Steve Irwin, the man made famous by filming and handling
crocodiles, is still in damage control mode over the
baby incident that has been beamed around the planet.
He's right to be backpedaling - there's huge money
seem to inspire more awe and fascination in us than
most creatures. Combine their cold, reptilian features
and their ancient link with a world before the first
human footprint appeared (not to mention an occasional
preference for human flesh) and you have a creature
that Hollywood was always going to embrace. Others
came before him but none has ridden on the crocodile's
back to greater fame or fortune than Steve Irwin.
self-styled "Crocodile Hunter" has created
an entertainment juggernaut centred around his ability
to get up close and personal with one of the most
lethal animals on Earth. Irwin has always argued that
for those - like him - who understand these animals,
their behaviour is, to a great degree, predictable.
It is the unpredictable that seems to have ambushed
a worldwide outcry accompanied the release of TV footage
showing Irwin holding his infant son in one arm while
feeding a chicken carcass to a 4m saltwater croc called
Murray with the other, he brazened: "I was in
complete control of the crocodile."
images caused enough of a stink in Australia but in
the United States, where his caricatured Ocker image
has generated an enormous following, the reaction
was dire. His parental abilities were immediately
compared with those of Michael Jackson (who once dangled
his infant son over the balcony of a Berlin hotel),
while The New York Daily News carried a front-page
photo of Irwin accompanied by the headline: "Steve
Irwin - Australian for stupid."
the furore has obscured what many seasoned croc hunters
and handlers feel is the real issue. Crocodiles and
alligators are never predictable, they argue, and
the real danger of the Irwin approach is that it just
encourages imitators. There is ample evidence of the
unpredictable. In 1994, Graham Freeman, an experienced
Queensland croc handler, died after a crocodile turned
on him and crushed his skull. More recently, and within
the confines of Irwin's own Australia Zoo at Beerwah
on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, a crocodile with the
somewhat quaint name of Graham - notorious for having
bitten Irwin in 1992 - attacked zoo manager Wes Mannion
in 2001. Mannion, who was hospitalised for 12 days,
needed 150 stitches and staples inserted into his
safe, Broome crocodile farmer Malcolm Douglas is unequivocal:
"They're unpredictable, simple as that."
for the imitators, the members of Florida's Conservation
Commission have a vivid reminder of the perils of
that approach. Last May, an alligator strayed onto
the verge of a public road in Polk County and, even
though a licensed trapper was only minutes away, an
onlooker took it upon himself to deal with the danger.
He was lucky; his injuries could have been a lot worse
than the large flap of skin that was left hanging
from his left arm.
imitation phenomenon has become such a problem, says
one veteran croc handler, that there is now a concerted
push among elements of the American legal profession
to organise a class action on behalf of Irwin fans
who have been bitten by snakes, alligators and other
dangerous animals. This is in spite of the fact that
Irwin's programs carry warnings not to imitate his
crocodile hunter John Lever, the Queenslander dispatched
to Hong Kong in November to catch a rogue croc: "There
is a fair amount of ill-feeling among the US alligator
research fraternity towards Irwin over his animal
containment practices, and the impact of his actions
on the young and the easily impressionable. The same
thing is happening in Australia. A child of one of
my own crocodile park staffers was bitten by a snake,
while trying to 'do a Steve'."
may have powerful supporters - Queensland Premier
Peter Beattie's government nominated him for Australian
of the Year, while PM John Howard once described him
as "one of Australia's great conservation icons"
- but, as far as the wildlife and conservation fraternity
is concerned, opinion is polarised.
who runs the Koorana Crocodile Farm near Rockhampton,
and other Queensland Wildlife Parks Association members
have a code of practice that states: "Over-dramatisation
and sensationalism of crocodile behaviour has a negative
impact on community perceptions of crocodiles and
is not to be undertaken. Park visitors should not
be presented with examples of inappropriate behaviour
that may be copied by some people."
what does Irwin think? Inquiries by The Bulletin to
his Beerwah zoo complex - which began life more modestly
as the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park when it was
run by Irwin's parents Bob and Lyn - were directed
to The Best Picture Show Company, producers of The
Crocodile Hunter TV series. Irwin, reportedly, had
beaten a retreat to his central Queensland property
near St George.
company's principal, Irwin's friend and TV director
John Stainton, says Irwin is not fielding any unsolicited
media queries. "It has been an absolute tragedy,
a media beat-up," Stainton says. "Unfortunately,
it came at a time that was very light-on for news.
It has been a feeding frenzy, absolutely irresponsible."
