Critics of a proposal to remove more large crocodiles from Queensland’s populated far north coast say the move will result in a “silent cull” and could actually put more people at risk of attack.
The Queensland government said crocodile numbers had been slowly rising and it was conducting modelling to see what impact taking more animals out of the wild would have on the species.
Since 1975, there had been 47 crocodile attacks in the state, causing 16 deaths. The government said the rate of non-fatal attacks had been increasing.
But one crocodile expert described the proposal as dangerous, saying it could lull the public into a false sense of security, disrupt the animal’s social structures and cause populations to become unviable.
Hunting until the late 1970s almost wiped out saltwater crocodiles, but subsequent protection had raised numbers to an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 in the state.
Crocodiles are listed as vulnerable in Queensland. The government has routinely removed about 50 “problem crocodiles” annually, mostly in response to public sightings.
An independent review of the management of crocodiles this year said those removals had likely seen a fall in the average size of crocodiles along the populated coast.
But the review, led by the state’s former chief scientist Prof Hugh Possingham, proposed an additional removal program of “a modest number” of crocodiles 2.4 metres or longer – a move the government has backed in principle.
Almost 8,000 people have so far signed a petition against that proposal, calling it a “cull”.
Prof Craig Franklin, of the University of Queensland, runs one of the largest crocodile tracking studies in the world, but said he was not invited or consulted for the plan.
“This is not a good idea for humans or crocodiles,” he said. “It won’t make it safe. In fact, I think it’s dangerous.
“This will lead people into a false sense of security because they might think it’s now safe to swim in these waterways. But our research shows crocodiles can move 60km in a day.
“They move from river system to river system. They can sit under water for more than six hours and remain hidden.”
Franklin said he was unclear on the “problem the government was trying to solve” and the data and models the government was using had not been made publicly available.
Removing larger crocs – those most experienced at reproduction – could skew the population. “In effect it could make [populations] non-viable,” he said.
Crocodiles form stable social structures with dominant males maintaining territories and keeping the peace. Removing these larger animals could have unpredictable effects, Franklin said.
“It is almost like what they’re proposing is an eradication strategy that’s disguised,” he said.
The Department of Environment and Science (DES) said genomic analysis and population modelling was under way to see how crocodiles might respond to more removals at different locations.
“DES would not consider any changes that threatened the ongoing survival of the estuarine crocodile in the wild.”
In the past year, 59 crocodiles were removed. Three were euthanised “for humane reasons” with the rest going to zoos and farms.
Matthew Brien is program coordinator with the government’s northern wildlife operations unit that manages crocodile removals, public education and research.
Brien said the number of non-fatal attacks had risen over the last two decades. “If we have an increase in human population and the crocodile population, then we can expect to see more attacks if we don’t change.”
Only about 20% of the state’s crocodiles live in populated coastal areas between Cooktown and Ayr, Brien said, and the rest would be unaffected by any changes.
“There’s always that risk [of public complacency] and that’s an area I think we can improve on. This is about looking into the future,” he said.
David White, the owner of Solar Whisper Wildlife Cruises, takes tourists along the Daintree River daily on an electric boat to spot crocodiles.
He described the proposal as a “silent cull” and feared it could lead to fatal complacency.
“No matter how many you take away, there will always be another one unless you shoot them all. Crocodiles are very good at being sneaky. You might not see it until it’s bitten you.”
White said his opposition was not about protecting his business, as fewer crocodiles would make viewing them harder and his operation even more attractive to tourists.
“We’re all worried about safety, but removing one obvious crocodile can mean there’s more small and secretive ones around.
“The best deterrent [to staying away from water] is a big crocodile on the bank.”
This article by Graham Readfearn was first published by The Guardian on 3 September 2022. Lead Image: A four-metre saltwater croc seen in Miallo, Queensland. Tour operator David White fears removing more crocodiles could lead to fatal complacency. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images courtesy of David White.
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