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CONSERVATION Essays

A Brief History of Crocodilian Conservation

by Adam Britton

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


The Crocodile Bites Back

Once protected, with plenty of good nesting habitat remaining, saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia were able to recover. An ambitious monitoring program in the Northern Territory (NT) documented this recovery first-hand. And what a recovery! In 1971, there were an estimated 3,000 crocodiles left in the NT. Only 9 years later, this had expanded to 20,000, and stood closer to 35,000 by 1985! But in 1979-80 problems emerged - not with crocodiles, but with people. Two people were killed and two badly injured by saltwater crocodiles.

The general public was not impressed. After years of being told of their imminent demise, crocodiles were back with a vengeance. They were once again occupying areas where people had not seen them for decades. And further attacks started to take place. Local people demanded something be done and "culling" was the obvious option. This threatened the progress researchers had made in expanding the wild population.

The challenge was to change people's attitudes towards crocodiles - to try and give them more "value". Simply telling the public that crocodiles are great for the environment wasn't enough - people needed more tangible rewards. They got it in several ways. First, there was no point hiding simple facts from people: crocodiles are dangerous, and extensive educational awareness campaigns encouraged people to treat crocodiles with caution and respect. Conservation efforts suffered a severe blow every time another attack took place, so the NT government reduced the risk by removing problem crocodiles from public areas. Better to relocate a hundred crocodiles each year than witness another death that could have seen thousands culled.

Researchers knew that conserving nesting habitat was essential if crocodile conservation was to succeed, yet most nesting habitat was on private and traditional lands. After years of careful preparation, the government provided an economic incentive to preserve it. A strictly controlled and monitored harvest of crocodile eggs took place. Essentially, crocodile farms paid landowners to conserve nesting habitat. Farms obtained eggs they could incubate and raise into juvenile crocodiles to obtain high quality leather from, and wild population growth was not affected because most eggs harvested would have died anyway. This idea wasn't new - Zimbabwe and the United States had implemented it successfully - and it worked because the harvest relied upon wild populations and habitats being conserved. The idea of "sustainable use" of wild populations was highly controversial at the time, more so than it is today. However, in this case it has provided an economic incentive to help conserve crocodilian species and their habitat. As a conservation strategy, "sustainable use" is endorsed not only by the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group, but also the world's major conservation bodies including CITES, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Wildlife Fund.

Now, over 30 years after their initial protection, saltwater crocodile numbers exceed 80,000 in the NT and are approaching densities not seen since before World War II. Tourism has become a major force, with crocodiles as a star attraction. Even those who still dislike crocodiles acknowledge their economic importance to the region, and would never want to see them vanish. Such is the importance of linking conservation with people.

"But wait!" you might say. "Isn't that morally bankrupt? Killing crocodiles for profit?" There has always been significant objection to this idea of harvesting wildlife for conservation, and there are many people out there who will argue that it just doesn't work. Unfortunately, such arguments cannot stand up to careful examination - it can work, and it's been proven to work. And think about this - should we really dismiss the chance to actually save a species just because it doesn't sit comfortably with our personal feelings?
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