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Dino Days-Crocs Rule | Crocodile Smiles | Smart Reptiles | The Gharial and the Monkey | A Crocodile Hunter: Part II, Part I | Cinderella Crocodile | Croc Speak

Steve Irwin: The Crocodile Hunter
by Linda Brookover (Continuation)

Q: What is a rogue crocodile?

"A rogue is a crocodile that must be removed because it is'threatening' to people. That's how it's stated, but in actualfact, we believe if we didn't catch it, it'd be shot or snared ina net. So, before this would happen, we'd go up, trap andrelocate the crocs. Since the early 80's, my whole life hasrevolved around trapping and relocating 'rogue' or so-called 'problem' crocodiles. It's very unfortunate for thecroc, you can see how the conflict between man and beastoccurs, but certainly people are not on their menu. Everynow and then someone makes the mistake of choosing toswim with them, and the crocs have eaten the occasionalperson, on an average of one or two per year in Australia."

Steve and Terri travel around Australia and move "rogue" crocodiles to safer environments. Steve is known as one of the biggest 'crocodile removers' on Australia's east coast, and let's face it, probably the world."

Q: One or two deaths per year is occasional?

"That is very few considering the thousands of people thatenter their territory. So that's what they call 'rogue' crocs.We feel it's really a croc who's being placed under pressure,reacting to intruders, and far more often than not, it'd be theone that ends up dead.

A lot of the crocs have had to come back here to the park,when there was no other place for them. Once we've got acroc, our whole focus is limiting its stress and getting itshipped as quickly as possible to another viable location,such as another cattle property that's a relatively safe area togo to. If not, they come here to our "Reptile and Fauna Park."

The Interview is punctuated by the plaintive cries of a babycamel in the background. Steve and Terri adopted thisorphan not too long ago when they were on an expedition tostudy the environmental impact of a feral species of camelthat inhabits Australia. Australian camels are now the pureststrain of Dromedary in the world. Steve and Terri foundtheir impact on grazing properties to be minimal, since theyare soft hoofed and eat only shrubs and leaves.

Q: How do most farmers react to crocodiles neartheir livestock?

"We just finished a documentary on this absolutelybeautiful croc, and I won't tell you too much since you'll beseeing the documentary shortly; but its a very emotionalstory of the how he's rehabilitated after he had a fight withanother croc. I think this documentary is the one that willreally tell the crocodile story and finally people are going toreally be able to feel compassion towards this animal thathas always been considered deadly. The cattle farmer in thefilm was so moved that, at the thought of removing the croc,he said 'Oh, no. No, let's just release him back in the samewater hole.' Which is what we did. It's such a great story-the farmers were all educated, the tourists were all educated,and we brought the police and the townspeople in to see it,so that they can get a first-hand understanding of what's intheir waterways. Learning to live with dangerous animals isnot that difficult."

Q: You're living proof of that, certainly. How manydangerous animals have you come into contact with in yourlife?

"Easily thousands. For example, just before this interview Iwas in with a ten foot croc building a ramp, I've got a person'riding shotgun' as we call it. Actually he has no gun at all,he's just up there staring at the water, watching for anymovement, so that I can get out. Its not dangerous. Itcertainly is no more than if I were an electrician: I'd gothrough a certain amount of training to learn just about howdangerous electricity is if you're careless. 'One flash andyou're ash'; if you make a big mistake around electricity,you get cooked. You make a mistake around a croc, you'vegot a similar set of circumstances; it just sounds a lot gorier.For me, dealing with crocs all of my life, I feel very okaywith them-I'm at one with them. What looks dangerous isreally not all that dangerous, simply because of theknowledge and expertise that I have acquired in the last 31years.""
"There's a whole lot of hoo-hah floating around that the crocodile has a small brain and that he's not very intelligent. Some people think they're very dumb, like a frog or something."

Q: Do crocodiles have any type of warning signalsthat would alert you to danger when you are working aroundthem?

"Yes. There's a whole series of body postures that would alertme to a croc about to take me out. Let's work on crocs ofunder ten feet first. When you're dealing with saltwatercrocs, a female reaches sexual maturity at around 8 feet and8 years of age and a male at about 10 feet and ten years.The smaller ones are less inclined to take a swing at aperson."

Q: Are they very intelligent?

"There's a whole lot of hoo-hah floating around that thecrocodile has a small brain and that he's not veryintelligent. Some people think they're very dumb, like a frogor something. But when you get a perspective on theirenvironment and understand that crocodiles have been onthe planet for 65 million years, it's their instincts that Iwould consider to be their intelligence. In fact they are veryintelligent; they have a great eye for detail in theirenvironment and are certainly very aware of things in thatenvironment.

