Friday essay: reckoning with an animal that sees us as prey — living and working in crocodile country


A crocodile known locally as ‘Barrat’ emerges from the water of the lower Daintree River, Far North Queensland.
Kevin Crook

Michael Bradley, James Cook UniversityThe wet season in tropical Australia begins with tension. Physical tension, caused by the friction of earth and clouds. Mental tension, caused by the heat, and the expectation of rain and relief. It is also an ecological tension, where every plant and animal is poised — genetically, physiologically — to grow, reap, sow and copulate within a few short months.

We call it the build-up. The tension builds, and then it breaks. It was at the point of breaking when Val Plumwood, a young philosopher from the temperate south, was taken by a crocodile.

She was an environmental activist, exploring Kakadu to experience the wilderness she’d had a hand in protecting. She was paddling upstream in a small, red, low-sided canoe when it began to rain. There are many attacks on visitors to the tropics, especially those in small watercraft, but we know more about this one than any other.

Val Plumwood.
CC BY-NC-ND

When Val began fighting for the protection of wild places in the 1970s, the saltwater crocodile was rare almost to the point of extinction. By the mid ‘80s they were protected, plentiful, and in remote places, lacked memory of the hunters’ gun. When Val climbed into her vessel that morning in 1985, she did so in good faith. They were not a known threat to someone travelling by canoe in a back channel lagoon.

But crocodiles are a threat. Young salties eat fish and crabs. As they grow, they move on to larger prey — dogs, pigs, people, horses and buffalo. Our species fits comfortably in their diet, slipping into the line-up between pigs and horses.

Crocodiles may be opportunistic hunters, but their encounters with prey aren’t chance. They think about it. They watch, and they learn. Wash your pots and pans on the riverbank every evening, and you are inviting an attack. For people along the coastline of the tropical arc between Eastern India and Australia, they colour the water’s edge with a lurking malice and the threat of a violent death.

A crocodile in Kakadu.
Dean Lewins/AAP

We share our world with other dangerous animals. Sharks, for instance, kill every year. Poisonous snakes too. However, there is a difference. Snakes strike when threatened, usually by an unintentional kick in the ribs. Sharks do bite when unprovoked, but rarely, and they almost never consume us. We share our beaches with them, but you can spend your life in the water and never get bitten. The saltwater crocodile is a different beast, and it boils down to intent. As crocodile researcher Professor Grahame Webb has put it:

There is no way of avoiding nor sugarcoating the predatory nature of saltwater crocodiles. If you dive off the Adelaide River bridge, 60 km east of Darwin’s city centre, and start swimming, there is a 100% chance of being taken by a saltwater crocodile. It is not the same as swimming with sharks.




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Fear and fascination

Like Val Plumwood, I too had come up north from the temperate south, and was not used to sharing my world with something that wanted to eat me.

There is a mountain range in north Queensland, cut off from the mainland by the sea. The space between is filled with a tangle of mangrove trees and snaking waterways. Heading down one of these channels in the early morning, my small boat cut around a bend, and on the far bank I saw a crocodile basking in the sun.

Hinchinbrook Channel, North Queensland.
Kevin Crook

I eased back on the throttle and let my boat drag through the water. This was my chance to see one up close, as long as I didn’t scare it off. I was a young scientist, new to the tropics, and hadn’t yet seen a croc up close. I’d glimpsed them sliding off the banks as I motored past, or as eyes above the waterline, following my boat with interest.

I drifted closer, engine idling.

It was big. I turned the engine off to let momentum and the current take me closer. I didn’t want to disturb the creature. Apart from the occasional snapping of pistol shrimp in their burrows, the air was still and quiet. The forest around us was a deep green, reflected in the greasy green of the water. The mud bank was almost black with silt; waist-deep, from recent experience. I could see the heft of the animal as I approached.

Its muscular tail rested in an arc, and the great mass of its body bulged, unsupported on dry land. It didn’t flinch as I drew closer, it held its jaws open in a permanent, basking yawn.

Now I was close enough to see very clearly its long pointed teeth ringing the muscular bed of the lower jaw. I could see sinew and texture in the enormous muscle that connects upper and lower jaw, allowing it to slam the two shut with the bite force of Tyrannosaurus rex. I could see it too well. Current and momentum had conspired to bring me right to the bank where the animal lay. I was no longer worried about disturbing the creature. I was within striking distance. I was an outsider, intruding, and I was afraid.

The fear and fascination never quite reconciled. I had seen the crocodile as an indicator, both in the ecological sense, as my training had described, but also in a personal sense.

A crocodile in the mangroves of the lower Daintree River, Far North Queensland.
Kevin Crook

Ecologists like indicator species, because they tell us about a complex world in a very simple way. They stand in for a whole range of factors.

A caddis-fly larva can tell you about the purity of the alpine pond you found it in, how recently it was frozen and the stability of the seasons. A stingray can tell you about the flooding patterns of a sandbank and the abundance of invertebrates therein. They do this just by showing up. Crocodiles, to me, indicated nutrient rich tropical waters providing a glut of large bodied prey. Warm winters and big barramundi.

