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.




Read more:
Crocodile culls won’t solve crocodile attacks


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.




Read more:
Meet North Queensland First, the party that wants to kill crocs and form a new state


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.




Read more:
I measure whales with drones to find out if they’re fat enough to breed


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.




Read more:
Sparkling dolphins swim off our coast, but humans are threatening these natural light shows


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.

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.