Saltwater crocodiles are world-class hunters but less than enchanting neighbors. This lack of sociability drove the species close to extinction in the 1960’s. Their dramatic recovery and current stability is aided by a state program somewhere between ingenious and highly controversial.
Saltwater crocs, Crocodylus posorus to the experts, and “salties” to the locals, are the world’s largest reptiles. Salties get their nickname from their preference for brackish water. Their average length is an intimidating twelve feet, but there are confirmed reports of 20-foot males weighing up to two thousand pounds. They ambush their prey, generally employing the “pretend to be a log and then lunge” approach. Juveniles are limited to eating crustaceans and fish, but for adults nearly anything can be prey: monkeys, boars, and, regrettably, livestock. Several very publicized saltwater crocodiles attacks, including one where a 12-year-old boy was eaten, and another where an inadequately anesthetized zoo croc bit the arm off a vet, have contributed to their poor reputation.
Beginning in the 1940’s, crocodiles were hunted both for sport for the foolhardy and for their very valuable hides, culminating in a dramatic population decrease. In the Northern Territory the crocodile population plummeted from 100,000 to 5,000 over just a few decades. As a result, between 1969 and 1974 various Australian provinces completely banned recreational and commercial hunting, with exceptions made for subsistence hunting by Aborigines.
In 1969, a state-funded research crocodile farm in Queensland was erected to explore the possibility that crocodile farms could conserve saltwater crocodiles and provide employment for underserved populations. However, the ban on hunting endured until the 1990’s and is largely credited with the restoration of hardy salty populations. As a result, in the 1980’s crocodile attacks had become more commonplace, leading for calls to cull them. In response to this pressure, the crocodile management programs expanded to include education components, a job for some bold soul relocating troublesome crocodiles, and small-scale egg-collecting. Saltwater crocodile eggs are collected (an errand made complicated by protective and toothy mothers) and then sold to farms. Ultimately, the small number that hatch will be raised for their high quality leather and allegedly palatable meat.
In the mid-80’s, several populations of saltwater crocodiles in Australia were moved from Appendix I to Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Speices). For the uninitiated, legally, harvesting saltwater crocodiles was no longer banned, just highly monitored. In response, collections scaled up to tens of thousands of eggs from the wild. In the mid 1990’s, limiting hunting of juvenile and adult crocodiles was permitted in the Northern Territory. Crocodile populations have continued to grow these past few decades behind this.
The philosophy behind these rulings is referred to as “sustainable economic use.” Landholders have limited and relentlessly regulated rights to crocodiles nesting, living, and inevitably hunting on their property. They can sell their crocodiles to leather and meat farms. This makes coexisting with salties profitable, if terrifying. Though saltwater crocodiles remain horrific tenants, at least now they’re paying their way. This model is still too young to have proven itself, but is certainly intriguing. If proven successful it may be applied to nightmare-inducing animals with human neighbors worldwide.