Saved From Extinction, Darwin's Crocs Are Now King

Feb 10, 2012
Originally published on February 10, 2012 4:03 pm

It's appropriate that Darwin, the tropical capital of Australia's Northern Territory, is named for the English naturalist.

The massive, powerful and deadly saltwater crocodile — the world's largest living reptile — is the evolutionary triumph of 50 million years of natural selection. And in Darwin, the crocodile is equally dreaded and beloved.

Crocodylus porosus was hunted to near extinction in the last century. But in 1974, the Australian government put the species, known affectionately as the "Australian salty," under federal protection.

Today, the salty's population has rebounded to near pre-colonial numbers. An estimated 100,000 are thriving in the sluggish estuaries and billabongs, or backwaters, of the Northern Territory — also known as Australia's "Top End."

A Big Comeback

"Our main thing we do now is full-time crocodile management in the Top End," says Tom Nichols, a wildlife ranger with the Northern Territory government parks and wildlife service. The job has its occupational hazards. An irate crocodile took a chomp out of Nichols' left hand nine years ago. His hand was sewn up and he went back to work.

The Northern Territory's crocodile rangers capture between 250 and 300 saltys a year. The rangers nab them in floating traps in Darwin Harbour and wrestle them out of populated areas. The rangers then zip-tie and duct-tape their jaws and sell the animals to crocodile farms.

"We are finding crocs in areas we never found 'em before, such as right in the town of Darwin itself," Nichols says. "We find 'em in swimming pools and in backyards. We have a 24-hour callout number and we're forever getting calls at this time of year during the wet season," when saltwater crocodiles like to move into fresh water.

Dwyn Delaney, an outdoorsman and gun fancier, owns a Western wear store in Darwin. Like some others in the Northern Territory, he's concerned the salty population may have come back too strong.

"They're everywhere. You fall in the drink, in rivers, you wanna get outta there real quick," Delaney says.

He feels it's time to start culling the crocodiles to reduce their numbers. And Delaney, whose shop is full of dead animal heads, would be happy to volunteer. "I am armed to the teeth here," he says.

There have been five confirmed fatal croc attacks since 2005 in the Nothern Territory, and two unconfirmed deaths in which the bodies were never recovered. In the most recent confirmed case, in April 2010, an 11-year-old girl was swimming in Lambells Lagoon when she was — in local parlance – "taken" by a crocodile.

That was the last straw for the territory. Alarmed wildlife managers initiated a safety and awareness program called Crocwise, complete with public service announcements and stern signs warning which water holes are unsafe for swimming.

A Fraught, But Symbiotic, Relationship

Darwin residents fear the crocodile, but they also admire it — and some depend on it for their livelihoods. Australian crocodile farms exported 52,000 skins in 2010, and the region boasts a dozen river tours, known as "croc cruises," where boatloads of tourists can watch a behemoth salty leap from the river for meat on a stick from only a few feet away. It's a riveting sight — the largest adult males can reach 20 feet in length and weigh more than a ton.

And crocodiles sell newspapers.

Matt Cunningham, editor of the NT News, puts a croc photo on the front page several times a week. The newspaper is famous throughout Australia for its carnivorous journalism.

"As far the NT News goes, there's no such thing as too many crocodile stories," Cunningham says. "Crocodiles are amazing beasts. Darwin is one of the few places in the world where man and crocodile live, sort of, side by side."

Would-be crocodile hunter Delaney is all too familiar with the local abundance of crocodile stories.

"The only thing that'll get a croc off the front page of that paper is a dingo story or a cyclone," he says.

Or, adds Cunningham, the first sting of the season from another deadly aquatic neighbor: the box jellyfish.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We end this hour with one more story about the management of fierce creatures. In the Australian city of Darwin, the saltwater crocodile is equally dreaded and beloved. Darwin is the capital of the tropical Northern Territory, and it's named for the English naturalist Charles Darwin. Appropriate, since this massive and deadly crocodile is the triumph of evolutionary resilience. NPR's John Burnett sent this audio postcard from what's known as Australian's Top End.

NIGEL: And good morning all. Welcome to Crocosaurus Cove. My name is Nigel. We're going to be feeding a couple of these big guys.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A croc attendant dangles a piece of lamb on the end of a stick before the snout of a 17-foot, 1,700-pound male that lounges lethally in a pool at a popular Darwin crocodile park. He strikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

BURNETT: In the last century, Crocodylus porosus - the world's largest reptile - was hunted to near extinction. Then in 1974, the Australian salty - as it's affectionately called - became a federally protected species. Today, its population has rebounded to near precolonial numbers. An estimated 100,000 of the creatures thrive in the sluggish estuaries and billabongs of the Northern Territory.

TOM NICHOLS: My name is Tom Nichols. I'm a wildlife ranger with Parks and Wildlife. And our main thing we do now is just full-time crocodile management in the Top End.

BURNETT: The croc rangers of the Northern Territory capture about 250 to 300 saltys a year. They nab them in floating traps in Darwin Harbor, and they wrestle them out of populated areas. Then the rangers zip-tie and duct-tape their jaws and sell them to croc farms. The job has its occupational hazards. An irate salty took a bite out of Nichols' left hand nine years ago. They sewed him up, and he went back to work.

NICHOLS: We are finding crocs in areas we never found them before, such as right in the town of Darwin itself. We find them in swimming pools and in backyards. We have a 24-hour callout number, and we're forever getting calls at this time of the year during the wet season.

BURNETT: That's the season when saltwater crocodiles like to move into freshwater. The question around the Top End is whether the beasts have come back too strong.

DWYN DELANEY: They're everywhere. I mean, you fall in the drink, in rivers, and you're - you want to get out of there real quick.

BURNETT: Dwyn Delaney is an outdoorsman and gun fancier who owns a western wear store in Darwin, which is full of dead animal heads. He and others believe it's time to start culling saltys to reduce their numbers.

DELANEY: So whether they get some sharpshooters - I mean, you know...

BURNETT: Would you volunteer?

DELANEY: Of course, I've got, you know, I am armed to the teeth here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: There have been five confirmed fatal croc attacks since 2005 in the Top End and two unconfirmed deaths in which bodies were never found. The last confirmed case was in April 2010: An 11-year-old girl was swimming in Lambells Lagoon when she was, in local parlance, taken by a crocodile. That was the last straw. Alarmed wildlife managers instituted a territory-wide safety and awareness program called Crocwise.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Crocodiles can be found in any waterway in the Top End and dangerous all year round. So we all have to be Crocwise.

BURNETT: Locals fear the crocodile, they admire it, and they depend on it for their livelihoods. There are a dozen so-called croc cruises where boatloads of tourists can watch a behemoth salty leap out of the water for meat on a stick only a few feet away. Australian crocodile farms exported 52,000 skins in 2010. And crocs sell newspapers.

MATT CUNNINGHAM: As far the N.T. News goes, there's no such thing as too many crocodile stories.

BURNETT: Matt Cunningham, editor of the Northern Territory News, puts a croc photo on the front page several times a week. His newspaper is famous throughout Australia for its carnivorous journalism.

CUNNINGHAM: Crocodiles are amazing beasts. Darwin is one of the few places in the world where man and crocodile live sort of side by side.

BURNETT: Again, would-be croc hunter and media critic Dwyn Delaney.

DELANEY: The only thing that'll get a crocodile off the front page of that paper is a dingo story or a cyclone.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Or, adds the editor, the first sting of the season from another deadly aquatic neighbor: the box jellyfish. John Burnett, NPR News, Darwin, Australia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.