Crikey! Why more crocs are heading south
TURF wars in the far north are forcing ousted saltwater crocodiles into southern waterways where unsuspecting locals are crossing paths with the prehistoric predators for the first time.
Go back a couple of generations when there were fewer people and greater expanses of undeveloped habitat and tales of crocodile encounters as far south as Maryborough, little more than 200km north of Brisbane, were commonplace.
But 30 years of intensive hunting, which banished the majority of surviving reptiles to remote wilds of the north by the late 1970s, provided the base for what researchers now fear is a false sense of security, bound to end in tragedy if crocodile numbers continue to recover and public awareness in coastal communities from the Top End right down to the Sunshine Coast is not improved.
Since January 1 last year, 21 crocodile sightings have been reported well south of accepted crocodile territory at Gladstone's Boyne River. Two of the four crocodiles of concern currently targeted for removal in Queensland have taken up residence in the Mary River, more than 300km south of that border and well inland from the river mouth at the Great Sandy Straits near Fraser Island.
Crocs south of the Boyne River
A map showing confirmed and reported sightings of crocodiles south of their accepted range.
Darwin-based crocodile expert Adam Britton, who heads crocodile research and consulting organisation Big Gecko, said while patchy historical data made comparisons difficult, he was "reasonably confident" river systems in the Northern Territory were nearing the kind of numbers not seen for more than 100 years.
He believed that if Queensland was experiencing similar growth rates there would soon come a time when there was no more room in the central and northern waterways for the territorial predators and a greater number of rogue or bullied crocodiles seeking safe habitats further south was inevitable.
"Eventually you can't get any more crocodiles, particularly dominant males, in the one place," Mr Britton said
"The core areas where they live the best and have greatest access to food and good habitat reach what we call carrying capacity.
"It's a bit like a movie theatre where everyone wants to sit in the back rows but once they are full you have to move and crocodiles are resilient, they will adapt if they have to."
Along with territorial stoushes, Mr Britton believes another possible reason for the increased number of sightings further down the coast is changing water temperatures.
He said while crocodiles were known to travel long distances - recent research carried out by the University of Queensland in Cape York showed tagged crocodiles could swim for hundreds of kilometres at a time and in some cases, cross the entire Top End of Australia when forced from their territories - those who ventured south were previously more likely to die or return north after finding the water was too cold for breeding.
While he did not believe crocodile numbers would ever reach even close to the same concentrations seen further north, Mr Britton said warmer temperatures in southern waterways could provide the right environment for "low density" populations to exist "quite happily".
That alone, he said should not be cause for alarm given the relatively rare incidence of crocodile attacks in Australia. But Mr Britton warned there was far greater risk if people were not aware of the dangers that could be lurking in the water in the first place.
He said the only way forward was better research on crocodile numbers and subsequent control measures.
The Queensland Government has pledged to do that, funding the state's first ever comprehensive scientific crocodile count that will compare fresh data with records taken in 1979.
The crocodile survey will involve regular patrols of river systems between Cape York and Maryborough and is expected to take at least three years.
The government insists it is doing more than ever to tackle the problem, removing record numbers of crocodiles from the Cairns region, committing $5.8million over three years to improving crocodile management and making previously casual park rangers permanent.
But Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles reiterated this week that even if the survey did support the consensus that crocodile numbers had not only recovered but were thriving, there would never be a cull on his watch.
Mr Britton said that kind of talk usually only lasted until someone was "hurt or killed", something which was statistically rare in areas where people understood the risks but more likely if people "don't expect to run into a crocodile because of the lack of warnings and public information".
"At the end of the day, these choices are always made based on what keeps the people happy," Mr Britton said
"Handled the right way, crocodiles are good for tourism.
"I live in hope that people are adaptable and with the right information can keep the risk relatively low."
Crocodiles removed from the wild so far this year: 7
Crocodiles removed from the wild in 2016: 78
Current crocodiles of concern targeted for removal: 6 (Four in North QLD - 2 in the Mary River at Maryborough)
A history of crocodile sightings well beyond accepted crocodile territory:
Mt Crosby Weir, Brisbane, Jan, 2017 - Man reports seeing crocodile in Brisbane River on Australia Day
Birdsville, Queensland May, 2013 - A freshwater crocodile was removed from the Diamantina River near the Outback town and relocated to the Dreamworld theme park
Mundubbera, Queensland, 2012 - Fisheries officers discover 2m freshwater crocodile in a lake in the town
Greenbank, Logan, 2009 - A large crocodile, believed to have been kept illegally and dumped in grassland near the Mt Lindesay Hwy, is rescued and taken to a wildlife park
Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, 2003 - A small crocodile believed to have been dumped near the Centenary Lakes complex is removed and taken to a wildlife park
Lismore, NSW, June, 1967 - A freshwater crocodile affectionately known by locals as Hector called the Wilson River home after escaping from a travelling show.
Hervey Bay, QLD, 1951 - Decomposing crocodile found on Woody Island off Hervey Bay
Yamba, NSW, Jan, 1940 - Crocodile reported by farmer in a local swamp in the coastal town near Grafton
Logan, Gold Coast, 1905 - Local newspapers carry a picture of a 3.83m crocodile shot in the Logan River, south of Brisbane