Crocodiles of less than ten feet are less likely to strikebecause they are so instinctively clever. They see me as alargish mammal that couldn't be had easily. I prefer theword 'strike' to 'attack', since they are reptiles and that's whatreptiles do. They line prey up from underneath the water;they've already had plenty of time to determine how big youare. They are camouflage-attack predators: they are so still,still as rock, so you don't even know they're there. I'll take afew more chances with the ten-foot-and-under ones andthan those 12 feet and larger.

I'll talk about the bigger ones now, those 12 feet and above.The females rarely grow larger than 10 feet. I have one nowat 10 feet 8 inches, and that's the biggest female I've everseen. So its the big males that are the problem. This isnature's way: big males are very territorial, both amongsteach other and territorial towards us when we are in theirenvironment. Their job is to ensure the success of theirspecies. When they fight they often fight to the death. Theydominate each other and do all kinds of displays and matingrituals. These males are number one in their eco-system, intheir environment, so the buck stops with them. Theirterritorialism and aggressive nature keeps the river systemclean, really clean. When I'm entering their environment orin the enclosure with the big males, I am very careful andvery cautious."

Q: Do saltwater crocodiles usually strike at prey atthe water's edge? We often hear of how kids and pets shouldnot go near the water when crocodiles are nearby.

"I'm also very aware when I'm moving around at the water'sedge. Crocodiles don't usually run up on the land. Therehave been a few cases where crocs have gotten out of thewater and grabbed somebody, but generally you have to godown to their territory which is the water. When the bigmales have got you lined up, you won't know it. What they'lldo is submerge under some weeds from about ten feet away,so you can't see them."

Crocodile Video and Audio Map

Q: What are some of their adaptations that make itpossible for them to be so successful as predators?

"Their sense of smell is very acute, and their hearing is quitegood, so if there is a mammal hanging about by the water'sedge, they will submerge, they will smell them and, withouta ripple in the water, they will cruise over. Whether they areusing their webbed feet to plod along to the bottom or thesideways motion of the tail, their movement is completelyinvisible, so that's why they are called camouflage orambush attack predators.

They have three eyelids: two leathery protective eyelids andone clear or translucent one. They'll use that transparenteyelid like a pair of goggles to distinguish sun and shadow;and if it's clear water they may be able to pick up a little bitof movement. When they are in hunt mode or attack mode,their senses are very keen. They can sense when a mammalis moving around on the shore creating vibrations. Withgreat accuracy, they can pinpoint exactly where thefootsteps are headed. They know exactly when you haveentered the water, and at that precise moment, they strike."

Q: How fast do they move?

"As a rule the body comes out of the water so hard and fastthat it is impossible to avoid. So if you've got a 12 foot croc,then six feet of it will be coming out of the water. As anexample of how really quick it is, I had a bloke standing byme when a croc decided to strike. It hit the fence next to theman, crawled back into the water and only then did the guydrop his can of coke. That gives you an idea of reactiontime: you can't react quickly enough. If more than half oftheir body is out of the water, you might have enough timeto get out of the way.

"In Sulawesi it is believed that crocodiles are the spirits of the ancestors in a new incarnation, still wanting to protect their descendants. So crocodiles are sacred and are only killed when they have killed a human being." - Jan Knappert

If I see a big male on the land, it's nota problem for me. They are not dangerous unless you run over and get right in front ofthem. In the water, they are so difficult to spot becausethey are almost completely invisible; their camouflagetechniques are unsurpassed by any animal. Big malecrocodiles can weigh in at over a ton and measure 16 feet inlength. Their size is quite an incredible hunting advantageall by itself."

Q: What do you look out for when you are workingaround crocodiles?

"I've got a 16 foot croc who weighs over a ton. What wewatch for is when he gets his feet poised a certain way; andwe watch his eyes. Wherever the slit in his eyes is pointed,that's where he's looking. They have very good vision, andthey can see almost 180 degrees. They can't see anythingbelow their nose, but anything above the water is in theirsight range. In the water, we look for any disturbances orsmall bubbles that might clue us in to movement. In shallow,clear water they are easier to detect, but people have hadsome close calls in clear, shallow water at night. Night timeis their time."

Q: Are saltwater crocodiles as developed socially assome of the other species are known to be?

"During the day we take people over to see the crocodiles,and they pay no attention to us at all. At night, no one goesover there. They really enjoy each other's company, and theirsocial structure is very important to them. The females willchase each other around, sometimes, for fun. During matingseason the males look after their girls, and that's theirtime, the night.

When it comes to food though, the saltwater crocodile isreally a very solitary animal. They won't assist each otherlike the Nile crocodiles in rolling a carcass. The saltwatercrocs will fight each other in preference to sharing food."

