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Occupational Hazard: Life on a Croc Farm

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 3, 2003
 
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 begins—nesting 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 way—they raid the nests.

Territorial mother crocs don't take kindly to the removal of their offspring. It's only an experienced team effort that keeps everyone safe from the snapping jaws. Each nest raid involves an escape plan, and simple is often best. As Jason Lever told his father: "I don't have to outrun the croc. I just have to outrun you."

Yet each year Koorana farmhands manage to move all of their croc eggs to the safety of an incubator. With luck, more than 80 percent of the eggs will hatch.

Tourists Attractions

Koorana Crocodile Farm is one of six croc farms in Queensland, Australia.

Farming began in the territory in 1969 with an aim to conserve young saltwater crocodiles and provide employment for the local Aboriginal community.

Other farms were soon established as tourist attractions, but it was not until the 1980s that commercial crocodile farming took off. Today, farms like Koorana serve as popular tourist attractions, seeking to educate the public about crocodiles and their habitat.

Croc farmers like John Lever say they play a larger role in croc conservation, noting that each farm-raised croc hopefully means one less is taken from the wild.

Unregulated hunting between 1945 and 1970 led to a steep population decline of saltwater crocs throughout their range. Today, there are some 100,000 to 150,000 wild crocs found in Australia's three northern provinces and territories: Western Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory.

Australian laws passed in the early 1970s have helped protect the overhunted saltwater crocodile. But in other nations, hunting and habitat loss remain major threats.

"It's important to know this plays a part in conservation," John Lever told Ultimate Explorer. Pointing to a nearby croc, Lever said: "This crocodile's never been in the wild. It's born on the place as an egg and then hatched out and then grown for years to develop the [skin]. So this is not a wild animal, even though people see them as wild animals. This is a production, just the same as any other farm production. It's just that it happens to be a crocodile."
 

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