The author baiting a camera trap.
Sheree Marris

They indicated the sanctuary of the wild. Here was a place beyond the realm of humankind, remote, beautiful, and my place of work. They punctuated the landscape, and their presence transformed the place. In the temperate south, a bank in an inlet might be a good place to pull up for lunch, or cast a line. Here, it’s a place you don’t want to linger.

A floating log becomes an object of suspicion, and the value of a swimming hole, no matter how inviting, is measured in downstream barriers. We tend to hold crocs up as a symbols, and dangle the fact of their existence in front of southerners and tourists to prove our rugged credentials. But I had not reckoned with the animal itself.

As I fumbled for the ignition, the crocodile turned its full attention to me and slid down the bank. In one easy motion it slipped under the surface, and swam toward our boat.

I kicked the engine into gear. As the roar of my 15-horse motor sped us to safety, I wondered how on earth we live alongside these creatures. I also wondered how many of those 15 horses that croc could eat in its lifetime.

Living on the water’s edge

Crocodiles are not symbols — I was about to learn — they are living beasts capable of real material damage. I could venture into their world, but spent most of my time high above the waterline. For other people in that Indo-Pacific arc, contending with these animals is daily life. Work brought me to the islands of Papua New Guinea, where crocodiles are a threat to both people and property. While it might sound far flung, New Guinea is closer to my home in North Queensland than any Australian capital. It’s part of the same great landmass of Sahul, and shares a recognisable fauna and flora.

In the places I worked, people built their villages at the water’s edge, on volcanic black-sand beaches. That strip of coast contains all of everyday life; houses, fishing nets, canoes, livestock, children, dogs and cooking fires. So, when the largest reptile in the world crawls from the ocean of a nighttime, and carries away a squealing pig, it seems a reasonable price to pay. Especially considering the other potential prey sleeping in their beds.

Moving through a back channel of the Langalanga estuary, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
Michael Bradley

I came across one of these sacrificial pigs, postmortem. I was investigating the small estuaries along the coast with a local man named Alfonse. We turned into a small creek, hidden from view by the angle of its entrance and a tall forest of mangrove trees. Estuaries in the tropics have a certain smell caused by things that want to rot, but don’t have the air to do so. Sealed under the mud, they turn black and change their chemistry. Mixed in with this is the salt, and the fresh-sap of the mangrove leaves. Some people hate it, but I relish it.

This creek had an altogether different odour. It was the smell of rotting flesh, but not the dry waft of roadkill by the side of the road. This was wet-rot. The pig had been stashed in a dead tree on the bank, and its skin was beginning to trail in the current. Crocodiles don’t like a fresh kill; they like to let it soften. That pig would have fed a village and perhaps been the central meal of a wedding or a funeral. Now it was bloating in the muddy water.

On a different trip, Alfonse told me the story of a fatal attack in his village. Alfonse is a serious man with a young family, a gentle sense of humour and a legitimate hatred of Malaysian logging companies. We were working in a system called the Langalanga, a great palm swamp, almost cut off from the sea. In the slanted afternoon light, the marine palms reflect crazily on the black water, and their fruit-rot nectar clots the air.

Some of Alfonse’s family were camped on the edge of the swamp, and had set out in a canoe to collect mussels — a happy scene repeated on occasion throughout the seasons.

A few years back, another family was doing the same, when the father was taken by a crocodile. As he was being dragged under by the legs, his wife held on to his arms, and in that brief battle there was enough time for him to say “take care of the kids”. By the time I left, a man from our team was taken by a crocodile somewhere in that same labyrinth of palms.

Late afternoon in the palm swamp, Langalanga estuary, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
Michael Bradley

We are food

Crocodiles are murderous creatures. Not indifferent to our suffering, but actively in pursuit of it. They crave us, like we might crave a pizza, and they act on those impulses.

Val Plumwood learned this too, from the vantage point of her red canoe, as her path converged suspiciously with a floating log. The log was a crocodile, and from that point on, she was prey. The animal charged her craft several times. She tried to escape by climbing an overhanging tree. It burst from the water between her legs and clamped down on her torso. In that moment, in the force of realisation that accompanied the puncture wounds to her abdomen, she saw very clearly that she was food.

Murderous creatures: a crocodile in Kakadu.
Dean Lewins/AAP

She was thrown into a death roll — crocodiles thrash with such force that all the air and struggle is sucked out of their prey, which they then hold underwater until drowned. Val, somehow, survived this experience. It was then repeated.

Incredibly, she surfaced and climbed to safety in the overhanging tree. She was plucked from the tree again, by her left leg, and the horror was repeated for the final time.

But, inexplicably, the crocodile’s jaws relaxed. Val wrestled free and scrambled up the mud bank. Her lower half was shredded, and she could see the raw meat of her leg muscle hanging from the bone. She staggered back through the bush until she began losing consciousness.

She gave out at the edge of the swamp, as the wet season floodwater rose around her. Here she accepted her end as food for the crocodiles waiting in the rising lagoon.

We know so much about this attack because Val survived it. But also because she was a philosopher. She didn’t just survive it, she thought about it, she examined its consequences, and she wrote about it.

