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Where Did the Crocs Go?

4 minute read
Rory Callinan

Before her husband was taken by a crocodile, amateur naturalist Glenda Jefferies very likely filmed his killer. From the banks of the Normanby River, on Australia’s remote Cape York Peninsula, she and husband Barry frequently videotaped the large saltwater crocodiles that prowl the waterways of Lakefield National Park. Last August, on one of their regular expeditions, Glenda dropped a lens cap into the water. As she retrieved it, a large crocodile approached. Police believe that later that day, as the couple ventured out in a small canoe to fish in the river, the same reptile appeared again. Barry, 60, tried to push away the 4-m-long crocodile with an oar, but it seized his arm, capsizing the canoe. Glenda was able to swim to the bank, but her husband vanished without trace.

The fate of Barry Jefferies is causing nightmares for state and territory governments that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year trying to keep crocodiles and human beings apart. With more than 100,000 crocodiles living around the coast from Bundaberg, Queensland, to Derby, Western Australia, it’s a daunting task. Each attack draws calls for a cull of the reptiles, which have been protected by law since the early ’70s, and fresh concerns about the effectiveness of management programs. The Queensland government says its crocodile-control strategy – monitoring populations, removing crocodiles identified as a threat and educating people about the dangers – is working. But according to officials and rangers interviewed by Time about the Jefferies attack, stopping one of nature’s most efficient predators from seeing humans as food is all but impossible.

Until 2003, Queensland authorities invested great faith and resources in a relocation program for troublesome crocodiles. Animals spotted near humans were captured, then released in remote areas including the Normanby River system in the 577,000-ha Lakefield National Park. After the Jefferies attack, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service regional director Clive Cook said no crocodiles had been relocated to Lakefield since 1997. But according to a research paper by a visiting American scientist, Chris Kofron, 12 crocodiles were relocated into the park between 1999 and 2001. Cook now says he was only “making a general observation” about crocodile relocation. He says the two crocodiles caught and examined for signs they had attacked Barry Jefferies were not relocated animals, all of which are tagged. The second crocodile is believed to have been the culprit, but Mark Read, the head of Queensland’s crocodile management program, concedes that officials will never be certain.

One thing most wildlife-management experts are sure of is that relocation programs do not work. The Queensland government has quietly stopped the practice. In an experiment, a satellite tracking device was attached to a crocodile, which was relocated from one side of Cape York Peninsula to the other. Within a few months the animal was back home, having swum about 450 km around the tip of the Cape. Read says captured crocodiles are now sold to reptile farmers or nature parks.

It’s not the first time people have complained about rogue crocodiles in Lakefield National Park. In the mid-1990s, a radical kind of aversion therapy was tried there in which rangers captured a crocodile, then shot a rifle near it, repeatedly circled it in a boat, and dazzled it with a spotlight. Says one ranger: “That croc has behaved itself ever since.” But not all experts endorse such tactics. At Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Professor Graham Webb, who pioneered crocodile research and management in the Northern Territory, says unpleasant encounters with humans make the reptiles much harder to spot. “All it will do is make them wary,” he says. “And you won’t see them – so you’ll think it’s safe to go swimming.”

So where are the crocodiles that were once resettled in Queensland? No one can be sure. N.T. rangers ended their relocation program in the early ’90s after concluding the animals would eventually return home. Crocodile management expert Read says no animal relocated in Queensland has ever been caught again. According to Kofron’s research, at least 20 of the 80 crocodiles captured in the state between 1999 and 2001 were relocated in North Queensland. Are these crocodiles too clever to be caught again? Have some of them made their way back to their old haunts? With some of these reptiles originally captured near public beaches, boat ramps and even golf courses in well-populated areas, it would be worth locating a few answers.

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