Plan to kill 1,200 crocodiles a year as government refuses to rule out trophy hunting

Crocodiles were hunted down to just 3000 in the 1970s, but their numbers have recovered to 100,000 and the Northern Territory government thinks that's too many.

Most of us would imagine that less saltwater crocodiles in the water improves safety, and that’s the thinking behind a new plan to kill 1,200 a year in the Northern Territory for the next decade. But a leading expert says there’s a simple reason this conclusion is simply not true.

“Removing crocodiles does not reduce the risk of attack at all. If anything it may actually increase the risk of attack,” Brandon Sideleau, a specialist in human and crocodile conflict told Yahoo News Australia. “In order to reduce the risk of attack you’d need to annihilate all of the crocodiles in the Top End. So I’m not really sure what the point is.”

The Management Plan for the Saltwater Crocodile was announced by the Territory Environment Minister Kate Worden on Wednesday. “We can use the word cull, because that’s exactly what it is,” she said.

A Tourism NT publicity still showing a woman in a hat with her back to the camera. She's looking across a water filled gorge.
The Northern Territory sells itself as an eco-tourism desination, but Brandon Sideleau thinks shooting crocodiles will put its reputation at risk. Source: Tourism NT

The government revealed its plan isn’t just about enhancing public safety by reducing crocodile densities. It also aims to bolster the Territory’s commercial farming industry, create Aboriginal employment opportunities, and increase public awareness about the animal’s cultural value.

The Territory hasn’t had a fatal attack since 2018, the longest time without one since the 1990s. Sideleau believes this is a sign the management plan that had been in place was working.

"In places like Indonesia, saltwater crocodiles attacks are extremely common, but there's very few crocodiles. So the number of crocodiles has very little to do with the number of attacks and has more to do with human behaviour, human population density and education," Sideleau said.

The reason removing large males creates a more dangerous situation for humans, is that it creates a power vacuum. And that leads to smaller inexperienced subordinates moving into the newly opened territory where they fight for dominance, meaning an increased numbers of smaller but lethal-sized crocodiles will compete for space.

It’s the second commercial harvesting initiative targeting Australia’s wildlife to be initiated by a state Labor government in the last five years, and it will likely prove controversial. The other was then Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ kangaroo harvesting program which was announced in 2019 and involves the widespread shooting of native kangaroos to supply meat for domestic pets and humans.

Minister Worden said her 10 year plan will be supported with an extra investment of $800,000 in the upcoming budget and then $1.5 million a year after that. Crocodiles will be strategically targeted in areas where people like to swim as well as the waterways that feed into them.

Related: Bob Irwin backs tougher penalties for 'idiot' influencers taunting crocodiles

A crocodile jumping out of the water to grab meat. Tourists on a boat watch on.
Seeing wild crocodiles are a major reason many tourists come to to the Northern Territory. Source: Getty

Saltwater crocodiles numbers have recovered to around 100,000 in the Northern Territory, after the population dwindled to just 3,000 due to unrestricted hunting in the 1960s and 1970s. While there have been public calls for culls in both Queensland and Northern Territory, previous governments have resisted carrying them out because of a lack of scientific evidence that they work.

Under the plan, 1,200 crocodiles will be trapped and then destroyed. This number will be on top of the killing of “rouge crocodiles” – animals which authorities believe pose a danger to humans. The Territory government’s plan will also result in 90,000 eggs being taken from the wild and then hatched inside farms, so the crocodiles can be killed, skinned and turned into luxury handbags.

The plan follows extensive community consultation and Worden said her government has heard it “loud and clear” that Territorians don’t want safari hunting. However the government isn’t ruling it out in future.

“If a proposal came forward and… an Aboriginal organisation was interested in that and they could show a good business case for that, the government would absolutely consider it,” she said on Wednesday.

While the Territory’s crocodile skin industry currently generates $25 million a year, tourism directly generates over $709 million, and it supports over 12,500 jobs.

Sideleau is concerned the government’s crocodile plan risks damaging the Territory’s international reputation as a nature friendly destination, particularly if it was to approve trophy hunting. When Botswana lifted its hunting ban in 2019, it resulted in international outcry.

“I think it's a bad look, because it's going to really negatively impact the Northern Territory’s reputation as an eco-tourism destination,” he told Yahoo. “Hunters are going to want to go after the absolute largest crocodiles, and these are precisely the ones that tourists want to see. I think it's counterproductive,” he said.

“The entire economy here depends on wild crocodiles. It’s the reason people come here more than anything else. It wouldn’t have an impact on the crocodile population as a whole, but it would have an impact on large crocodiles.”

Animal welfare advocates from Community Representation of Crocodiles (CROC) did not hold back in sharing their disgust at the Territory government's decision. It accused it of disregarding the scientific consensus, something it said was "deeply troubling".

"This is nothing short of a superficial, politically expedient measure that falsely reassures residents while relieving the government of accountability," a spokesperson told Yahoo.

"It's akin to flooding the streets with police to combat crime — a tactic that may win votes but lacks empirical support in science."

It slammed the timing of the decision which came just days after the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) crocodile specialist management group met in Darwin.

"At the conference, esteemed researchers unanimously concluded that culling is ineffective in enhancing safety. These findings stem from extensive, globally recognised crocodile research initiatives. It's absurd to contemplate culling when our crocodile attack statistics are the lowest worldwide," CROC said.

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