The Australian philosopher Val Plumwood pictured in 1990. In her work, Val interrogated the human-nature dualism that lies at the heart of modern culture.
Wikimedia Commons

One of the key Australian thinkers of our time, she challenged the way we look at the natural world. It took her the rest of her life to fully reckon with the experience of being prey. The result is a revelation of a book, pulled together posthumously, (Plumwood died of a stroke in 2008), called The Eye of the Crocodile. Val’s experience has become a centre point for me, around which all my encounters with crocodiles now pivot. The anchoring wisdom in a confusing set of facts and impulses.

At the heart of her insight is the knowledge that we are food — “juicy, nourishing, bodies” for the rest of the animal kingdom. We forget that. Or perhaps, we never really come to know it. Val knew, but when she found herself as prey, she rejected the idea. I’ll let her speak for herself here:

My disbelief was not just existential but ethical — this wasn’t happening,
couldn’t be happening. The world was not like that! The creature was breaking the rules, totally mistaken, utterly wrong to think I could be reduced to food. As a human being, I was so much more than food. Were all the other facets of my being to be sacrificed to this utterly undiscriminating use, was my complex organisation to be destroyed so I could be reassembled as part of this other being?

With indignation as well as disbelief, I rejected this event. It was an illusion! It was not only unjust but unreal! It couldn’t be happening. After much later reflection, I came to see that there was another way to look at it. There was illusion alright, but it was the other way around. It was the world of ‘normal experience’ that was the illusion, and the newly disclosed brute world in which I was prey was, in fact, the unsuspected reality, or at least a crucial part of it… both I and the culture that shaped my consciousness were wrong, profoundly wrong —about many things, but especially about human embodiment, animality and the meaning of human life.

In the end, we are just another animal, scratching around on the surface of the earth. Like a few other terrestrial vertebrates, we sometimes forage in shallow seas and there, form part of the coastal food chain. In the Indo-Pacific arc, at this moment in ecological history, that food chain finishes with the saltwater crocodile.

They are simply the inheritors of their evolutionary mantle, held long before we ever dipped our toes in the water. In our brief history on this earth, we have rarely been at the top of our own food chains.

We are food, and not just for crocodiles. We live our lives trying to avoid eye contact with the fact, but it is always there in our peripheral vision. We are victim to a constant gnawing of insects, bacteria, fungus, and when we die — no matter how hard we try to bury and embalm — we finally succumb. Diseases like Ebola haunt our collective imagination, but their worst symptoms are simply the failing of our own immune system to hold back the flood of decay that will find us all when we stop breathing.

‘Life as a circulation’

Ecologists no longer talk about food chains as if there is a top and a bottom. Food loops, cycles of productivity and nutrients, hold the great ecosystems of this earth in place, as vast organised structures of recycling viscera. Our denial of our place in them is what Val came to see as “dualism” — the belief in a hierarchy of nature with ourselves at the top; different, unique, separate. Outsiders on our own planet. Because of this, crocodiles seem like monsters of a senseless world, a world to be feared.

We think of ourselves as somehow separate from the rest of nature’s bloom and rot. This man vs wild illusion butts up against reality in ways that now threaten our existence.




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The experience of being outside of nature allows us to deny the urgency of the many crises now facing our planet. We see the signs, but it is easy to distance the collapse of the natural world from the continuity of our own lives, and hold an unreasonable faith that the human world will go on indefinitely. But this is denial. Nature, as we know, can crush us in its jaws. To face the reality that confronts us as a species, we must feel like insiders — part of our own planet. But what would that look like?

In Arnhem Land, where Val was attacked, people have lived alongside crocodiles for thousands of years. They see themselves differently — not as outsiders, but as part of the landscape. Indigenous philosophies, such as those of the Yolngu, see human or animal life as existing for others, not just itself. The crocodile is not hideous for eating humans. They are animals to be understood and respected, through the kind of insider knowledge gained over thousands of years. They take life, but are also capable of acting in good faith.

A saltwater crocodile named Brutus pictured on the Bloomfield River, north of Daintree in Queensland, in 2014.
Mike Darcy/AAP

Their maternal tenderness is equally important. They punctuate the landscape as powerful beings, reminding us to tread carefully, because the world is not arranged for our pleasure alone. This resonated with Val who understood “life as a circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors”. Death, whether by crocodile or otherwise, is recycling, a “flowing into an ecological and ancestral community of origins”.

In the time it took me to write this, a man named Andrew Heard was taken from his dingy in that tangle of creeks in North Queensland where I still work. The police found his vessel upside down and some of his remains in the mangroves. They caught a four-metre crocodile, cut it open, and found the rest of him inside.

Then they killed another one. We could just keep going, get rid of them all. Fifty years ago, we almost did. At a time like this, with everyone reeling in shock, and grappling with some measure of personal fear, I understand the impulse.

I’m going out there again tomorrow, as usual. Older now, my fear and fascination have turned into something else. Despite their intentions for us, I like having them around. To me, they are indicators — but they indicate more than warm winters and big barramundi. They indicate a living world, giving and taking, and a society that’s starting to find its place in it.

As I motor down the creek, they punctuate the landscape, reminding me that we’ve decided, together, there are lives that matter beside our own. That despite the pain we may face in the future, we’re beginning to find our way. They indicate hope.

