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Croc Attacks Prompt Tourism Tactics at Aussie Park

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
National Geographic News
May 31, 2005
 
As the dry season draws nearer in Kakadu National Park in Australia's
Northern Territory, so does peak tourist season. Which is why park
rangers are now busily "managing" the Kakadu's resident crocodiles.

Crocodile numbers have steadily increased in the 4.9 million-acre (2-million-hectare) park over the past three decades. The population now stands at about 7,000 crocs.

Although most of Kakadu's crocodiles are left alone, there are five crocodile-management zones in the park. In these popular tourist spots, park rangers remove crocs from water holes that are close to camping sites, walking tracks, and swimming areas.

Park rangers have already moved three saltwater crocs this year. Twenty-one crocodiles have been removed since 1991.

The animals are usually given to the Bininj (pronounced bin-ing) and Mungguy (mung-goy) people—the traditional owners of the park's territory—for food.

Glenn Meade, the manager of Kakadu National Park, says it is important to remember that the preserve is crocodile country.

"But at the same time it's not good business to have people injured by crocodiles," Meade said. "There's no reason to be feeling insecure, but if you go for a swim or out on the water, you could be putting yourself in a spot of bother."

A revamped park-information campaign targets fishers, reminding them not to fish at water's edge, stand in water no matter how shallow, drag fish out of the water by hand, or dangle their arms or legs in the water.

Many of the park's most popular areas will open early this year. The aim is to attract more people during the already busy dry season.

Crocodile Lure

Kakadu's crocodiles present a dilemma for the park's managers, its traditional land owners, and the Australian government.

The massive reptiles are a significant part of the attraction of the park, which is listed as a UN World Heritage site. But the crocs also have a habit of eating tourists who get too close.

In 2002 a 23-year-old German tourist was taken by a 15-foot, 1,100-pound (4.6-meter, 500-kilogram) saltwater crocodile when she disregarded warnings signs and went for a late-night swim.

According to park rangers who gave evidence at the inquest into the woman's death, the stretch of water where she swam was particularly dangerous and filled with aggressive crocodiles. Rangers themselves were forced to flee when they came to investigate the woman's disappearance.

Such incidents force the park's managers to walk a delicate line between protecting Kakadu's crocodiles and protecting its visitors.

"At this time of year, after the wet [rainy season], managing the crocs is a huge job for us," ranger Garry Lindner said.

Lindner said he and his colleagues fly in helicopters to survey waterways. District rangers also walk as much ground as possible by day, laying out crocodile-detection buoys and baited traps.

"At night we go out in teams of two or three, looking for tracks on riverbanks and hunting for the crocs' distinctive aroma. We often find them from the boat when our spotlights catch the shining red of their eyes," he said.

"Freshies [freshwater crocodiles] are generally shy of people and harmless unless they are annoyed or visitors provoke them," Lindner added. "Where we find an inquisitive or aggressive freshie, we may relocate it or tag it and monitor its behavior."

Australian Treasure

While Kakadu's attraction is its wildness, a report being considered by the Australian government suggests increasing the activities available to people inside the park. These include nighttime wildlife tours, school camps, extended hiking trails with overnight accommodation, bird-watching tours, culture camps, bush "tucker" (food) tours, and luxury eco-camps.

Kakadu was leased to Australia's federal government by the park's indigenous people in 1979.

Tourism grew quickly, but in recent years the public's fascination with Kakadu's environment has waned. The numbers of domestic and international visitors has dropped off.

The entry fee to the park was abolished last year in hopes of attracting more locals to the park, particularly during the recently ended rainy season.

"People tend to come in the southern winter,"—which occurs during the Northern Hemisphere's summer—"but it's arguably at its best in the wet," said Greg Hunt, an Australian member of parliament who serves as the parliamentary secretary for the environment.

"It's unique in the wet, when it becomes a primordial soup of fish- and bird-life."

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