Crocodiles bring terror to Australian national park

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Record numbers of man-eating saltwater crocodiles have forced the closure of swimming holes in one of Australia's most popular national parks, triggering a fierce debate between wildlife rangers and tourism operators.

Record numbers of man-eating saltwater crocodiles have forced the closure of swimming holes in one of Australia's most popular national parks, triggering a fierce debate between wildlife rangers and tourism operators.

"Salties", which were hunted to the brink of extinction until 30 years ago, are a protected species and the population is flourishing. Rangers in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory tread a fine line between protecting the 170,000 visitors the park gets each year and allowing the crocodiles to thrive in their natural environment.

With the dry season - the peak tourism period - about to begin, locals are on high alert following a spate of increasingly bold crocodile attacks. These include an incident last March, when a 13ft saltie jumped into a fisherman's boat in Kakadu and bit him on the head. He survived with grazes and puncture wounds.

A plunge pool at Twin Falls, an iconic area of the World Heritage-listed park, has been closed since last year because of fears that swimmers could be attacked. Tourism operators, frustrated at having to eliminate Twin Falls from their itineraries, accuse rangers of shutting off access without good reason.

Rangers conduct regular surveys of popular spots in the park, trapping and shooting crocodiles that could prove a menace to visitors. Gary Lindner, the park's chief crocodile hunter, said the number of "crocodile incidents" was on the increase.

Salties had been attacking boats, "bumping them, biting the outboard, or coming up and biting the landing nets out of people's hands", he said. "We have got to be prepared on a daily basis for an incident even though they might only occur every now and then."

The crocodiles roam the beaches and waterways of Australia's "Top End" and, despite their name, are found in freshwater areas hundreds of miles inland. They are a principal tourist attraction in Kakadu, where they can be spotted sunning themselves on river banks, gliding through the water and lying semi-submerged in the shallows.

There are warning signs all over the park, which is home to 5,000 salties. A fatal attack on a German woman, who went for a moonlight swim in 2002, was a grim reminder of the danger posed by the crocodiles. A tour guide who had allowed the woman to swim was described by an inquest as grossly negligent.

Mr Lindner said rangers had no choice but to close the Twin Falls pool. "It was just too dangerous," he said. "In some sections it was too deep and you couldn't guarantee that it would be saltie-free all year round."

The Northern Territory's saltwater crocodile population had dwindled to 3,000 by 1971, when the species became protected. There are now an estimated 70,000 of the creatures and increasing numbers are straying into far-flung areas and threatening humans.

Debate rages in the Territory about ways to control the salties. Six hundred are legally culled by landowners each year, but a proposal to allow a limited number to be hunted by wealthy tourists has sparked opposition from locals and animal welfare groups.

Comments