It was a typically hot and humid day in Weipa, a small mining community in the far north of Australia. Late in the afternoon, 28-year-old local miner and fisherman Todd Bairstow walked on to the muddy banks of the murky creek with his dog Dig Dig and rigged up his fishing line.
Within minutes, a three-metre (ten-foot) saltwater crocodile had exploded out of the creek, first puncturing Bairstow’s left hand before lunging again and latching on to his legs. The crocodile repeatedly span in a death roll as it tried to drag him back into the water to drown him.
Bairstow’s screams were heard at nearby pub the Albatross Hotel where his mates were drinking. Six men, including Bairstow’s friend Kev Bevan, found him hanging on to a mangrove tree, punching the crocodile and gouging at its eyes as it thrashed and span.
They attacked the crocodile with branches torn from nearby mango trees. Forty minutes after the crocodile first attacked it finally let go and swam away, and Bairstow was airlifted to hospital suffering dislocated joints, fractured bones and puncture wounds.
As Bairstow had just discovered, floods hit crocodiles hard, destroying their traditional feeding grounds and obliterating the borders of these deeply territorial creatures. Areas that have been crocodile free for years can suddenly find themselves home to a ten-foot reptile in the mood to eat.
“Choudary is busier than ever, having learnt from his controversial attempts to picket the war dead that there really is no such thing as bad publicity”
Since being placed on the protected species list in 1971, when numbers were below 5,000, the comeback of the crocodile has been astounding. There are now estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000 saltwater crocodiles in the Top End – the tropical northern coastal region of Australia – which is as many as there were when white settlers first arrived in the late nineteenth century. Crocs are now being seen in stretches of remote rivers where the Aboriginal population say they have never been before.
There have been a long series of record-setting, heavier-than-normal wet seasons which have given crocodiles longer and longer periods of time to find new territories. Only the very biggest crocodiles who can see off all challengers pick any stretch of water they like and stick to it. So each wet season, crocodiles go on the move, which is why the stunning waterfalls and billabongs of Litchfield and Kakadu Parks – both south-east of Darwin, and the Top End’s most popular tourist attractions – are often closed during the “wet” while rangers look for crocodiles day and night. Crocodiles are incredibly difficult to spot, even for trained rangers, and it takes 21 days and nights before they’ll decide a spot is safe – and that’s only after the heavy floods have receded and there’s no chance of another croc sneaking in to make the waterhole his own.
Alongside the fact that white men are no longer hunting them, there are several other factors thought to be aiding the crocodiles’ soaring population. The natural predators of croc eggs – birds and lizards, mostly – have been decimated by the recent cane toad invasion, and while Aborigines still consider the eggs a delicacy, there just aren’t as many Aborigines living traditionally any more.
Don’t confuse Top End salties with, say, Florida’s mostly serene and stumpy alligators. The Crocodylus porosus is the world’s largest crocodile, and it’s now common to see them six meters long (20 feet), while fishermen claim to have seen crocs eight metres (26 feet) or more in length. While fatal croc attacks on humans have been more or less level since 1971 (around two deaths per year), non-fatal incidents are increasing.
The attack on Bairstow was only surprising in that he survived such a prolonged attack to tell his story. A month before, a 14-year-old boy was taken by a crocodile while swimming in a creek near the Daly River – a notoriously croc-infested part of the Northern Territory. Not long after, two fishermen narrowly survived when their dinghy flipped south-east of Darwin and they were stalked in the water by four crocodiles. The fishermen managed to get out of the water to safety, although they witnessed one of the crocs devour the black bag that held their car keys.
It’s no surprise, then, that there are widespread calls to cull following any croc attack, but the turning point came in 2009 following the death of Briony Goodsell. The 11-year-old girl had been swimming near her home 40 miles south-east of Darwin in a popular and pretty lagoon when she was taken by a crocodile. Her seven-year-old sister and friends witnessed the attack. The subsequent outcry caused the NT government to review its position on crocodiles.
For pro-cullers the answer seems obvious: culling crocs will reduce their number and therefore reduce the problem – if there aren’t so many crocs, there won’t be so many to eat you. The reality, however, isn’t quite that simple.
