Risky Business

The Australian pact with the world’s largest crocodiles seems to be working—but critics say that the costs are fatally high

Of all the many kinds of crocodiles the world over—freshwater and saltwater—Australia's saltwater crocodiles are the largest, and among the most dangerous. Yet through an unorthodox and unconventional approach to animal conservation, Australians have allowed them not just in their national parks and zoos but in their neighborhoods as well, reports frequent contributor Derek Grzelewski.

While in most parts of the world man-eating predators forever skirt the thin line between extinction and survival, these so-called salties luxuriate in mud, safety and peak numbers in Australia. To be sure, Australians have not supported these fearsome predators through the kindness of their hearts. Rather, they have engaged crocodiles in a business proposition of sorts: the salties are farmed for their skin and meat and bring tourists into the country; in turn, humans, for the most part, let the wild populations be.

After Australia enacted laws to protect the overhunted saltie in the early 1970s, the population soared and crocs regularly attacked humans. At that time, crocodile expert Grahame Webb mounted a public awareness campaign designed to make people appreciate the reptile's value to the Australian economy. He promoted crocodile farming and the harvesting of wild eggs as a way for landowners to profit from having crocs on their land. Crocodiles, in turn, fed a burgeoning tourism industry, as travelers descended on Australia for their very own Crocodile Dundee experience. Today, the 16 crocodile farms legally export more than $2 million worth of crocodile meat and skin a year.

The idea of commercially harvesting crocodiles hasn't earned Webb many friends among conservationists. But he has achieved his goal: the crocodile population in Australia's Northern Territory has reached a stable high, rebounding from 3,000 to 80,000 in the past three decades. Wildlife biologists remove problem crocodiles from populated areas. Even so, attacks on humans do occur. But, says Steve "the Crocodile Hunter" Irwin, you are absolutely safe if you stay out of the water and within a half of their body's length from the water's edge.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.