This essay received an Honourable Mention in the 2021 Nature Writing Prize.The Conversation

Michael Bradley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humpback whales have been spotted in a Kakadu river. So in a fight with a crocodile, who would win?



Northern Territory Government

Vanessa Pirotta, Macquarie University

In recent months, three humpback whales were spotted in the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park. Contrary to its name, the river is full of not alligators but crocodiles. And its shallow waters are no place for a whale the size of a bus.

It was the first time humpback whales had been recorded in the river, and the story made international headlines. In recent days, one whale was spotted near the mouth of the river and scientists are watching it closely.

The whales’ strange detour threw up many questions. How did they end up in the river? What would they eat? Would they get stuck on the muddy river bank?

And of course, there was one big question I was repeatedly asked: in an encounter between a crocodile and a humpback whale, which animal would win?

A crocodile partially submerged in a river
The whales swam into a crocodile-infested river.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Scientists double-take

The humpback whales were first spotted in September this year by marine ecologist Jason Fowler and fellow scientists, during a fishing trip. Fowler told the ABC:

I noticed a big spout, a big blow on the horizon and I thought that’s a big dolphin … We were madly arguing with each other about what we were actually seeing. After four hours of raging debate we agreed we were looking at humpback whales in a river.

The whales had swum about 20 kilometres upstream. Fowler photographed the humpback whales’ dorsal fins as evidence, and reported the unusual sighting to authorities and scientists.

Thankfully, two whales returned to sea on their own, leaving just one in need of help. There was concern it might become stranded in the shallow, murky tidal waters. If this happened, it might be attacked by crocodiles – more on this in a minute.




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Experts considered a variety of tactics to encourage the whale back out to sea. These included physical barriers such as nets or boats, and playing the sounds of killer whales – known predators of humpback whales.

But none of these these options was needed. After 17 days, the last whale swam back to sea on its own.

The whale that spent two weeks in the river has recently returned and been spotted swimming around the mouth of the river. It appears to have lost weight – most likely the result of migration. It is now being monitored nearby in Van Diemen Gulf.

Questions are now being raised about the health of the animal, and why it has not headed south for Antarctic feedings waters.

A humpback whale that spent two weeks in the East Alligator River has recently been spotted nearby.
Dr Carol Palmer

So why were whales in the river?

The whales are part of Australia’s west coast humpback whale population, which each year travels from cold feeding waters off Antarctica to warm waters in the Kimberley to breed.

There are various theories as to why they swam into the East Alligator River. Humpback whales are extremely curious, and may have entered the river to explore the area.

Alternatively, they may have made a navigation error – also the possible reason behind September’s mass stranding of pilot whales in Tasmania.

And the big question – what about the crocs?

Long-term, a humpback whale’s chances of surviving in the East Alligator River are slim. The lower salinity level may cause them skin problems, and they may become stranded in the shallow waters – unable to move off the muddy bank. Here the animal might die from overheating, or its organs may be crushed by the weight of its body. Or, of course, the whale may be attacked by crocodiles.

In this case, my bet would be on the whale – if it was in relatively good condition and could swim well. Humpback whales are incredible powerful creatures. One flick of their large tail would often be enough to send a crocodile away.




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If a croc bit a whale, their teeth would likely penetrate the whale’s skin and thick blubber. But it would take a lot more to do serious harm. Whale skin has been shown to heal after traumatic events, including the case of a humpback whale cut by a boat propeller in Sydney 20 years ago. Dubbed Bladerunner, it survived but still bears deep scars.

Humpback whales are very large and powerful. One flick of their tail could send a crocodile away.
Dr Vanessa Pirotta

What next?

The whale sighting continues to fascinate experts. Scientists are hoping to take poo samples from the whale in Van Diemen Gulf, and could also collect whale snot to learn more about its health. However, the best case scenario would be to see the whale swim willingly to offshore waters.

This unusual tale will no doubt go down in Australian whale history. If nothing else, it reminds us of the vulnerability – and resilience – of these marine giants.


The author would like to thank Northern Territory Government whale expert Dr Carol Palmer for her assistance with this article.The Conversation

Vanessa Pirotta, Wildlife scientist, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In the remote Cambodian jungles, we made sure rare Siamese crocodiles would have enough food



The Siamese Crocodile once lived in Southeast Asian freshwater rivers, but now fewer than 1000 individuals exist.
Shutterstock

Paul McInerney, La Trobe University

For nine hours, my colleague Michael Shackleton and I held onto our scooters for dear life while being slapped in the face by spiked jungle plants in the mountains of Cambodia. We only disembarked either to help push a scooter up a slippery jungle path or to stop it from sliding down one.

With our gear loaded up on nine scooters – 200 metres of fishing nets, two inflatable kayaks, food for five days, hammocks, preservation gear for collection of DNA, and other assorted scientific instruments – we at last arrived at one of the few remaining sites known to harbour the critically endangered Siamese crocodiles.




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The Siamese crocodile once lived in Southeast Asian freshwater rivers from Indonesia to Myanmar. But now, fewer than 1000 breeding individuals remain.

