An enormous reptile floats in the river, 17 feet of scales, teeth and claws. Normally, this would be a sight to strike terror into any observer, but this behemoth is eerily still. The creature is dead, an object now more worthy of pity than fear. What’s more, its death could lead to a lot of trouble in the future.
Apart from sharks, if there’s one predator that people never want to meet in the water it’s a crocodile, and in particular the saltwater variety. The reptile’s stealth, speed and merciless jaws are legendary. Saltwater crocodiles are known to prey on large animals like water buffalo and kangaroos. Just occasionally, human beings are on the menu, too.
Crocodiles have been around for millions of years and for good reason: they’re very well designed, both for their environment and for hunting down prey. The animals’ bodies are covered in tough, plated scales which form a kind of natural armor, while their feet are both webbed (to help them glide through the water) and clawed (so they can grip onto their victims).
Thanks to their high-set nostrils which poke out of the water, crocodiles can creep up on unsuspecting victims easily. That’s because the rest of their body is concealed under the waterline. However, these ancient reptiles are fascinating for more than just their hunting abilities. They are also surprisingly intelligent and can communicate with others of their species.
Crocodiles share a lot of characteristics in common with lizards and other reptiles. However, what’s surprising is that these scaly creatures are actually more closely related to birds than their reptilian cousins. Like birds, they are the only living animals that can trace their ancestry directly back to the dinosaurs.
Saltwater crocodiles can be considered the kings of the crocs, at least as far reputation and size are concerned. The species as a whole is enormous, but Australian saltwater crocodiles can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh over a ton.
Also known as “salties,” they have a wide ranging habitat and can be found across northern Australia all the way up to Southeast and South Asia. The incredible animals can swim more than 600 miles at a time. Furthermore, they will happily live in freshwater rivers and swamps as well as in brackish coastal waters.
Australian salties have been feared – or at least given healthy respect – for as long as there have been people in Australia. Some aboriginal tribes hunted them for food while others considered them sacred, but all were well aware of the dangers the animals posed. Furthermore, each had their own techniques for avoiding harm.
Australian saltwater crocodiles were once hunted so mercilessly that fewer than 3,000 existed in the Northern Territory. Then, in 1970, crocodiles were given a protected status in the area, an act that has seen their numbers skyrocket to 100,000. Similar population growth has occurred in Queensland although the exact numbers aren’t known.
Thankfully, attacks on humans by salties are relatively rare. However, the sheer number of crocodiles and their increasing contact with humans means that on average there are one or two fatalities every year. 2014 was an especially bad year, with four people losing their lives.
Since 1971, Queensland has seen 35 crocodile attacks on humans. Most victims have been adult males who either live locally or are frequent visitors to the area. Sadly, the number of attacks is increasing despite sporadic attempts to relocate crocs away from populated areas.
An unarmed human has little chance of fighting off a saltwater crocodile. After silently stalking their prey, these ruthless predators use their powerful tails and legs to suddenly spring out of the water. Next, they grab their victims and bite into them. Human bones are no match for their jaws, which are among the very strongest in the animal kingdom.
Not all encounters between humans and crocodiles end badly for humans, however. Sometimes it is the reptile that loses out, particularly if there’s a gun involved. This was the case when an enormous 17-foot saltwater crocodile was killed in Fitzroy River, Queensland, in September 2017. It is a death that may have serious consequences.
Police are searching for the person responsible for killing the Fitzroy River saltie. What they know so far is that the croc was killed by a single bullet to the head from a large-caliber rifle. Authorities found the reptile in the river following a tip-off.
The dead crocodile, said to be the largest caught in Queensland for possibly three decades, will be buried at a nearby crocodile farm once a postmortem is done. The repercussions from the shooting, however, may go on for months. That’s because younger male crocs are now expected to battle it out for the territory left vacant by the death of the giant saltie.
“People need to clearly understand that the death of this animal has changed the balance of the crocodile population in the Fitzroy,” Michael Joyce from Queensland’s Department of Environment told the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin. “And we can expect increased aggressive activity by younger male crocodiles. That’s because they will be competing to take the dominant position which is now vacant.”
Joyce added, “I cannot stress strongly enough the need for all river users to be aware of the risks and to be Crocwise.” Being “Crocwise” means following some common sense rules, such as not swimming where there may be crocodiles, not provoking or feeding crocs and keeping a close watch on children.
According to wildlife ranger Tom Nichols, the best way to stay safe is to only swim in the designated croc-free areas. Nichols says crocodiles are unpredictable. “I regard crocs like humans,” he told Australian Geographic. “You know what they’re capable of, but you don’t know what they’re going to do.”
There have been plenty of calls to begin culling crocodiles as a way to curb attacks on humans. However, Steven Miles, Queensland’s environment minister, said such culls “would give the public a false sense of safety, leading to complacency and an increased risk of attacks. Even when crocodiles were almost hunted to extinction, crocodile attacks still occurred.”
Instead of culling, the Queensland government is in favor of installing barriers and relocating crocodiles away from populated sites. Potentially dangerous crocs are removed with the aid of traps, some of which have been laid around the area where the 17-foot saltie was found. Meanwhile, members of the public have been urged to report any information they have about the giant croc’s killer.