Croc hunting is a divisive issue Down Under

Australia is considering a two-year trial that would allow 50 large crocodiles to be killed by big game hunters. It is claimed that the plan will boost tourism and create jobs in remote Aboriginal communities

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SYDNEY // The saltwater crocodiles that roam the waterways of northern Australia are among the most fearsome creatures in a country brimming with dangerous wildlife. The man-eating "salties" can reach 7 metres in length, weigh more than a tonne and - despite their name - are found in rivers, creeks and swamps hundreds of kilometres from the sea.

Hunted almost to extinction mid-last century, the crocodiles have been a protected species since 1971. Since then, the population has bounced back - so much so that the federal government is considering a two-year trial that would allow 50 of the largest crocs to be killed by big game hunters.

Those lobbying for the introduction of croc safaris say they would boost tourism and create much-needed jobs in the remote Aboriginal communities of the "Top End". In the Northern Territory, more than 70 per cent of the land inhabited by the giant reptiles is indigenous-owned. "But we've only been getting a small slice of the pie," said Jida Gulpilil, the director of an Aboriginal corporation in the Arnhem Land region.

Already 500 crocodiles are culled ever year, under a sustainable management programme aimed at thinning the population and removing "problem animals", which present a danger to humans. Although the 50 under discussion would come out of that quota, the idea of killing any creature for sport is anathema to the likes of Bob Irwin, father of the late "Crocodile Hunter", Steve Irwin.

Mr Irwin believes that Steve - who was killed by a stingray barb in 2006 - "would be horrified". He fears that safaris, where hunters, mostly from overseas, would pay up to A$20,000 (nearly Dh75,000) to bag a croc, could increase the danger to humans. "They're proposing to take out 50 really big adult Alpha males, but these are the ones that control the river system and keep the younger crocs in check," he said.

"If you remove them, those younger crocs, which are still quite large, will start fighting among themselves, like angry teenagers. They'll be testing their predatory skills, and I'm concerned about what may happen."

The saltwater or estuarine crocodile, or crocodylus porosus, is the world's largest and most aggressive species, barely changed over 65 million years of evolution. It kills an average of two people a year. Hundreds of crocs are fished out of Darwin harbour ever year, dogs have been snatched off city beaches and cattle are also targets,

Even in the wet season, when the heat is intolerable, locals know better than to jump into the ocean or a billabong (pond), however inviting it might seem. "The safest place to swim in the Territory is your bathtub," said Mick Pitman, a veteran crocodile hunter who stuffs his prey and turns their skins into wallets, wrist bands and mobile phone holders.

The government rejected a similar croc-hunting proposal a few years ago, but has agreed to review it in the light of soaring numbers. There are now an estimated 100,000-150,000 in the tropical Top End. The Environment Minister, Tony Burke, will rule on whether the trial can go ahead when a consultation process ends in late July.

Currently Aboriginal landowners are permitted to kill crocodiles on their land, under the management programme, and to sell their skins and eggs. But big game safaris would be far more lucrative. "All we want to do is change the person who pulls the trigger," said Mr Gulpilil. "This is a great way for us to create jobs in an area where employment opportunities are minimal.

"It wouldn't be like the African safaris. This is Australia, and our people are hunters and gatherers. We've got a high respect for the crocodile, culturally and spiritually. It's one of our totems, and it's connected to our land, our Dreaming [creation story], our beliefs and customs, our ceremonies and songs."

Mr Pitman rejects concerns expressed by RSPCA Australia, an animal welfare organisation, that the creatures might not be killed humanely. "The people coming here would be professionals who know how to use guns," he said. Those criticising the idea "live in the city and do their hunting and gathering in supermarkets", said Graham Webb, who runs a crocodile farm outside Darwin.

According to Mr Webb, safaris would also help to conserve the species. "The more valuable these crocs become, the more people will look after them, and the more prepared they'll be to put up with any problems they pose."

However, Mr Irwin is unconvinced. "How many people does it take to kill a crocodile? Two, at the most. How many jobs will be created? Maybe half a dozen. Why not encourage tourists to go out on safari with a camera rather than a gun? There's a lot more financial benefit to be had from live crocodiles."