Stainton dismisses claims that Irwin's antics are
responsible for injuries to fans or imitators. "There
are a million people into alligators in Florida,"
he says. "They've been jumping on animals for
centuries, long before we came [on the scene]."
Stainton says he is not aware of any injuries to fans
or imitators in Australia, "these things happen.
We can't stop that, just as we can't stop road accidents.
We can't be big brother to the world. TV generally
is right out there. MTV's Wild Boys walk through crocodile-infested
swamps on stilts. They wanted to do it at Steve's
park, and we wouldn't let them. We constantly include
messages saying: 'Do not try to do this at home.'
a lot at stake for both men but for Irwin, who was
given a python for his sixth birthday and was catching
crocodiles under his father's supervision by the age
of nine, it has been a particularly heady journey.
By the time he'd reached adulthood, Irwin was catching
rogue crocs for a living under contract to the state
government. Then his father suggested he take a video
camera along and things were destined never to be
Stainton - who happened to be shooting an ad at Australia
Zoo one day during the early 1990s - saw some of Irwin's
footage, he realised he had a unique TV animal on
his hands. US cable operator Discovery Channel bought
the show in 1996 and it rapidly brought Irwin a level
of popularity well beyond his wildest dreams.
2002, when Irwin was the most noteworthy newcomer
on BRW's list of highest-earning Australian entertainers,
Irwin and Stainton were listed as having estimated
gross earnings of $16.3m for the year, based on the
show being screened in 130 countries and on Irwin's
wonder Irwin was quick to apologise to the president
of Discovery Network, which through its Animal Planet
subsidiary carries Irwin's programs to 200 million
subscribers. So far the network is standing by their
man, as is car manufacturer Toyota, for whom Irwin
endorses four-wheel-drive vehicles. When you consider
the $175,000 Irwin was paid for one day's filming
for the federal government's "Quarantine Matters"
ad campaign, it's clear that this income stream is
crucial not just to Irwin and Stainton but also to
the 200-plus employees of Australia Zoo.
a successful business operation needs to watch more
than just the crocs. Accordingly, The Best Picture
Show Company, which owns "The Crocodile Hunter"
name, foreshadowed legal action against northern Australia
identity "Crocodile Mick" Pitman, in an
attempt to prevent Pitman's long-term use of the description
Pitman, who trained under the late, renowned Weipa
croc hunter "German Jack" in the early 1970s,
isn't budging, claiming his use of the description
predates any claim to copyright or trademark and that
because the name is technically a generic term in
common use, it is therefore not able to be registered.
While confirming his company's approaches to "Crocodile
Mick" Pitman, Stainton claimed it was "a
very friendly, standard letter" and a process
the company has to go through up to 200 times a year
with various operations. "I wouldn't know whether
or not 'crocodile hunter' is a generic term,"
Stainton says. "We are not interested in pursuing
the real domestic heat in the Crocodile Hunter's camp
emanates from Irwin's long-running philosophical brawl
on conservation issues with the advocates of sustainable
crocodile farm production. "I believe sustainable
use is the greatest propaganda in wildlife conservation
at the moment," Irwin said in a recent interview.
has used his web site to mount what he calls his so-called
"Millennium Resolution" attack on crocodile
farming and other forms of sustainable animal management
programs. He claims credible and powerful players
are "using the camouflage of science to make
money out of animals. So, whenever they're killing
our animals and calling it sustainable use, I'll fight
crocodile researcher and Darwin crocodile park operator
Dr Grahame Webb is among those described by Irwin
as being the "Hitlers of wildlife" in Irwin's
"Millennium Resolution". "I find Irwin's
attacks offensive, and quite off the rails,"
who pioneered crocodile husbandry practices used by
Irwin and other park operators, is vice-chairman of
the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, which
operates under the auspices of the United Nations.
He also heads the WCU's Crocodile Specialist Management
sustainable crocodile farming program during the last
20 years has certainly been a success, with the wild
population increasing at the same time as thousands
of eggs and a small number of wild animals are harvested
by permit each year throughout northern Australia,"
appears to be totally opposed to anyone who uses crocodiles
in any way other than the way in which he uses them.
The linkage between conservation and sustainable use
is to find a way to draw upon wild populations of
animals to generate the commercial incentives needed
to look after and conserve these animals. But it can't
work in the real world with just one value system
- Steve Irwin's - because people get eaten when the
wild crocodile population is uncontrolled. And that
upsets some people.
doesn't seem to understand that conservation is the
sum total of actions taken to preserve and maintain
items to which we attribute a positive value. