Crocodile management in Queensland is a vexed issue, particularly on the more populated east coast of northern Queensland, and is a continuing source of controversy, dissension and strident demands for more or varied action by government. That the dissatisfaction continues is proof that present policies and their implemented actions are not working. The Palaszczuk Government is currently reviewing crocodile management, and Wildlife Queensland has made a submission and held discussions with the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection on this significant environmental issue.
The Queensland government has two fundamental but inherently contradictory responsibilities relating to crocodiles: to protect people from crocodiles and crocodiles from people.
- The obligation to conserve crocodiles derives from the Nature Conservation Act 1992 and through Australian Government legislation and international agreements. Crocodile conservation in Queensland includes the need to protect them from being killed illegally for sport or profit, and is set against a background of the wholesale, unregulated slaughter that decimated populations until they were protected by law in the early 1970s.
- The obligation to protect people from harm has to accept and accommodate the understanding that it is neither practical nor economically feasible to ensure complete safety from crocodiles in and around natural waters in northern Queensland.
Adequately addressing these responsibilities is no trivial matter in a state as large and physically, biologically and politically complex as Queensland. But there are governments in Australia and overseas with similar responsibilities that have handled them well; international effort in crocodile conservation and management over recent decades is justifiably regarded as a significant success story.
Our concern is that current crocodile policy and practices in Queensland continue to generate angst, fall well short of best practice and fail to achieve an acceptable balance between protecting people and conserving crocodiles on the populated east coast.
These continuing issues fall within the remit of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) and, although much has been done (the Be Crocwise campaign, signage etc.), it is important that the Department takes a more public and assertive stance on educating the community and a more direct role in practical management, as per the following series of points offered for consideration:
- Estuarine crocodiles should have a place in Queensland
In the absence of a shared view that crocodiles can and should have a place in the Queensland environment, any conservation and management program can do little more than preside over their eventual extermination in the state.
At present Queensland’s crocs owe much of their survival to the state’s large amount of remote, sparsely inhabited land, to their cryptic and adaptable nature, and to their protection against unlawful killing.
But this sparse human population will not persist indefinitely, particularly if visions for future development of the north come to fruition, and where people encroach on estuarine crocodile habitat, the animals gradually give way to the pressure of land-clearing, illegal killing, nest destruction and disruption of their natural habitat. This process has been clearly illustrated on the east coast of Queensland where the present ‘total removal’ strategy (rather than selective removal based on size, behaviour and location) under the 2014 management regime brings it into stark relief.
- It is reasonable to define areas where large estuarine crocodiles have ‘no place’, but it is wrong to implement such a policy without an equally forceful effort to educate the public about their responsibilities where they coexist with crocodiles, and about how crocodiles travel, so that crocodile removal lowers the risk but cannot negate it
There is a wide spectrum of views on what our human tolerance for crocodiles should be. No reasonable person would argue that a large estuarine crocodile should be allowed to reside in a public swimming pool. Few would think it reasonable to leave one in a long-standing natural swimming hole on the periphery of crocodile habitat, such as Lake Placid in Cairns. Some might think it reasonable to remove them from anywhere where people are inclined to swim, canoe, raft or dive. And some even think crocs should be removed from national parks, established once upon a time for the protection of native fauna, flora and landscapes. Yet others believe that crocodiles should not be removed from any natural waterway and that people should accommodate this; but they are in the minority.
It is self-evident that a policy area with as much ‘grey’ as this cannot be managed with simplistic policies; the challenge is to find a balance between conflicting views that the majority can accept. A nuanced policy requires effective communication if people are to understand and respect it. And still some will not, despite best efforts. But few will try to accept policy if they are poorly informed as to the philosophy behind it, if government is silent and merely resorts to simplistic measures and one-dimensional slogans.
- Estuarine crocodile populations must be actively managed to balance crocodiles’ and peoples’ needs – not ignored, neglected or subjected to poorly informed management practices that pander to public pressure without countering ill-informed public comment
Queensland is a rich, progressive and modern society with a well-educated community. Its currently ill-informed and poorly balanced east coast crocodile management program does it a disservice in the eyes of many Australians, overseas visitors and international institutions.
The latest initiative to remove all crocodiles regardless of their size or potential threat to people, for example, arises directly from what is the most recent in a series of publicity-fuelled furores, traceable back to the 1980s, about crocodile numbers being out of control in eastern coastal Queensland. Media reporting has all-too-frequently been underpinned by anecdotal information, exaggerated claims and ill-informed speculation.
Government has done too little to inject fact or reason into this debate. DEHP should be the authoritative source of information for the public on crocodile conservation and management, yet it seems to have abrogated that position, leaving anecdote to rule. The community cannot be expected to understand or respond positively to crocodile management or conservation initiatives without the advice of experts, in whose absence the ground is occupied quickly by self-proclaimed authorities, often with axes to grind.
- Conservation and management programs should be based on sound science
In today’s Australia this should go without saying. But it is hard to see how the government’s plans can be underpinned by science when recognised scientific experts are not participating in the process.
The east coast management plan is not informed by sound estimates of the current size of the remnant coastal population, let alone its history since protection was enacted, or current trends. Nor is there any evidence that the management/removal program is designed in such a way as to generate this information. To the best of our knowledge, the Queensland government funds no systematic, scientifically-based census of its estuarine crocodile population and their trends.
Until such a program is implemented, and its respect won, official statements about population trends will continue to be scorned and rejected in favour of subjectively formed opinions that make for better headlines.
- Crocodile management and removal programs should be undertaken by trained and experienced professionals committed to working humanely
There is a strong expectation among the Australian community that its governments should not employ inhumane practices when working with animals. The employment of steel wire nooses and hooks to capture wild crocodiles is inhumane because of the pain and harm they can, and must, cause to the animal, which is likely to be especially severe where such traps are deployed without radio beacons to alert the trapper to a capture and allow immediate response.
And yet, such inappropriate techniques continued to be used. It has been conceded by Queensland government that crocodile snares have been deployed in Cairns by its contractors. It has also been conceded that a 1.2m crocodile was killed in a failed attempt to harpoon it in the neck. Both instances call into question the competency, capability and resources of the contractors.
That snares and hooks might be sanctioned for use elsewhere in Australia should be treated as a state/territory-specific policy and not as justification for their use in Queensland. And if contractors do not have the necessary experience, skills, equipment and training in safe and humane handling of wild-caught crocodiles, they should not be entrusted with the role.
It is our opinion that, through wider consultation, the Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, Minister for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef needs to find a way to achieve a better balance between the government’s responsibilities to protect people from crocodiles and crocodiles from people. We believe the situation would be much improved if the Minister were to:
(a) ensure a survey is undertaken to establish the population and distribution of crocodiles in Queensland
(b) based on the findings of the survey, use both government and non-government available expertise to develop a long-term and comprehensive crocodile management plan for the whole state
(c) ensure DEHP is actively and conspicuously at the frontline of crocodile management by implementing a more effective and nuanced communication strategy on crocodile conservation and management
(d) review the composition, roles and activities of the crocodile advisory group to ensure the Government’s policy and management advice is underpinned by science and soundly researched information; and
(e) review the current arrangements for commercial contracting out of crocodile management activities to ensure they are performed competently, cost-effectively and humanely by those with demonstrable knowledge, experience and training.
Adoption and implementation of the above will be a step in the right direction and a positive benefit for crocodile conservation in Queensland.