In fact, during the 1990s the species was thought to be completely extinct in the wild. Then, in 2000, scientists from Fauna and Flora International found a tiny population in the remote Cardamom Mountains region of Cambodia.

We travelled to this remote wilderness in 2017 to determine habitat suitability for the reintroduction of captive-bred juvenile Siamese crocodiles. We wanted to understand the food web there to see whether it contains enough fish to sustain the young crocs.

Our journey would not have been possible without the help of Community Crocodile Wardens – local community members who patrol the jungle sanctuaries for threats and record crocodile presence. Wardens also conduct crocodile surveys further afield to discover new populations or to identify new areas of potential suitable crocodile habitat for juvenile releases.

Our recent study found to ensure the species survives, reintroduction locations must be protected from fishing pressure – both from a food supply perspective, but also from risk of entanglement in nets.

A species in decline

When we arrived at our site, northwest of the village of Thmor Bang, our day was capped by what we came to know as the standard evening downpour, despite assurances that we had, in fact, timed our trip for the dry season.

Kayaks were inflated, nets set, and sampling was underway. This proved laborious – to ensure crocodiles didn’t drown, we couldn’t leave nets unattended in the water overnight, but instead checked them every hour until morning.

Siamese crocodiles are generally not aggressive to humans, but they come into conflict with people when caught in fishing nets.

This often leads to the crocodile drowning and the fishing net being ruined. It’s a disaster on both counts, because fish is the only source of protein for many local communities in Cambodia.

Like many other apex predators around the world, the Siamese crocodile is also in decline because of habitat destruction and poaching for their skins.

Their potential large size and generally placid nature means they are highly prized by crocodile farmers who use the skins for handbags and footwear. Crocodile farmers also often hybridise the Siamese crocodiles with other non-native crocodile species.




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This means programs for Siamese crocodile reintroduction and breeding must carefully genetically screen all young crocodiles bred in captivity to make sure they’re not actually hybrids, so the “genetically pure” wild populations can remain.

Finding fish bones in croc poo

Despite a pretty good understanding of captive Siamese crocodile behaviour and biology, very little is known about Siamese crocodiles in the wild, such as what they eat or how much food they need to raise an egg to adulthood.

Our only reliable indication of diet comes from scats (crocodile poo or “shit of croc” as we came to call it) collected along the river banks inhabited by remnant populations.

Carefully collected poo samples containing scales and bones tell us fish and snakes make up a significant proportion of the Siamese crocodile diet.

But the shrouded, mystical, extremely remote and virtually inaccessible jungle in the Cardamom Mountains has ensured we know next to nothing about fish communities within habitats set for the release of captive crocodile. And this information is particularly important for prioritising release locations for captive bred juveniles.




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We spent four days sampling fish communities and then repeated the process at two other equally remote locations within the Cardamoms, requiring two days travel between each.

We saw groups of gibbons moving through the forest and macaques climbing down from trees to drink at the river. But at last we spotted a wild Siamese crocodile after dark, swimming in our morning bathing pool, on our second-last day.

Ultimately, we distinguished 13 species of fish from the Cardamom Mountains, confirming the presence of two previously unconfirmed species groups for the region.

What’s more, we found fish density was highest in areas with more Siamese crocodiles, and lowest in areas with more human fishing pressure.




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Understanding the food web of crocodile reintroduction sites is important, because conservation managers need to understand the ecological carrying capacity of the system – the number of individual crocodiles that can be supported in a given habitat. Learning this is especially important when historical information does not exist.

Preservation of fish stocks within Siamese crocodile habitats is critical for survival of the species. But a key challenge for natural resource managers of the Cardamom Mountains is balancing crocodile density with local fishing necessity, and to do this, we need more information on Siamese crocodile biology.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research Fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Banning exotic leather in fashion hurts snakes and crocodiles in the long run


File 20190326 139349 ur5jll.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Yellow anaconda (snake) skins pegged to dry by indigenous people in Argentina.
Tomas Waller, Author provided

Daniel Natusch, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

We are all familiar with the concept of “fake news”: stories that are factually incorrect, but succeed because their message fits well with the recipient’s prior beliefs.

We and our colleagues in conservation science warn that a form of this misinformation – so-called “feelgood conservation” – is threatening approaches for wild animal management that have been developed by decades of research.

The issue came to a head in February when major UK-based retailer Selfridges announced it would no longer sell “exotic” skins – those of reptile species such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes – in order to protect wild populations from over-exploitation.

But this decision is not supported by evidence.




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Too simplistic

Banning the use of animal skins in the fashion industry sounds straightforward and may seem commendable – wild reptiles will be left in peace, instead of being killed for the luxury leather trade.

But decades of research show that by walking away from the commercial trade in reptile skins, Selfridges may well achieve the opposite to what it intends. Curtailing commercial trade will be a disaster for some wild populations of reptiles.

How can that be true? Surely commercial harvesting is a threat to the tropical reptiles that are collected and killed for their skins?

Actually, no. You have to look past the fate of the individual animal and consider the future of the species. Commercial harvesting gives local people – often very poor people – a direct financial incentive to conserve reptile populations and the habitats upon which they depend.

If lizards, snakes and (especially) crocodiles aren’t worth money to you, why would you want to keep them around, or to protect the forests and swamps that house them?

Women raise Burmese pythons at a small farm on Hainan Island, China.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided



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Biggest man-eaters in the billabong

The iconic case study that supports this principle involves saltwater crocodiles in tropical Australia – the biggest, meanest man-eaters in the billabong.

Overharvested to the point of near-extinction, the giant reptiles were finally protected in the Northern Territory in 1971. The populations started to recover, but by 1979-80, when attacks on people started to occur again, the public and politicians wanted the crocodiles culled again. It’s difficult to blame them for that. Who wants a hungry croc in the pond where your children would like to swim?

Saltwater crocs are the reason many beaches are not open for swimming in northern Australia.
Shutterstock

But fast-forward to now and that situation has changed completely. Saltwater crocs are back to their original abundance. Their populations bounced back. These massive reptiles are now in every river and creek – even around the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory.

This spectacular conservation success story was achieved not by protecting crocs, but by making crocs a financial asset to local people.

Eggs are collected from the wild every year, landowners get paid for them, and the resulting hatchlings go to crocodile farms where they are raised, then killed to provide luxury leather items, meat and other products. Landowners have a financial interest in conserving crocodiles and their habitats because they profit from it.

Saltwater crocodile eggs collected in the Northern Territory, Australia.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided

The key to the success was buy-in by the community. There are undeniable negatives in having large crocodiles as neighbours – but if those crocs can contribute to the family budget, you may want to keep them around. In Australia, it has worked.

The trade in giant pythons in Indonesia, Australia’s northern neighbour, has been examined in the same way, and the conclusion is the same. The harvest is sustainable because it provides cash to local people, in a society where cash is difficult to come by.




Read more:
Elephants and economics: how to ensure we value wildlife properly


Decisions without evidence

A collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina.
Emilio White, Author provided

So the evidence says commercial exploitation can conserve populations, not annihilate them.

Why then do companies make decisions that could imperil wild animals? Probably because they don’t know any better.

Media campaigns by animal-rights activists aim to convince kind-hearted urbanites that the best way to conserve animals is to stop people from harming them. This might work for some animals, but it fails miserably for wild reptiles.

We argue that if we want to keep wild populations of giant snakes and crocodiles around for our grandchildren to see (hopefully, at a safe distance), we need to abandon simplistic “feelgood conservation” and look towards evidence-based scientific management.

We need to move beyond “let’s not harm that beautiful animal” and get serious about looking at the hard evidence. And when it comes to giant reptiles, the answer is clear.

The ban announced by Selfridges is a disastrous move that could imperil some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals and alienate the people living with them.The Conversation

Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Adjunct Professor, Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If a croc bite doesn’t get you, infection will



Image 20170419 32700 mceytd
Open wide … the mouths of crocodiles like this contain bacteria that cause potentially lethal infections in people they bite.
from www.shutterstock.com

Simon Smith, James Cook University

Most people assume if you’re unlucky enough to be bitten by a crocodile, then a severed limb or other severe trauma is all you have to worry about. But new research is emerging about serious infections you can catch from a bite that might kill you instead. The Conversation

Our study, published earlier this week, showed the range of bacteria crocodiles can transfer to their human victims. The good news is they can be cured with a much simpler antibiotic treatment than we realised.

Since crocodiles were granted protected species status in the 1970s in Australia, they have attacked more than 100 humans.

For those lucky to survive, their injuries often become infected. Bacteria can enter the body via the deep cuts from a crocodile’s teeth or from wounds occurring when people try to escape.

Bacteria living in crocodiles’ mouths can come from the intestines of other animals they eat or from the water in which they live.

When people are trying to escape a crocodile attack, bacteria living in the soil and mud also pose a risk. And bacteria commonly living on our skin without causing problems can cause infection when the skin’s protective barrier is lost.

If untreated, bacteria can cause severe wound infections. Without treating these infections properly, the victim’s tissues die and their arms and legs may need to be amputated. Infection can also enter the bloodstream and spread to the rest of the body causing multiple organ failure and death.

How do we treat croc bite infections?

Australian guidelines recommend how to treat infections after bites from animals in general. But until recently we didn’t know much about which antibiotic is best for people who have been attacked by a crocodile.

Crocodiles make the front page across Australia’s Top End.
NT News

Some 25 years ago, a study in the Northern Territory found over half of people who had been attacked by a crocodile had infected wounds.

Researchers found a wide variety of bacteria you would expect to find in the water, the soil, the intestines of animals and on the skin of humans. To kill all of these potential infection causing bacteria, they recommended a complex treatment of four different antibiotics which would mean up to 14 injections a day. With so many antibiotics, this increases the risk of potential side effects and the cost of patient care.

So, we reviewed all cases of people who had been treated for a crocodile attack in Far North Queensland and attended the Cairns Hospital over a 25-year period.

A total of 15 people needed medical attention after a crocodile attack over this time, including several crocodile handlers. Four people were clearly infected by the time they reached hospital. A further two had bacteria in their wounds and almost all needed surgery.

Surgery is essential to prevent new or worsening infection after any bite as surgeons can remove already-infected tissue and help flush out any bacteria hiding in the wounds.

