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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Australia considers croc trophy hunting

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Darwin

The tin boat began to tilt as the tourists moved frantically to photograph the crocodiles that idled near the hull in the murky, brackish water.

Saltwater crocodile
Australia already allows controlled killings of saltwater crocodiles

Tours on the Adelaide River south-east of Darwin bring visitors to within touching distance of a prehistoric creature that is more than capable of killing them.

This sense of danger is a real crowd-pleaser.

On one of the most crocodile-infested stretches of water in Australia, the guides carry firearms - just in case.

The world's largest reptile is an important part of the economy here in the tropical north.

It could soon bring in even more money, under controversial plans to allow the hunting of this animal, which has been protected across Australia since the early 1970s.

Trophy hunting belongs in another century
Nicola Beynon, Humane Society International

The authorities want to introduce these crocodile safaris to boost tourism and to help impoverished Aboriginal communities.

The Northern Territory's Environment Minister, Marion Scrymgour, told the BBC that the idea of allowing big-game hunters to shoot crocodiles on traditional tribal lands was a good one.

"I've supported it in terms of its sustainability and opportunities for indigenous economic development... because it's also encouraging independence, rather than dependence on government funding sources," the minister said.

The safaris would be small in scale. There would be a quota of 25 crocodiles every year, which would be part of a scheme that already allows Aborigines to cull 600 adult crocs for their skins and meat.

But there is strong opposition to the safari plan.

Nicola Beynon from Humane Society International told News Online that "trophy hunting belongs in another century".

"Most Australians," she insisted, "would consider it a disgusting way to treat Australian native wildlife. It is a perverse fallacy promoted by the hunting industry that you need to kill wildlife to save it."

Crocodile warning sign
Saltwater crocodiles are one of man's most dangerous predators

The population of saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory is now estimated to exceed 70,000.

Government scientist Dr Mike Letnic explained to the BBC how numbers had recovered sufficiently to allow lucrative small-scale hunting to start.

Dr Letnic said the days when crocodiles were once almost hunted into oblivion were long gone.

"At the end of World War II... there was a bit of a free-for-all in the rivers. Crocodile skins had a market price and people went out and hunted crocodiles. They were seen to be a menace or a resource, and they were heavily exploited," he said.

Back on the Adelaide River, brothers Harry and Morgan Bowman, who organise crocodile tours, reflected on life with their fierce reptilian neighbours.

It's encouraging independence [for the indigenous population], rather than dependence on government funding
Northern Territory's Environment Minister, Marion Scrymgour

"We used to do a bit of hunting buffalo and pig 10 years ago," explained Harry. "People would turn up with their books with pictures [expecting to shoot] polar bears and elephants.

"I just couldn't understand why people want to kill those animals, and we're a bit like that with crocodiles."

Along with the alligator, the saltwater crocodile is thought to be responsible for more human deaths around the world than any other predator, although fatalities in Australia are extremely rare.

'Easy to kill'

It is this danger that lies at the heart of the enduring mystique of the estuarine crocodile.

Morgan Bowman said that these magnificent creatures should not fall prey to the hunters' guns, even though he predicted that the safaris would be very popular.

"It doesn't take a lot of skill to shoot a crocodile," the veteran bushman said.

"At low tide here they'll sit on the banks and you can go within three or four feet of them (0.9-1.2 metres). They've got a right to live here as much as anything else and why should they be shot?" he asked.

The final decision on the safari plan now rests with Australia's federal government. It is weighing up the concerns of environmental groups and those who favour the resumption of crocodile hunting.

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23 Oct 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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