Growing crocodile population combines with partisan feud to put trophy croc hunts back on the political agenda.
This story began in a way seemingly unrelated to crocodile hunting. But as is often the case in politics, when one door opens, so does another.
The Australian Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, recently announced that he would be enacting a ban on the import and export of African lion trophies in Australia. Hunt defined his purpose in enacting the ban as a measure that would, “protect African lions from the barbaric practice of canned hunting,” which Hunt admitted that he abhors.
The move raised the hackles of the National Party of Australia (the “Nationals”), which is one of the opposition parties in the country. Hunt, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, is a member of the country’s Liberal Party, which may be described a center-right party. The Nationals may be described as a conservative party that traditionally represented graziers, farmers and rural voters.
Hunt’s action concerning African lion trophies garnered the ire of the Nationals Party because, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), they had not been consulted prior to Hunt’s action, even though at least several Party leaders agree with Hunt’s position concerning canned hunts. Nationals members did, however, feel that Hunt unjustly demonized hunters in general with some of his remarks.
Nationals’ senator Bridget McKenzie took offense to the unfair portrayal of hunters.
“I am a hunter,” she said. “I am a shooter and I’m very proud of that fact, and I’m proud of the people that I hunt and shoot with.”
The dispute, was according to both sides, amicably resolved. However, the settlement came with a guarantee from Hunt that there would be “no roll-back of domestic hunting rights for non-threatened species.”
The incident and subsequent dialogue also reignited a long-standing push by the Nationals to legalize trophy hunting for a small number of the country’s large crocodile population, which has been illegal for decades.
Australia’s crocodiles were given protected species status in 1971, and since then their numbers have grown impressively. The saltwater croc population is estimated to be approximately 130,000 animals, with around 80,000 in the Northern Territory and 50,000 in Queensland and Western Australia.
The big reptiles have become a common sight throughout the territory, and account for numerous attacks and incidents with humans, including walking into people’s lounge areas, eating pets, and even a human death or two occur each year. The exploding population is thought to be a direct result of the 1971 hunting ban on the the animals.
Crocodiles can grow up to 23 feet long and weigh over a ton. Physically the odds are certainly in the crocodile’s favor when aggressive contact with humans occurs. Last year at least two people were killed by crocodiles in Australia, an adult male and a 12-year-old boy.
Currently between 500 and 600 crocodiles are culled from a small area – approximately 50 square kilometers – and sold to crocodile farms for processing. But in the rest of the country the animals continue to be protected and free to roam wherever they wish, much to the dismay of residents. Opposition party politicians submit that crocodiles no longer merit universal protection and that instituting a limited trophy hunting allowance would provide much welcome economic relief for indigenous communities and others.
The proposal was put forth by the Nationals and would allow for 50 crocodiles to be taken by big game hunters. The proposal also has the support of the Northern Territorial government. Hunt nevertheless opposes the idea, citing his concern that there may be “a risk of cruel and inhumane treatment” to the crocodiles, a notion that has at least some experts scratching their heads.
Crocodile scientist, Professor Graeme Webb, sees Hunt’s concept of the situation as out of touch with the reality of people who live in close quarters on a daily basis with crocodiles.
Professor Webb, who also manages Crocodylus Park – a zoo and wildlife research center – in Darwin, stated, “Well, hunting is as old as humanity. Thirty-one per cent of the people in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal, people who are hunter-gatherers, so the average attitude toward hunting here is a bit different to the attitude of some of the cities, I guess … I can’t see why we have to bend all our rules to fit in with what happens in Canberra, where their biggest problem is magpies. You know, like I’d like to see Lake Burley Griffin with 20 or 30 crocs snaffling some of the people jogging round the outside and let them be philosophical about how they’re going to handle it.”
Webb intimated that people would not be inclined to simply sit around and be eaten.
Webb also indicated that the population explosion is evidence that conservation methods work, but that when those methods work so well there must also be a plan to address the inevitable issues that arise from booming animal populations that inevitably interact with human populations.
Environmental activist Bob Irwin, however, objects to the idea that killing crocodiles as the proper way to deal with the situation. He suggests that indigenous communities and territorial economies would better benefit from ecotourism, wildlife tours and cruises, which, he claims, would create more jobs and revenue than trophy hunting for crocs.
“You know,” said Irwin, “because nature is an amazing thing. It takes care of the whole of the ecosystem. And if there’s an instance where there’s too many crocodiles in one river system, nature will take care of that. We don’t really need to interfere. As humans are the greatest predators on the planet, I don’t think we have a right to interfere. As long as there’s no risk to people, I think these animals should be left alone.”
Irwin’s last comment is interesting, as it appears to ignore the reality that crocodiles have indeed shown themselves to be a threat to people.
Nathan Askew is an American professional hunter who runs big game and crocodile hunting safaris in Africa. He asserts that the money raised from trophy hunting enterprises could be used to further conservation and management efforts, as it has been successfully employed in Africa.
“It’s kind of a weird thing, when you think about having to kill something to save it,” said Askew. “But that’s exactly what it is. We’re the custodians of this earth, and managing populations of animals in the most effective way, which, a lot of times, boils down to the most financially viable way, is our responsibility.”
Askew also dismisses the unfair stigmatization of hunters that irritated some members of the Nationals Party.
“A lot of the non-hunting, or anti-hunting, community would like to put forward the stereotype of the rich, fat American who is bored and just wants to shoot his gun.” countered Askew. “That would be absolutely incorrect. I deal with everybody from professional people and successful businessmen — you know, doctors, the CEOs of companies — I deal with hourly paid people who save their money to go and do a big trip like this … men, women hunters, young kids, teenagers, basically who anybody who enjoys the outdoors and has an open mind.”
Askew also believes that Australia would welcome and benefit from the reintroduction of trophy crocodile hunting. “It is a desirable species to hunt. It’s an exciting hunt.”
Senator McKenzie agreed, “I think there is a fabulous opportunity within Australia to actually develop a trophy hunting industry.”
Minister Hunt remains steadfast in his refusal to consider legalizing any trophy hunting in Australia, even for a large predator whose population is not only secure but is the source of conflict and danger. Yet there is cause for optimism for those who would welcome the pro-crocodile-hunting proposal. An agreement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s federal government to prioritize indigenous affairs and environmental concerns of the Northern Territory may preclude Hunt’s opposition.
At this point trophy hunting for crocodiles in Australia is still a bit murky, but there appears to be more progress on the issue than there has been in almost 45 years.