How Australia's pet crocs become pest crocs
Some owners set them loose instead of bringing them to crocodile refuges. But the pet trade helps wild crocs, too.
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Ranger Phillips is tired of calls from people in suburban stores or cafes who spy the sharp-toothed reptiles trundling along the sidewalks or loitering in malls.Skip to next paragraph
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When he goes to investigate, he finds that all have the missing scoot – the bumpy part that runs parallel to the tail – that indicates the animal was sold in a pet shop.
"If there is food in malls and other places and you let it go there," Phillips says, "the crocodile will try to stay there. And before you know it, it's grown to more than a meter," he says. "And of course it's dangerous."
Crocodiles are variously abandoned on golf courses, at hamburger joints, and just about anywhere else. One croc was discovered in a couple's swimming pool – while they were skinny-dipping.
Phillips says he has better things to do than chase abandoned crocodiles.
Since 1971, when crocodiles were declared an endangered species in the Top End after crocodile hunters had begun to complain of their scarcity (there were only around 500 crocodiles left in the Australian wild then), there was an attempt to rebuild the population rapidly.
Since then, the crocodile population has not only stabilized but has reached comfortable levels of around 70,000, the result of innovative conservation efforts.
"If you make people understand that the animal is a resource worth saving for use," says Grahame Webb, director of Wildlife Management International and one of the world's leading authorities on crocodiles, "then sure enough, everyone is going to want to save them. So ironically you need to buy more crocodile leather belts and shoes to keep the incentive going." Crocodiles as pets aids this effort, too.
A viable crocodile egg sells for up to A$50 (US$44). Crocodiles breed once a year, producing an average of 50 eggs in one clutch. Mr. Webb says that if the eggs are not saved, about 70 percent die in the nests.
There are at least five crocodile farms in the Top End, and the rivers are teeming with wild crocs. Most locals know which water holes and rivers to avoid.
Aborigines have used the crocodile as a totem for 40,000 years and know how to live alongside the deadly predators, but some tribes are happy to hunt crocodiles for the money.
Occasionally a "rogue" crocodile will hunt in fishing spots or beaches where humans congregate. While Webb is a conservationist, he is far from sentimental.
"These predators are not like sharks – if they find you, they will kill you," he says. "But mostly they are their own worst enemy in the wild, where they maim and kill each other." says Webb. He is widely known for pushing the concept of conserving wildlife through sustainable development.
Webb's logic of conservation is that you don't have to like the animal to want to preserve it. Instead, you have to see how it can serve you.
"You have to be convinced that preserving the animal will be an advantage to you," he says. That's why the poor villager in India doesn't think twice about killing a tiger that is a threat to his children or cattle. The villager in India is not benefiting from preserving the tiger, and so why should he? Conservation will not work if it merely serves those living in London and New York: It has to serve the people who interact with the creatures and mostly its poor people." Besides providing a profit, pet crocodiles are a small way to bring a new understanding of the creature to human beings who are generally unsympathetic to the predator.