Wrestling with the salties


Drawing of a crocodileUTS alumnus and former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jano Gibson gets a handle on the ancient beast terrorising Australia’s Top End.

His mother was first to hear it: a rustling in the bushes not far from their tent. Barely visible in the moonlight, a large, menacing shape moved towards them.

“The croc just ran the last four or five metres... and it came straight in [the tent],” Peter Pangquee says. “The croc grabbed her across her body diagonally.”

As his mother’s ribs cracked under the force of the croc’s bite, Peter jumped into the tent and fumbled for the beast’s head. “I slid my fingers up until I felt the eyes and poked two pointer fingers into them.”

The four-metre saltwater crocodile retreated, slinking back to the Northern Territory creek where the Pangquees had been fishing for barramundi and listening to the 1990 AFL grand final on the radio earlier that day.

His mother would spend 10 days on life support nursing 10 broken ribs, a punctured liver and deep wounds. She was one of the lucky ones.

In March and April this year, salties – as they are known in the Top End – claimed the lives of two people, reigniting the debate about how to best manage the creatures, particularly as Darwin’s urban fringe pushes deeper into their domain.

Decades ago, hunters could shoot crocodiles as they pleased. But in 1971, when the wild population dropped below 3,000, they became a protected species. Since then, their numbers are estimated to have reached close to 80,000.

“With more and more crocs spread out in more areas, the threat for misadventure has increased,” says crocodile expert Professor Grahame Webb, who runs Darwin’s Crocodylus Park.

“They’re always on the lookout for food and if they hear something splashing, they zero in on it very accurately.”

That is precisely what happened to Briony Goodsell in March this year. On a typically hot Darwin day, the 11-year-old was taking a dip with her younger sister and several friends in a shallow creek in the city’s outer suburbs. She was gone in an instant.

“When they grab someone alive, their first objective is to drown them, stop them moving,” Webb says.

“They roll and crash and thrash until there’s no movement. Sometimes they take the body somewhere and just leave it, coming back to it later. Other times they dismember bits off it and eat it.” A mantra to live by in the Top End is that where there is water, there are crocodiles. But all too often, people are too ignorant, too foolhardy or too drunk to remember.

Four weeks after Briony’s death, a young man, who had been drinking, vanished while swimming at night across the crocodile-infested Daly River, south of Darwin.

“The real no-nos,” says Webb, “are: having too much to drink, going swimming, at night time.” There are 19 crocodile traps laid out across the vast reaches of Darwin Harbour. Parks and Wildlife Service officers check on them about once a week to reduce the likelihood of the animals coming into contact with residents.

The crocodile catching team, led by ranger Tommy Nicholls, who has lost two fingers to his job, has a licence to capture more than 200 salties a year, which are sent to crocodile farms for breeding, meat and skin.

In the wake of the two recent deaths, the Northern Territory government has outlined a “zero tolerance” crocodile management plan to increase the number of traps and extend the area monitored by Nicholls and his team to the outskirts of Darwin, where Goodsell was taken.

“It’s about making sure humans in that area are protected so that crocodiles are not walking inside their backyards or walking down the street,” Northern Territory Environment Minister Alison Anderson said.

“They killed yesterday. They will kill today. And they will kill tomorrow.” But for Peter Pangquee, who ended up with a bravery medal for saving his mother’s life, there is only so much the government can do. “I think it’s about people. You can’t protect against stupidity in some cases.” 

Words: Jano Gibson