A wildlife expert has warned of a potentially devastating domino effect within the already-fragile ecosystems in Far North Queensland, after over a dozen giant — and likely extremely old — crocodiles were found shot and decapitated at the Norman River.
Local fishermen and wildlife officials have reported witnessing at least 14 dead crocs along the river — which flows 200 kilometres southeast of Croydon and 420km northwest of the Gulf of Carpentaria — in recent weeks, most of which were found shot, and some beheaded.
Largely, the animals targeted appear to be many metres long in size, meaning they're both the top predator in the area and could have easily been "50 to 60 years old".
Killing crocs has serious, multi-layered consequences
Removing such an animal from their natural environment, and from an ecosystem they likely inhabited for half a century, is "absolutely" going to have serious "reverberations", Dr Ross Dwyer, Senior Lecturer of Animal Ecology at Sunshine Coast University explained.
"We think crocodiles can get up over 100-years-old. So, those animals, those very large ones that we're seeing in some of those pictures, you know, they could be over 50 to 60 years old," Dr Dwyer told Yahoo News Australia. "They're big crocs and absolutely there'll be reverberations through those ecosystems. It's a hard thing for us to be able to know for sure what will happen.
"But as well as it being a travesty, and a massive, huge, legal problem — because these animals are protected — it's an animal ethical problem as well. These are large, long-lived native animals that somebody's gone and shot because they're an inconvenience, most likely.
Dr Dwyer said the fact that crocodiles do have complex social hierarchies, means the ecosystem will have been upset by removing all those individuals."
Crocodiles 'a polarising' topic in Australia's Far North
Though there's no way to be certain exactly why the animals had been shot dead, Dr Dwyer hypothesised the senseless killings were possibly an act of "fear or retaliation" by a small group of people.
"Up in northern Australia, crocodiles are very polarising," he said.
"Most people will really respect the animals as top predators in the ecosystems, and they respect that they're to be respected, but there's also people who are scared and really take that fear and transfer that to into aggression.
"You get a lot of retaliation. We've seen that a lot on the east coast around the Daintree, there's been many incidences of people shooting crocodiles there. They're just shooting them for the sake of it — even though they don't pose a threat."
While those responsible for the murders probably believe they're keeping themselves "safe" from crocs by killing them, Dr Dwyer said in fact removing the animals could have the opposite affect.
He said there's now likely a "power vacuum system" taking place, with new animals "fighting to take that that boss status within those rivers."
"There's also a safety aspect to this, where you've got large dead animals which are on the side of the banks. That creates a zoonotic problem — it could actually attract more crocodiles into the systems," he said.
"And then finally, on top of that, what hasn't been noted, is that crocodiles are the totem of some of the traditional owners, which are in that part of the Gulf of Carpentaria. So it's highly disrespectful to them, and it'd be a huge concern for them. I'm sure that those killings reverberate, and not just through the ecosystem, but also through the through the community."
Rangers from the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation (CLAC) reported six crocodiles shot in just weeks, according to The Guardian, who have now commenced an investigation into the killings alongside the Department of Environment and Science (DES) and local police.
A local fisherman who frequents the Norman River told the ABC he'd seen at least 14 carcasses. Another resident of the area wrote on Facebook that he suspects the killings had been going on for months.
"It’s pretty disappointing to learn that this has been going on for months! This wasn’t anything new, and it took Facebook posts and public pressure for the department to investigate," the man wrote.
"Human wildlife conflict is complicated, I get that, but it’s a two-way thing and our wildlife desperately needs protection from us. This year the illegal killing of crocs seems to be rampant and after all that’s happened lately, shouldn’t this of been escalated to urgent?"
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