Charlie Manolis is Australia’s foremost expert on crocodiles. He has studied them extensively for more than 30 years, and opened research centre Crocodylus Park in 1994. When a government wants information about crocodiles – from Brazil to India – he’s their go-to man. And what does he think of culling? He doesn’t think it would work.
“The calls for culling do not take into consideration the logistics,” says Manolis. “This is a far more complex issue: if there is to be culling, where? How? How many? Will it achieve the desired guaranteed safety?”
The Northern Territory government already removes a significant number of crocodiles each year in the Top End. The areas around Darwin and Katherine (the nearest “big town”, some 300km south) are zero tolerance zones where every single crocodile is removed – 305 were removed last year – to crocodile farms where they are a lucrative trade: Hermès is one of the luxury brands which uses Australian croc hides, supposedly the finest in the world. In addition, rogue crocs bothering remote communities or fishermen are removed – more than 600 last year alone. Landowners earn money by harvesting croc eggs, and can get permits to kill up to ten crocodiles on their properties each year.
The biggest hurdle to making an area “safe” is that crocodiles like to spread out as far as possible. Some stretches of water are infested with crocodiles, but that’s because they’ve nowhere else to go.
“There were just one or two big crocs in the whole Mary River in 1979,” says Manolis, describing a region which spans hundreds of kilometres. “Now, in just the small area of Shady Camp [a small series of billabongs in the Mary River region which are especially popular with barramundi fishermen], there are more than 20 big salties per kilometre.”
“Areas that have been crocodile-free for years can suddenly find themselves home to a ten-foot reptile in the mood to eat”
Manolis believes that removing big crocodiles can have the opposite to the desired effect: “When you take out those big crocs, the numbers of crocodiles can actually increase. The big croc regulates the population by killing the little ones. That’s how the ecosystem works.”
If you cull crocodiles, you’ll need to cull all of them – such is their instinct to spread out. And unless you’ve killed every last one, how can you be sure that, during the most recent wet season, a crocodile didn’t travel to the pristine, barramundi-filled billabong you’re about to go for a swim in? The same number of people were killed by crocodiles each year when there were fewer than 5,000, after all. So the option appears to be either kill them all, or live with them.
In the short-term, there’s a lot of work being done about education. The common thread is people swimming – or standing very near – water known to be home to crocodiles. You’d think it’s the tourists who would get eaten, but it’s nearly always locals. After all, visitors to the Top End are very aware that pretty much everything – from jellyfish in the sea to buffaloes in the bush and road trains on the highways – can kill you, so they follow the rules. It’s the locals who get cocky.
Manolis points to another risk factor that’s far too common in the Top End: booze. Of the 62 attacks between 1971 and 2004, a third involved the consumption of alcohol.
“We have a database of attacks and there’s a very high proportion of victims who were drinking before they were attacked. They’ve gone drinking and then gone swimming,” he says. “The boy who was taken in February, he was born on the Daly [River], grew up on the Daly, even knew the crocodile by name. A few grogs and he decided to go for a swim with his mates. Grog makes us feel invincible. It’s like drink-driving: no matter how many times to you tell people not to do it, sometimes they do.”
The NT News is the Murdoch-owned daily paper, and features a croc story on its front page almost every other day, whether it’s windsurfers being bothered by crocs, or police having to lock up a rogue croc during a flood until rangers can remove it. Chief Reporter Nigel Adlam moved from Hackney, London, to Darwin 20 years ago, and doesn’t plan on moving back, despite having two young kids and saltwater crocs not a kilometre from his back garden.
“A minority of rednecks want to see the crocodiles shot,” he says, “but they’re just the minority. We live in the tropics. Complaining about crocodiles is like complaining about mosquitoes or the heat. In Hackney you don’t play in the street because you’ll get hit by a car. In the Top End, you don’t go swimming where there could be crocodiles.
“You either cull all the crocs,” he concludes, “or you live with them. It’s unique in the world: a modern, sophisticated society living cheek by jowl with an animal that wants to eat you. They don’t do it in Florida, they drain the water and shoot the alligators and remove thousands of them a year. Obviously, there are the Masai and lions, but there aren’t many Masai and there aren’t many lions.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.