Australia shark cull is a lesson in complete failure. The government relied on political ideology over scientific evidence to implement a cull. The scientific community predicted the outcome to a tee.
The cull did not improve public safety at all. But, it had a significant impact on Australia’s reputation as a precedential manager of endangered species. In the aftermath, all this policy achieved was the diminishment of Australia’s reputation.
Secondly, develop risk aversion strategies for high risk groups. Specifically, young males and foreigners. While this would need development on the basis of research that determines the breadth of high risk groups and why their risk is high, potential solutions could involve increased safety barriers in areas where high risk groups are most common, such as river pubs.
Along with this, education is an important factor because a good portion of those involved in crocodile interactions are foreigners. The best way to target these groups would be through tour operators. As this is where most foreign tourists end up. Investments in expanding safe practices and knowledge on crocodiles may be enough to subside the risk to foreigners – foreigners are a only a fraction of the affected group.
Potential mitigation mechanisms at the disposal of local and national governments are broad, although many hold promise. In the light of scientific knowledge, the best option is to develop strategies that further public awareness and minimise risky behaviour.
The specifics of the best path to take are still up in the air. But, one thing is certain: a crocodile cull holds no merit nor those that purport it.