Despite finding lots of different bacteria, we discovered antibiotics given orally (amoxycillin-clavulanate) in mild infections or intravenously (piperacillin-tazobactam) for severe infections would be suitable to kill almost all of the bacteria found after a crocodile attack.

Although all of these patients were treated at Cairns Hospital, the results of the study will likely influence national guidelines for the management of crocodile attacks. The results may even help doctors in other countries.

Prevention is your best bet

Although we did not find it in our study, another important thing to remember is tetanus – an infection that can be contracted through dirty wounds – may also develop after a crocodile attack and this can be prevented by vaccination.

When it comes to crocodile attacks, like most things in health, prevention is better than cure. People should take care when visiting areas where crocodiles live. If people are attacked and lucky enough to survive, they are likely to require surgery and have a high chance of developing an infection.

A crocodile is a beautiful creature to observe from a distance, but in the words of American composer Frank Churchill:

Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin.

Simon Smith, Adjunct Lecturer (Clinical), Medicine, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Croc safari: why selling licences to rich hunters isn’t fair


Claire Brennan, James Cook University

Crocodiles are protected in Australia. These impressive, if dangerous, animals are icons of the north. But it wasn’t always so. Crocodiles used to be hunted freely in northern Australia, an activity that led to their decline and eventual protection.

There have been calls to cull crocodiles to improve safety, but experts argue that this will make little difference to the risk. Besides, crocodiles are already sustainably farmed for leather products.

However, there are also calls – for instance, from federal MP Bob Katter – to allow crocodiles to be shot for safari. Selling hunting licences worth thousands of dollars to rich shooters, the argument goes, could provide vital income.

But this ignores Australia’s history of crocodile hunting.

Crocodile hunters in the Northern Territory.
Australian News and Information Bureau, July 1968/National Archives of Australia, CC BY

Postwar crocodile hunting

Immediately after the second world war, .303 rifles were widely available and were capable of reliably killing crocodiles. Crocodile skins suddenly increased in value — the Australian crocodile-hunting boom was the result.

The boom attracted hunters from southern Australia, including new immigrants. Some made significant amounts of money as the price of crocodile skins rose, but the prospect of adventure was often a far more significant lure. For many, coming north to hunt crocodiles was a working holiday combined with a boy’s own adventure. It was also an opportunity for men restless from the war to put off settling back into domesticity.


Australian News and Information Bureau, July 1968/National Archives of Australia, CC BY

That mood of adventure was captured in a 1956 home movie, aptly titled Northern Safari. Shown as a feature film, it packed cinemas in Australia and overseas. Northern Safari documented a family trip north and showed the accessibility of hunting in northern Australia to anyone with the time and practical skills to get there.

In addition to this accessible but rugged style of hunting, some postwar entrepreneurs began to offer organised hunting. Aimed at people with more money, less time and a greater desire for comfort, the commercial Australian safari was born.

The Australian Crocodile Shooters’ Club actively promoted safari cruises to hunters who wished to shoot in luxury. In 1952 it established one of Australia’s first safari camps in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

However, the Australian safari at this time was less exclusive than the original African version. While expensive, hunters might subsidise their holidays through the sale of crocodile skins – and the services and amenities provided could not be described as truly luxurious.

Safari hunting in the present

Nevertheless, the Australian safari has evolved since the ban on crocodile hunting and has taken its place among international safari organisations. Safari operations cater to visiting sportsmen by providing access to introduced species and game fish. The Australian experience is one of many such distinct experiences promoted at the annual Safari Club International convention.

An NT croc hunter in 1949.
National Archives of Australia, CC BY

New Zealand provides an example of how such tourist trophy hunting operates. Based on privately owned red deer estates, some hunting providers sell clients the right to hunt an animal selected for its probable value under the Safari Club International scoring system.

Estate deer are bred for their trophy value and their antlers command scores unmatched by red deer found on public land. Access to them is limited and the cost of hunting one of the highest-scoring stags is more than NZ$20,000. Estate deer hunting is largely invisible to ordinary New Zealand hunters.

Despite the enthusiasm of proponents, there is widespread unease about the killing of big game. As with the red deer industry in New Zealand, the safari industry in Australia at present depends on introduced species of game, and so avoids controversy.

Overseas the death of Cecil the lion brought public unease about big game hunting into the open, as did the participation of touring New Zealand rugby players in a legal hunt in South Africa. Privileged access to native game and the killing of large native animals for sport has been made more visible by the sharing of images via the internet, and that visibility has demonstrated widespread public unease with the safari.

So who gets to hunt?

Scientific commentators agree that crocodile culling is unlikely to decrease the number or severity of crocodile attacks on humans in Australia. Neither is hunting crocodiles in Australia about managing an introduced pest.

A croc hunter stuffing crocodiles for sale in 1949.
National Archives of Australia, CC BY

Instead, it is desirable because of the adventure involved, because for some hunting provides a meaningful connection with nature and because for others killing large animals brings prestige. These motivations aren’t being discussed.

If the crocodile safari were to be re-established in Australia it wouldn’t be the freely available experience it once was. Modern safari hunting is expensive and the preserve of only a few. Australians need to consider if they really wish to entice elite international hunters to Australia using a native species (even one as unlovable as the saltwater crocodile) as prey.

