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CONSERVATION Essays

A Brief History of Crocodilian Conservation

by Adam Britton

INTRODUCTION | MAN-EATERS | BITING BACK | DRAGONS | SUMMARY


The Man-eaters of Northern Australia

With stories like those told by William Bartram in their minds, early European travelers to Australia encountered saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) for the first time in the early 1800s. Their poor understanding, disgust and fear of these "alligators" was quite apparent from their writing. Diaries were filled with overblown tales and fanciful drawings of rampaging man-eaters, although not all of these were imagined! Several travelers lost or heard of the loss of crewmen, perhaps dragged overboard in the night by these "monsters". Talk about bad PR! But this only set the scene for what was to come.

Crocodilians possess a most beautiful skin. Hard and ossified on the back for protection and support, yet soft, streamlined and flexible on the sides and belly, crocodilian skin has been in use around the world for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians used it, the Romans used it, and native people from Africa, the Americas and Asia used it. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, skin became fashionable as well as functional. After World War II, demand for crocodile skin skyrocketed. Hunters in Australia were all too happy to relieve the reviled saltwater crocodiles of their profitable skin, and uncontrolled harvests reduced wild populations dramatically. Not that many people cared. To most, the only good crocodile was a dead one. The majority of crocodilian species around the world witnessed similar declines, and only those possessing difficult to tan skins escaped relatively unmolested.

So what changed? By the late 1960s, increasingly vocal groups of scientists and even former hunters advocated harvest restrictions before it was too late. They succeeded, with protection granted to crocodiles in northern Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Still, their status was precarious, and many predicted an inevitable slide towards extinction. Doom and gloom prevailed, and several crocodilian populations around the world faced similar problems. This was highlighted by the establishment of CITES in 1973 - a convention to control international trade in endangered species. Two thirds of the world's 23 crocodilian species were listed on CITES Appendix I (the highest level of protection) due to their extinction risk. But crocodilians were not so easily defeated.
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