for National Geographic News
Farming is rarely an easy way to make a living. But when your farm produces enormous reptiles that can grow up to 16 feet (5 meters) long and weigh nearly a ton (900 kilograms), the term "occupational hazard" takes on a whole new meaning.
Australian crocodile farmer John Lever and his son Jason manage some 3,000 crocodiles on their Koorana Crocodile Farm in central Queensland, a family-run business begun 20 years ago from a stock of just nine animals.
The Levers raise saltwater, or estuarine, crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), the primary species farmed in Australia for skins and meat.
Except for the rare "problem" croc that poses a threat to humans, crocodile farms like Koorana don't take animals from the wild. That means a successful breeding season is key to the farm's survival. While the mating dance of these ancient animals remains much the same as it has for the past 180 million years, it's a tricky proposition each year on the Levers' farm.
Only a small number of the farm's crocs are used for breeding. As a result, the 60 or so breeding females and their male studs are the most important animals on the farm. By the time females reach sexual maturity at 10 to 12 years, they average 7 to 8 feet (2.2 to 2.5 meters) in length. Males mature around 16 years old and average 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) in length.
Keeping the big reptiles primed to breed is critical, but one key factor is beyond the Levers' control. For reasons not fully understood, heavy rains put the animals in the mood to mate. Without it, not a lot happens. A persistent drought along Queensland's Capricorn Coast in recent years has plagued the Koorana farm.
"In this area here, with a draught, there's not enough climatic stimulus for the crocs to go and breed. You know, we're so dependent on the weather it's incredible," John Lever told Ultimate Explorer. "We're just like every other farmer I guess. If it doesn't rain you don't get production, and that's all there is about it.
Like any other farmer, that is, whose crop is a pack of dangerous and powerful reptiles.
During the mating season, nature is left to take its course. Afterwards is when the most hectic and dangerous season of the year beginsnesting and egg laying.
Crocodile mothers-to-be construct mound nests from plants and mud during the rainy season from November to March. Pregnant females battle for prime nesting territory, but show motherly tenderness when laying their 20 to 80 fragile eggs.
Less than 25 percent of those eggs would hatch in the wild, with the rest eaten by monitor lizards and feral wild pigs or drowned by rainy season floods.
Those numbers aren't good enough to sustain a profitable croc farm. That's why the staff does something that most definitely puts them in harm's waythey raid the nests.
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