Salt water crocodiles. Australia’s greatest predator. Ancient, wily, aggressive and absolutely deadly. I didn’t get a chance to see one in the wild. Here’s a bit more technical info about the crocs. Mind you, there are tours that can guarantee a sighting because they feed the giant reptiles, but that wasn’t anywhere we were going. So when we reached Broome we visited Malcolm Douglas’s wild life park.
Malcolm died in a car accident a few years ago, but here in Australia he’s as much of an icon as Steve Irwin – and he never said ‘crikey’, but he did say g’day. Malcolm used to be a crocodile hunter up here in the north. In 1973, when crocs were protected, after most of the big ones had been killed, Malcolm became a conservationist. He started a croc park/croc farm near Broome and learned how to trap the big males in the wild. He was often called to catch and remove dangerous crocs from the northern waterways. They were transferred to his breeding farm to live out their lives siring handbags and harassing tourists.
When we arrived at the park, having entered through a stone crocodile’s jaws, we reached an enormous, weed covered lake. Several suspicious logs drifted about. However, the weed-covered crocs basking in the sun gave the game away. The lake contains seventy crocs, mainly male. The reptiles are usually highly territorial but these guys get along fairly well because they were all brought up together – so they’re not the rogue males I mentioned earlier. I’ll get to them.
Our host Chris started proceedings by handing around a few very young crocs (jaws taped despite their tiny size – which says something in itself). After photo opportunities, he threw chickens and fish carcasses to the big crocs. They weren’t very interested. Chris explained that despite the mid-thirties (centigrade) temperatures, this was cold for the crocs, who prefer the forty+ of the summer. They’d rather lounge in the sun warming their bones. But… you could almost imagine the conversation…
“He’s here again. Brought those whatsits. And he’s throwing nibbles around.”
Charley half opens an eyelid. “I’m not hungry. Go back to sleep.” He smacks his jaws and tries to settle.
“No. Go on. I did it yesterday. It’s your turn.” Nudge. “Get on with it.”
Grumbling, Charley lifts his head and tries to look interested. A few moments later… “Okay. I swallowed a nibble, leave me alone.”
However… never smile at a crocodile. One croc was much more animated. He fixed a beady eye on Chris and advanced with intent. Trust me, it was obvious. That reptilian golden eye glittered and the move was focused. Unfortunately (for the croc) he stood on a few heads and bodies, and woke up some large neighbours who objected and told him so. He was forced to retreat into the lake, literally walking over everybody to do so.
Yes, they’re a bit dopey and cold and not very interested. But that doesn’t mean they’re nice.
As mentioned, the males are very territorial, so each has his own pond with a female in attendance. Sometimes the crocs were basking on the bank. Sometimes there was no sign of them. In one such case, Chris threw a round, black, supposedly indestructible float onto the water. The resident crocodile exploded out of the water, jaws agape and all the spectators took a step backwards. Crocs are stealthy hunters, endlessly patient and much smarter than they look. It’s said in the Territory that if you go fishing at the same spot three days in a row, that third time a croc will be waiting for you. And if you don’t get them with a tranquiliser dart on the first try, you’ll never get close enough to try again. Did I mention they can climb, and jump, and run fast over a short distance?
Apart from a high-powered rifle bullet, they have few weaknesses. They can actually withdraw their eyes into their heads to prevent damage, so don’t bother trying to gouge their eyes if they latch onto you. Those teeth are not sharp but the jaws are powerful. When a croc catches hold it tries to drown its prey, performing a ‘death roll’ to force the victim underwater. The only weak point they have is at the back of the throat, where a flap closes so they don’t get a lungful of water. Oh, and that death roll? One of the big rogue males was missing a front foot. It seems he got too close to the missus’s mound where her eggs were deposited. She attacked the massive male, (much larger than her), grabbed his front foot and performed a death roll, tearing the foot off. Interestingly, despite the dirty water they prefer, the injury didn’t set the croc back at all. We may have something to learn from them about infection.
Chris demonstrated the totally different temperament of the freshwater croc by actually walking into the pen with them. Normally, he said, they would have disappeared into their pond when he approached, but only one did that. None showed any sign of aggression.
The park also had a few American alligators. Like the crocs, they were dozy, but not as dozy as the salties. It seems alligators can stand much cooler temperatures than crocs. Chris explained that while a few parks had gators, they were not bred from and all the park’s animals were males. The last thing anybody wants is for gators to become yet another feral species in Australia. While our crocs are confined to the tropics, the alligators would be capable of spreading down into the southern waterways of the continent.
So what’s the smart thing to do around crocs? Keep away. Take care. Talk to the locals who live with them. And never, never smile at them. They’re imagining how well you’d fit inside their skins.