It’s easy for visitors to north Queensland to see the many crocodile warning signs as a novelty, aimed more at tourists than locals.
But residents, even in the suburbs of Townsville, are only too well aware that the signs are for more than show – crocodiles are a clear and present danger in the north, and voices warning about the increase in numbers are becoming increasingly loud.
“It’s not like sharks, because the sharks aren’t sitting up there 24/7 watching what you are doing,” says Ewen Jones, the former federal MP for Herbert.
“Most people never see it coming with crocs.”
The controversy around crocodiles has resurfaced this year after the death of a fisher, Kevin Darmody, whose remains were found inside two crocodiles in. May. There have also been at least two instances of suspected vigilantism in which crocodiles known to the public were decapitated, including one 40-year-old female known as Lizzie. In one case the body was missing, and in another the head.
An anonymous caller claimed responsibility for the attacks and declared himself the “apex predator”, putting authorities and local conservationists on alert for more attacks.
But the crocodile debate is not just about the animal. The debate is often used in north Queensland as symbolic of how people outside the region misunderstand it, and of the disconnect between environmental and residential concerns where communities interact closely with wild environments, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest – described by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the most extraordinary places on Earth”.
Jones has lived in Townsville for nearly 30 years. He says people trying to take matters into their own hands are “idiots”, but the increasing number of crocodiles and their territorial expansion is a real issue in the north. He sees it as a threat to the region’s outdoor way of life.
“It’s not like the city idea of the farmer in the blue singlet and the floppy Akubra hat, hopping off the tractor and jumping in the creek for a quick splash before it all goes wrong,” Jones says.
“People take extraordinary precautions, because it’s bloody dangerous.”
After being hunted almost to extinction in the 1970s, crocodile numbers have shot up to between 20,000 and 30,000. That population is predicted to continue to grow at 2.2% a year, according to the state’s environment department.
Since 1985 there have been 47 attacks on people in north Queensland, and their frequency has increased.
However, after an extensive survey in 2021, the department said it was unlikely numbers would ever reach the level of those in the Northern Territory due to “limited amount of suitable nesting habitat”.
The same survey found no evidence of a “southward expansion” or a change in “spatial distribution”.
Prof Grahame Webb, a zoologist who founded Crocodylus Park in the Northern Territory in 1994 says there is little evidence to suggest “widespread culls” would achieve any substantial reduction in the number of attacks.
“It’s all about where the crocodiles are going to be,” Webb says.
“Over the last decade, the Queensland government has developed a pragmatic approach to management, including a combination of strategic removal from areas where there’s a high probability of something going on, combined with public education and making sure people really do understand it.”
In the Territory, where the crocodile population is estimated to be as high as 100,000, about 300 large, aggressive crocodiles are removed near populated areas each year. Webb says this has been largely successful and there has only been one death in the NT since 2014, although data suggests fatal attacks had been on the rise in the years before that date.
“Up here the crocodiles have become a commercial asset, with nearly 70,000 eggs harvested and sold every year,” Webb says.
Queensland has a similar program, but Webb says the situation there is complicated by the larger population density and political controversy that surrounds the topic.
“They have a really pragmatic program, but it’s always been a little bit of a political hot potato, because unlike in the Territory, where we are governed from Darwin in the heart of croc territory, in Queensland they are governed from Brisbane.”
The Queensland government removes about 40 to 50 “problem crocodiles” from populated areas each year, and has plans to increase that number.
Nevertheless, Jones says locals are entitled to better protection, given fishers have long warned that crocodiles are encroaching on urban areas. In 2016 a 4.7m male, believed to be as old as 50, was removed from a popular tourist beach near the Townsville CBD.
Jones says the region’s remoteness contributes to local views being ignored by southern policymakers.
“It’s easy, so easy for someone in Sydney to say you can’t kill crocs, they’re not hurting anyone,” he says.
“Just as it’s easy for them to say shut down all the mines. It’s easy for them to shut down north Queensland, because there’s no consequence for them.
“If you had saltwater crocodiles sitting on Palm beach [in Sydney], there would be an issue.”