Thursday, April 16, 2009

Saltwater crocodile safari hunting

Yesterday (Wednesday 15 April 2009) the Northern Territory Government unveiled its Draft Management Program for Saltwater Crocodiles in the Northern Territory 2009-13 (you can read it right here). Despite all the recent concerns about crocodile safety issues and changes in management, the one thing that has dominated the news about this new plan is the issue of safari hunting. There's nothing like the idea of people blowing large holes in native wildlife to stir the pot!

But hold on a second, you might wonder, didn't we stop doing that to saltwater crocodiles back in 1971? Well yes, and no. You see, the whole issue about safari hunting has become lost in media spin about gun totin' rednecks, hunters who can't shoot straight and the spectre of croc populations going down the gurgler. What's the real issue here?

The proposal, for that's all it is at this stage, is to implement an experimental harvest of 25 adult crocodiles greater than 3.5 metres in length. That means that breeding females are excluded, and that only adult males can be removed. Considering that 25 adults is an insignificant percentage of the crocodile population here (estimated to be around 80,000 not including hatchlings, and growing) there's no reasonable argument that the number being considered is harmful. What about the effects on population structure? That's a little more uncertain, particularly as it's known that in some areas the very largest crocodiles have a significant role to play in the social structure of less dominant crocodiles in the system. The implications of removing these big "boss crocodiles" isn't fully understood and certainly warrants further investigation.

The big advantage of the safari hunt, however, will be benefits to indigenous traditional landowners and communities - they own the vast majority of land in the Northern Territory for a start, and therefore they own most of the crocodiles here. Most of that land has very little potential to earn income for indigenous communities, but a limited safari hunt where professional hunters pay big bucks to shoot a handful of crocodiles in areas that few people visit would certainly be of great benefit to those communities and landowners. Traditional owners need more options on how to manage their wild resources, and how to make an income from the resources they own, and a safari hunt of crocodiles would give them that.

Sensible management strategies that bring benefits to communities and give them further reasons to value and properly manage their crocodile populations are a good thing. I do have some reservations about the details, about the impacts on large crocodiles, and about the potential loss of very big, rare animals to the Northern Territory (which, let's face it, are what any safari hunter will be after). I think those extremely rare, 18 foot plus saltwater crocodiles are priceless. Zoos overseas have offered 7 figure sums for such animals in the past (at least they did before the economic downturn!) so I hope that traditional owners can be made aware of the value of these exceptionally large animals so they can make an informed decision on how to manage them.

Of course, there are those who oppose safari hunting without exception. They won't even entertain the idea of any management strategy that involves killing a crocodile. I have to wonder whether those people are putting their personal beliefs and feelings ahead of what's best for crocodile conservation. Their feelings are really of no consequence compared with the importance of getting management right for crocodiles. One thing is clear about crocodile conservation: unless you work with the people who live around crocodiles, you will never get them to trust you or to listen to you. Get people on your side, consider what they need to get out of crocodile management, and you might make some progress.