The Conversation

Claire Brennan, Lecturer in History, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Staying safe in crocodile country: culling isn’t the answer


Adam Britton, Charles Darwin University

The killing of tourist Cindy Waldron by a saltwater crocodile while swimming north of Cairns on Sunday has reignited the debate about how to keep people safe from crocs. Federal MP Bob Katter has called for a bigger crocodile cull, although the Queensland government has once again ruled this out. There are very good reasons for this decision.

The evidence suggests that calls for complete deregulation of croc hunting are based on flawed arguments. The easiest way to keep people safe is to make sure they understand the risks.

What have we been doing about crocodiles?

Crocodile populations have been managed in northern Australia since the early 1970s. Before that, it was open season: three decades of hunting wiped out 95% of wild crocodiles, although getting them all proved impossible.

Many hunters grew to respect these unequivocally Australian “beasts”, supporting their subsequent protection. Yet their numbers bounced back much faster than anyone expected. Questions were soon being asked about the wisdom of allowing their recovery.

Sub-adult saltwater crocodile basking on a tidal mud bank, a popular sight for the many tourists who visit northern Australia each year.
Adam Britton

Recognising the value of crocodiles to people and ecosystem health, the Northern Territory government changed tack. Crocs became tourism icons, their eggs and skins were harvested sustainably to create local jobs and a fledgling industry, and safety issues were managed by the targeted removal of “problem” crocodiles, alongside visible media campaigns about staying safe. Despite differences between states and territory, the same basic approach is still used.

Has it been effective in saving lives? The first subsequent recorded fatal attack in Queensland happened in 1975, when Peter Reimers was killed while wading in a creek near Mission River. This was only a year after the crocodile population had been protected because it was on the verge of disappearing. Three decades of unregulated hunting hadn’t saved Reimers’ life.

The latest statistics as compiled by CrocBITE show 112 attacks between 1971 and May 2016, 33 (30%) of them fatal. That’s an average of 2.5 non-fatal attacks per year and 0.7 fatal attacks per year across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. The rate has increased slightly over the past decade, but crocodile attacks remain extremely rare in Australia.

Number of reported saltwater crocodile attacks per country (April 2007 to April 2014). Fatal proportion in red, percentage shows fatality rate.
Adam Britton / CrocBITE

The average size of crocodiles is increasing as the population continues to mature towards full recovery. However, given the very low number of attacks, it’s difficult to assess if this has had any impact on the fatality rate.

Attacks usually happen because people get in the water with crocodiles. Such an obvious cause should be easy to prevent, and indeed this is the case.

Attack risk in Australia is low, largely because of the success of long-running campaigns to warn people of the dangers of swimming in crocodile-populated waters.

What lurks beneath? If you’re in crocodile habitat and you find water, always assume that it harbours a crocodile.
Adam Britton

Those who live locally are generally most keenly aware of the dangers. Sadly, a disproportionate number of attack victims are visitors who aren’t as aware of the risks. The real problem can therefore be interpreted as a failure to communicate risk, and therein lies the solution.

How to not get eaten by a crocodile

Crocodile attacks are traumatic, unfortunate and potentially tragic incidents that generally can be avoided. Australia has an excellent track record in saving people from crocodile attack. Despite having more saltwater crocodiles than any other country, we have low fatality rates because our management and education program is world-class.

Other countries with crocodiles come to Australia for advice on how to manage their crocodile populations and prevent conflict with people.

But there’s still a grey area for many people. How do you know whether it’s safe to swim in northern Australia? What’s the risk of doing so?

We make decisions every day to assess risk, whether we’re driving, walking down the street, swimming in a pool, or taking a boat out on the water. We’ve been trained to minimise the risks we face.

The same is true of going into the bush and facing potential dangers from snakes, mosquitoes or other animals. Sometimes accidents will happen, often because someone decided to push their luck.

Distribution of saltwater crocodiles throughout their range, including northern Australia. Green are viable populations, orange are recently extirpated populations and blue represents their potential for movement within and between countries.
Brandon Sideleau / CrocBITE

But with crocodiles the rules are simple: don’t enter the water in crocodile habitat. In these areas, stay away from the water’s edge, don’t disturb water consistently in the same place, don’t approach or tease crocodiles, camp at least 50 metres from the bank, and don’t go out in small, unstable boats.

Warning signs about crocodiles are there for a reason, to allow you to make an informed decision about your personal safety. Ignore them and you may get away with it, but eventually you will not.

The name ‘saltwater crocodile’ is misleading. They are equally at home in freshwater habitats.
Adam Britton

There’s little doubt that Australia knows how to manage wild crocodile populations. The risk of being attacked by a crocodile here is vanishingly small because crocs and people are managed effectively.

We already have a limited cull of crocodiles; the targeting and removal of specific animals that, through their actions, pose an elevated risk to the public. A wider cull won’t gain anything, at the cost of local livelihoods and our natural resources.

This article was co-authored by Erin Britton, a biologist at Big Gecko Crocodilian Research in Darwin.

The Conversation

Adam Britton, Senior Research Associate, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.