When saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory of Australia (NT) were protected (1971), the wild populations were highly depleted. From a population of 80,000 to 100,000 individuals (1940’s) comprised mostly of adults and large juveniles, there were perhaps 500 adults left. All were wary, well hidden, but breeding: some hatchlings would appear each year but there was little else. The rivers could be flown without seeing a single crocodile. Crocodiles played no role in any tourist industry, because none existed at that time. Past crocodile hunters lamenting their loss, and a growing interest in avoiding wildlife extinction – even of crocodiles – had resulted in protection.

No serious consideration was given to what might happen if protection worked, and the populations recovered. Indeed, there were doubts at the time whether this could occur, and if it did, it was assumed to need decades.  But within 10 years, successive cohorts of hatchlings and juveniles had increased the total population dramatically, with 2-3 m long juvenile crocodiles becoming more and more abundant.

Public concern started to mount about the recovering population when four attacks, two fatal, occurred in close succession. The NT Government response was to introduce a public education program to explain the recovery, without sugar-coating the predatory nature of crocodiles, and to initiate a problem crocodile program to remove crocodiles from areas where the majority of people lived. However, the program that would prove most effective at winning public support for the ongoing conservation of crocodiles was the introduction of crocodile farming based on ranching. This model allowed landowners to sell eggs collected from their property and gain financially from the recovering population. Eggs were sold to commercial breeders who hatched and reared the crocodiles and used them primarily for the commercial skin trade for luxury goods. The commercial program was introduced with a sense of foreboding on the part of its architects, because altruistic conservation goals and the hard-core profit motive of business make for uneasy bedfellows. But there was no other realistic option that had the potential of winning community support.

At that time wildlife belonged to the Crown and this excursion into incentive-driven conservation stretched the existing conservation legislation to its limits. It also raised the ire of Australian conservationists generally, who according to the conservation fashion of the day were opposed to the consumptive use of wildlife. It led to biopolitical battles locally, nationally and internationally, but the NT persevered and won, partly because it had sound scientific and monitoring data which could dispel myths of convenience. Now, 30 years later, the dire conservation predictions of the day can be evaluated openly.

Firstly, despite the harvest of problem crocodiles and eggs, with compensation in terms of restocking to compensate, the wild populations have almost completely recovered (1). The commercial uses were well within sustainable levels. The wildlife legislation has been amended to allow for landowners to benefit from wildlife on their lands. There is now a well-established crocodile farming industry with potential to grow in many directions. The landowners, including Indigenous landowners with limited opportunities for economic development, are primary beneficiaries of that industry. They now have incentives to value and conserve the wetland areas in which crocodiles live and nest.

Moreover, crocodiles have become an iconic species to the NT’s tourist industry, which is the biggest employer of people in the NT and the second biggest generator of wealth next to mining. Crocodiles attract visitors and media attention to the NT, locally, nationally and internationally. The NT has developed globally recognised expertise in crocodile conservation, management, research and sustainable use that is an industry in its own right.  A series of niche industries linked to tourism, farming, research, consulting, filming, higher education and product manufacture are now all established and economically sustainable. For the NT Government, crocodiles are a successful case of business development.

Crocodile attacks remain a serious problem for the community, although minimised through management interventions. We recently lost two people within one month. But the community as a whole balances this negative aspect of crocodiles against the overall benefits they provide. Attacks tend to be treated more like accidents in the mining or tourist industries – a time to reflect on what went wrong, but insufficient reason to abandon the industry that caused it.

Crocodile management has waxed and waned in the NT over time, as new players with new ideas and philosophies come and go. But in any overview, the central elements of the program have been retained and strengthened. It constitutes a good case history of how conservation of dangerous predators can and has been enhanced by creating commercial incentives based on sustainable use, given the NT’s unique context and the presence of a few determined champions.

The degree to which the NT experience occurs in other countries, with the same or other species of crocodile, is a mixed bag. When reviewed by Hutton et al (2), CITES had approved international trade in 12 crocodilian species from 30 countries, with the source of production ranging from 100% captive breeding to 100% wild harvest. Some programs have been remarkably successful in terms of population recovery and incentives to conserve habitat, whereas these aspirations in other countries have proved more difficult to realise and sustain. Yet through CITES, the international community is well positioned to – and does – take action when national compliance with the CITES “non-detriment” requirement to safeguard sustainability starts to slide. This is not the case for species in which all trade is banned, where there is effectively no international oversight. Hence programs based on the sustainable use of crocodilians are not a conservation panacea for world crocodilians, but have certainly helped rather than hindered the challenge of rebuilding and managing wild crocodilian populations in many countries.

Dr Grahame Webb is Chair of the IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group and Director of Wildlife Management international, Australia

References

(1) Fukuda, Y., Webb, G., Manolis, C., Delaney, R., Letnic, M., Lindner, G., and Whitehead, P. 2011. Recovery of saltwater crocodiles following unregulated hunting in tidal rivers of the Northern Territory, Australia. J. Wildl. Manag. 75(6):1253-1266.

(2) Hutton, J., Ross, P. and Webb, G. (2002). A review: Using the market to create incentives for the sustainable use of crocodilians. Pp. 382-399 in Crocodiles. Proceedings of the 16th Working Meeting of the IUCN-SSC Crocodile Specialist Group. Gainesville, Florida, USA, 7-10 September 2002. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.

Photo: Handling a saltwater crocodile