Would you believe not all of Australia’s animals are cute and cuddly? You would, wouldn’t you? The place is crawling with lethal snakes, deadly spiders, murderous little octopuses, excruciatingly painful jellyfish… It’s all true, of course, but it’s pretty much a case of if you leave them alone, they leave you alone.
But not salt water crocodiles.
They’re ancient, clever, sneaky, and as far as they’re concerned, you’re just another sort of meat. Crocodile hunting was banned in the 1970’s because their numbers were so low. They were an easy target and their skins were worth a fortune – so much of a fortune that they were nearly wiped out. Since then, they’ve re-established themselves and become a tourist drawcard. So we went to look at crocs, as you do. This link will give you detailed information about the species.
In Australia we call the salt water, or estuarine, crocodiles salties. The name is misleading because ‘salt water’ crocodiles can live very happily in fresh water, as well as in the ocean. In the wild they can become very large, and a danger to people and livestock. A big croc will take a cow, let alone a dog, a kangaroo, or a man. Farmers can’t shoot them anymore, but rangers will trap them and relocate them to a croc farm, where the big boys will live out their years making baby crocs. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, where we went to see crocodiles, has one male (Ted) who is over five metres long – the second largest croc in captivity. They reckon he’s around one hundred years old, he’s lost all but one of his teeth and one eye, and the eye he does have is blind. It seems he still enjoys the mating season, though. We were told that one of the park’s most recent additions, a four and half metre male called Snappy Tom, was caught on the golf links at Port Douglas, where it had taken to lunging at golfers. The ranger also told us about one big male who had been placed into solitary confinement. He’d taken to attacking the females, and ended up killing one. Bottom line: crocs are not nice. For Americans, alligators are similar in appearance to salties, but they don’t get as big. A four-metre alligator is big, a saltie has a way to go. According to the rangers, they’re also not as nasty. Every big saltie has bits missing – tail, claws, teeth. They fight for females and territory, the females fight to protect their nests. They grow up ornery.
In the short time we were in Cairns it became obvious that crocodiles are becoming a growing problem. I read a heart-wrenching story about a man whose elderly dog was taken from the shallows. He’d thrown a stick for her, just a couple of feet. As she was coming back he saw a bow wave behind her – and that was that. A spearfisherman was taken by a 4.8 metre croc. And an imbecile escaped with his life after trying to impress a girl. Seems this 18yo idiot told a backpacker that crocs only took tourists and jumped into the Johnstone River to prove it. He no sooner hit the water when a big croc latched on to his arm. He managed to escape with a badly lacerated arm, but apparently his brain cells are as bad as ever – he said he’d do it again. Keep an eye out for him in the Darwin Awards. Here’s the story from the news.
At Hartleys we were taken to see the croc farm where male salties are raised for mainly leather used for handbags, belts, and the like. There’s a demand in Asia for top quality hides to be made into handbags that sell for as much as $38,000. (Pass) The meat is used, too, and any leftovers are ground down for fertiliser, so there’s no wastage. Our guide told us it’s the same as running a beef property, or a chicken farm. The animals are raised as a commodity.
We were taken for a boat ride on the lagoon. It’s shady and dirty, perfect for the twenty-one crocodiles who live in there. They behave as they would in the wild, and any eggs the females lay are collected for the farm, where they are incubated at just the right temperature so the hatchlings are all male. Our guide brought along food (chicken heads and wings) so the reptiles would actually show up. They are usually stealth hunters, sneaking up and lunging. But they can move very fast, and jump quite high. And of course, they knew to expect a meal. They’re smart. Up in Northern Australia the bushmen will tell you never to go fishing at the same spot three nights in a row. If you go back that third time, there’ll be a croc waiting for you.
After the boat trip the rangers showed us salties in a different setting where we could get a better feel for their size and speed. That’s a female croc, and she’s not specially big.
And then on to the freshies.
Australia has two croc species. So far, I’ve talked about the salt water crocodile. Fresh water, or Johnson River, crocodiles are a very different beast. They’re smaller, are much more docile, and their skins are worthless for the leather trade. This croc is like most Australian critters – leave it alone and it will leave you alone. Poke it with your foot (as one tourist apparently did) and it might get upset. After all, it’s still a crocodile. The ranger is in there amongst the freshies – he would not do this with a saltie. That would win him a Darwin award.
Hartley’s park has quite a few other animals, too. This is another place where you can get your picture taken with a koala, or if you prefer, a python or a baby crocodile (no doubt with its jaws taped shut – they’re born nasty). We decided to look at the kangaroos and wallabies instead. Like most zoos, these marsupials are housed in a walk-in compound. Many are tame enough for tourists to approach. On our way out through the double gates we noticed someone hand feeding a wallaby. The man walked away but the wallaby hung around and we noticed a sign with a photo of a wallaby. “My name is Alan. Don’t let me sneak through the gates” or words to that effect. We figured Alan must have escaped from the roo enclosure, so we let him back in and went on our way to photograph birds of prey. While Pete, Sandy and I thought we’d done the right thing with Alan, Col wasn’t so sure. Maybe we shouldn’t have let him into the compound. We all poo-pooed that. After all, shouldn’t a wallaby be with the other wallabies?
On our way back from the aviary we came upon a ranger and Col asked him about Alan. “We keep Alan out of there,” the ranger explained. “He’s antisocial and chases everybody.” Admitting nothing, we went back through the roo enclosure – and there was Alan, chasing a female kangaroo that must have been three times his size. Oops.
Oh well. As we pointed out to the ranger, the sign wasn’t clear.
Let’s finish with a couple of the lovely raptors in the bird enclosure – another walk-through environment.