In northern Australia there is a saying – ‘never smile at a crocodile – because, if you do, you’re too bloody close!’
One of the greatest survivors on earth is the crocodile. Leftover from at least 200 million years ago, these remarkable creatures are the last surviving members of the class Archosauria – related on the family tree to the dinosaurs.
Having survived the break-up of the continents on earth, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and upheavals, and even the ice age – when ice sheets covered much of the earth’s surface – the crocodile lives on. Today, apart from a reduction in size and armour, crocodiles are scarcely different from their prehistoric relatives.
It is only in the past 40- 50 years, however, that the crocodile has received any real threat to its existence – modern man hunting them for their hides for shoes, handbags, hat bands, belts, key rings and even bookends has seen these mighty beasts fighting for their survival. In the 1950s, croc skin prices were astronomically high and Australia’s largest carnivorous animal was almost headed for extinction.
With crocodiles now fully protected in Australia, crocodile sightings have markedly increased since 1972 when shooting was banned and it is confidently felt that their numbers have built strongly enough to reverse their previous downhill path. A number of crocodile farms, where they are bred for their hides and, more recently, for their meat, have sprung up around Australia to satisfy these market needs.
WHICH ONE IS IT?
Australia is host to two different species of crocodile: the estuarine crocodile, previously referred to as the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), and the Johnston River or freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni). While both species have quite a terrifying appearance, it is the estuarine crocodile that poses the greatest threat to humans.
The freshwater croc is mostly found in freshwater streams or lagoons and, occasionally, in tidal, brackish waters. They usually grow to around 2.5m (male) and 2m (female), although slightly bigger ones have been recorded. Their diet is mostly frogs, lizards, fish, spiders, birds and insects. And, although it is quite unusual, freshies have also been known to take small dogs and wallabies.
Being very timid creatures, they are generally not considered dangerous and have only been known to attack larger humans when cornered, aggravated or provoked – an encounter which can result in quite a nasty bite. Such instances, however, are extremely rare.
The freshwater crocodiles are easily recognised by their long, narrow snout and a row of four large scales at the base of their heads, whilst estuarine crocodiles have a short, very broad, snout.
The dangerous saltie is now referred to as an estuarine crocodile because its ‘saltwater’ name gave the impression that it was only found in saltwater. This, however, is far from the truth with many living quite happily hundreds of kilometres upstream in northern Australia, as well as in lagoons, swamps and other brackish or completely fresh waters and, very commonly, in the rivers and estuaries close to the coast. On the other hand, some have even been found many kilometres out to sea.
In northern Australia, unless you know otherwise, you must assume that every waterway has the dangerous estuarine crocodiles in residence. These crocodiles grow much larger than their freshwater relatives, with males being recorded over 6m in length and females up to around 4m. There are even reports of one old male crocodile in Arnhem Land, still alive and well, measuring more than 8m long.
While they don’t generally hunt on land, it is advisable to keep back from the edges of rivers or deep pools, as they can leap out of the water, almost the entire length of their body, to grab unsuspecting prey. Crocodiles are also opportunist hunters and, despite the fact they might not be hungry, they will still attack easy prey and store their catch under a riverbank or in tree roots and come back later to feed.
In northern Australia, in estuarine croc areas, it is important to remember that anywhere in and around water is their territory – always be on guard and recognise that while they are not intentionally man-eaters, humans can simply appear to them as another animal. And if the beast is looking for food, the unfortunate human could represent it’s next meal.
But we must accept crocodiles as part of the northern Australian environment and, with a few simple precautions, we can live quite happily with them.
Top croc tips
- Do not feed or otherwise interfere with them – small or large.
- Set up your camp at least 50m away from the water.
- If you’re going to swim, do so only in areas of very shallow rapids – well away from any deep water where you can’t see the riverbed. Swim in a group, not alone, and have everyone keeping a good lookout.
- If you need to collect water, choose a shallow spot, quickly scoop up your water in a bucket and move well away and don’t go back to the same spot each time.
- In deep water, collect water from the bank using a bucket with a rope attached.
- Avoid going near the edge in deep or murky water – just because you can’t see a crocodile, doesn’t mean there aren’t any nearby watching you!
- Keep well away from any crocodile you see. Some attacks have been caused by frightening crocodiles; they are very territorial creatures and are instinctively protective of their area.
- Stand at least 3-4m back from the water’s edge when fishing and remain alert. Don’t stand on logs or low rock ledges overhanging deep water as crocodiles can jump clear of the water to take prey.
- Don’t clean fish or prepare food near the water’s edge and don’t dispose of food scraps around riverbanks or camping areas.
- Don’t feed crocodiles, as this dangerous practice will condition crocodiles to expect food whenever they see humans.
- Keep your family dog well away from the water in croc territory as dogs regularly fall victim to crocodile attack.
- Canoeing or rafting in these waters can be quite risky. Keep arms and legs inside any boat when in crocodile territory.
- Don’t swim near boat ramps.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #540 August 2015.