Warning amid renewed call for crocodile culling: 'Unexpected consequences'

Would culling crocodiles help improve safety? Experts weigh in.

A suspected fatal saltwater crocodile attack in Far North Queensland on Saturday has sparked loud warnings that populations must be culled to ensure human safety. But while local politicians claim “numbers are exploding”, a leading species expert says this is a myth and that shooting the animals could actually make the region’s waters “more dangerous”.

The culling call was aired on morning television show Sunrise, during an interview with Katter Australian Party (KAP). “We’ve been pushing for many years to control them. You control koalas, you control kangaroos, you control wild dogs when the numbers are too high,” state leader Robbie Katter said. Following the interview a poll in local media found 75 per cent of people agreed.

A still showing Robbie Katter speaking on Sunrise.
Katter's Australian Party has once again called for crocodiles to be culled. Source: Channel 7/Sunrise

While a spate of recent maulings in Queensland has unnerved the public, crocodile attack expert Brandon Sideleau told Yahoo News Australia that there is no evidence that numbers are increasing in the state. The species remains vulnerable to extinction and the population is still recovering after it was almost wiped out by hunting in the 1970s.

Calls for culling seem to happen every time there's an incident, especially when it's fatal.Brandon Sideleau

Do large crocodile populations result in more attacks?

Mr Sideleau is the creator of the Croc Attack, a worldwide crocodilian attack database of around 8000 incidents. His research has found there is no correlation between the density of crocodile populations and incidents involving humans. Instead, the data suggests there are two other factors driving the likelihood of an incident.

“It appears human behaviour and human population densities are correlated with increased attack frequency,” Mr Sideleau said.

Kevin Darmody holding a large fish and smiling at the camera.
Kevin Darmody, 65, was fishing on the Kennedy River when it is believed a crocodile snatched him. Source: Facebook

Prior to Saturday’s tragic events, many of Queensland’s attacks occurred after people took risks in crocodile territory. They included a man setting up a camera and wandering into a known crocodile hotspot with his dog, and a 65-year-old tourist falling asleep on a beach.

In Indonesia, where the majority of the region’s attacks occurred over the last five years, densities are roughly one individual per kilometre. In much of Queensland, the figure is 1.7, while in the Northern Territory, it’s 5.3.

Saltwater crocodile attacks between 2018 and 2023

  • Indonesia: 553 attacks. 263 fatal.

  • Malaysia: 89 attacks. 67 fatal.

  • India: 52 attacks. 29 fatal.

  • Philippines: 41 attacks. 12 fatal.

  • Australia: 23 attacks. 2 fatal.

Why culling crocodiles would actually be more dangerous

It’s well known that when a large crocodile is taken out of a water body, it creates a more dangerous situation.

When large males are removed from a territory it creates a power vacuum, so smaller inexperienced subordinates will move in and fight for dominance. Mr Sideleau said an “unexpected consequence” will be that locals are unfamiliar with the new animal occupying the water and this can increase the likelihood of attacks.

Two crocodiles in the water.
Research has found there is no correlation between the density of crocodile populations and incidents involving humans. Source: Tommy Hayes

He warns that even if all of the crocodiles were wiped out in Queensland, it wouldn’t stop crocodile attacks. “You’re still going to have them coming down from Papua New Guinea,” he said. “Genetics show there is movement between the two countries through the Torres Strait.”

Crocodiles coming down from that region could be even more dangerous than those living in Australia. “Those crocodiles from Papua New Guinea could be experienced man-eaters because up there man eaters go unchecked for a long time,” Mr Sideleau said.

Other times when there have been calls for crocodile culls

The idea of reducing numbers gained significant traction after a series of high-profile attacks on humans, but it’s far from the first time KAP has called for the measure.

A large male crocodile on land.
When large males are taken out of their homes, younger animals will fight for territory. Source: Tommy Hayes

In 2022, Katter’s Australian Party founder Bob Katter told Yahoo News he believes deaths from crocodile attacks in Queensland are higher than reported. He believes the animals are responsible for people simply vanishing without a trace.

“When a crocodile kills you it's one of the most cruel deaths you could ever have — there's terror and there's pain,” he said.

This claim followed a now-viral video in 2017 when Mr Katter was asked about same-sex marriage, but switched the conversation to crocodile attacks. “Every three months a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile in North Queensland,” he claimed. This statistic is not supported by government statistics.

After saltwater crocodiles were almost hunted to extinction in Queensland, the government stepped in and protected them. When numbers dwindled it was possible for families to go swimming at popular beaches with little risk of an attack, and many culling advocates look back on this period fondly.

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