Q: Is there anything special about saltwater crocodilemating rituals?

"One time I drove my tractor up there and Mary, she's that big old girl, 10 feet 8 inches, she started just butting her head up against the tractor trying to kill it to protect her nest."
"When mating season comes around, the female will comeup to the surface and do a very deep, throaty growl to alertthe males that she is in season. Let's use, for example, somecrocodiles we have here, Cookie and Agro. When Cookiedoes this, Agro goes zooming up to her; and Cookie will goby with a very sexy wiggle of the tail."

"Then they swim alongtogether, and she has her perfume on, little scent glandsunder her throat which exude a sea breeze fragrance. Thisgets Agro quite stimulated, and they continue their foreplay,swimming up into little billabongs and around the reeds andweeds. He'll then try to mount her, and she will submergeunder the water and blow a massive amount of bubbles onhis underside and belly, which also stimulates him. Thenshe'll come up underneath him and her tail will curl up andmating will take place. They do this for a period of months,they really enjoy it! It's not a wham-bam thank-you-ma'am.I've never seen blood flow with crocodiles mating. Its verypassionate and romantic. Once we can recognize somehuman characteristics in animals, its always easier to lovethem."

Q: Do female crocodiles have any motheringinstincts, or do they just lay eggs and leave?

"The thing that amazes me is that once the female crocodilehas been fertilized she has 60 to 80 eggs developing in herbelly. When those eggs are close to being developed, shepicks a nest site. Instinctively she knows whether it will be awet season or a dry season, and she will put her nest at theright level according to the drought conditions. So thesenests are good weather indicators, as to whether we aregoing to have floods. When Cookie and Mary laid up veryhigh one year, we knew we were going to have floods. Whatthey do is use their front paws and rake up a big layer ofcompost and dirt, and, of course, decomposing foliagecreates heat. So they build this big compost nest, which canbe quite large, like a meter or two high, and looks like alittle helicopter pad. They'll wait until they feel the monsooncoming, and as soon as it does, they'll deposit their eggs.The female will use her back feet to make a perfect littlebasket, and then they go into a trance-like state to lay eggs.Baby crocodile gender is determined by how deeply theeggs are buried in the nest and the temperature.

"Some crocodiles are women from the waist up. If a young crocodile, just hatched from the egg, runs into the jungle instead of the water, it will turn into a tiger. If a crocodile is shot, its spirit will harm the hunter's family. It is said that the first crocodile was fashioned by Fatima, daughter of Muhammad. " - Jan Knappert

Once the eggs have been deposited, the females cover themover completely; and then you will see an amazingtransformation in the female saltwater croc. The female isusually placid and quick to get out of the way. As soon asshe lays her eggs, she becomes territorial and aggressive andwill die in defense of the nest and its potential babies. Thisis absolutely amazing, and you can't help but love them forit. When you see a mother saltie guarding her nestrelentlessly, a tear can easily come to your eye. If a nest israided by a human or a goanna, it is possible that that maydrown the embryo, if the egg is tilted. Sometimes we have toraid a nest to protect the babies from hatching in adangerous area. One time I drove my tractor up there andMary, she's that big old girl, 10 feet 8 inches, she started justbutting her head up against the tractor trying to kill it toprotect her nest. She would have knocked herself stupid justtrying to move it, so we quickly got it out of the way andjust let her have her eggs. Their maternal instincts are sostrong and that may be a key reason why they have existedon this planet for so long. Once the mother crocodile hearsthe babies calling, she runs right over to dig them out of thenest. She carries her babies safely to the water in her mouthlike other crocodilians."

Q: What is number one for you on your list ofenvironmental concerns?

"Our biggest concern right now is preserving the habitat ofour reptiles in order to protect them as species.Conservation of habitat, along with educating andconvincing people that it is possible to live alongside so-called dangerous animals, is our goal. In some ways, wewould like to create in all Australians the same kind ofrespect that the aborigines of this continent have alwayshad for animal life. It is the aborigines who helped usrecently to locate and a protect a very small mouse called theyellow footed-antechinus, because they are so veryknowledgeable about the environment."

To Contact Steve and Terri Irwin please write to:
(At last contact with them there was no e-mail)

    Steve and Terri Irwin
    Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park
    Glasshouse Mountain Tourist Road
    Beerwah, Queensland 4519

Dino Days-Crocs Rule | Crocodile Smiles | Smart Reptiles | The Gharial and the Monkey | A Crocodile Hunter: Part I, Part II | Cinderella Crocodile | Croc Speak


Pacific Mythology Excerpts © 1992 Jan Knappert - All Rights Reserved
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