Yesterday (15 March 2009) an 11 year old local girl from Lambell's Lagoon was attacked and killed by a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). She was swimming with two of her friends near an area known as Black Jungle, one of the few remnant areas of rainforest near Darwin. This tragedy is one of those unfortunate inevitabilities that you dread hearing about on the news. It's inevitable in the same way that you know a dangerous road junction will only be addressed once there's been a fatality there. The difference here is that it's not the place that makes it inevitable, it's the fact that crocodiles are living all around us and yet not enough is being done about safety.
Here in the Northern Territory we get on reasonably well with saltwater crocodiles most of the time. They attract a lot of tourists, their presence employs a lot of local people, and they're one of the more fascinating of our local fauna. Occasionally that relationship becomes strained, and for the next few days this will certainly be the case around Darwin. People will demand answers, how could such a tragedy be allowed to occur, what is going to be done about it, should we start culling crocodiles, and can we prevent it from happening again? There's a general helplessness surrounding the event, as with any tragedy really. But let's go back to some of those questions.
The first is how could something like this happen? We live in close proximity to wildlife in Darwin, particularly the rural area, yet few people expect to find crocodiles near their homes. However, a quick look on Google Earth will reveal that Black Jungle is only a few hundred metres from the nearest rural properties, and that there is easy road access to the area. Zooming out on Google Earth makes you realise that Darwin sits slap bang in the middle of crocodile habitat, and that crocodiles are all around us. Good luck finding a place that's safe to swim here apart from the local swimming pool. The potential for conflict is certainly there, particularly considering that in recent years crocodiles have been branching out from the packed tidal rivers that represent their preferred habitat into floodplains, upstream freshwater areas and around the coast in search of new places to live.
The next question is what can be done about it? Most of the suggestions will fall between two extremes: cull the crocodile population, or be more careful next time. Many people wanting immediate revenge will be swayed towards the former, whereas the government approach is much closer to the latter. Culling sounds sensible on paper, but in reality it's not a viable solution. Ignoring for a moment the potential value that crocodiles represent to the area, culling is not a safety solution. If there are 80,000 crocodiles, how many do you cull? Ten? Five hundred? Ten thousand? When does it suddenly become safe to swim again? Don't worry folks, there's only a few hundred crocs left in this river - you'll be right for a swim!
So what about being more careful next time? I doubt the parents of the girl taken by the crocodile wouldn't find that helpful piece of advice very reassuring. They wanted to know that it wasn't safe for their daughter to swim there in the first place. And therein lies the heart of the matter.
Nobody ever plans on being attacked by a crocodile. Nobody wants to be attacked by a crocodile. Yet it happens. Why? Because the person involved doesn't know the risk. They may not believe that there are any crocodiles in the area, they may not even know much about crocodiles. They may have been misled by people telling them it was safe to swim there, or they may simply have been doing this for years without any hint of a problem.
Whatever the reason, the solution seems obvious. People need to be aware of the danger that crocodiles can pose, and they need to be aware of where crocodiles can be found throughout the year. They need to know that crocodiles are now everywhere, potentially in any body of water that doesn't have a fence around it, and that swimming is not an option anymore. The last time there was a major educational drive on crocodile safety in the Northern Territory was nearly 30 years ago, and a lot has changed in that time not least the crocodile population and its distribution. Despite this, much of the same information is being used today and the differences between then and now are not being made clear.
People must have up-to-date and factually correct information about the danger posed by crocodiles, not only for their own safety but so that transparency and trust can be established. If people don't respect what you're telling them about crocodiles, you can't expect them to listen.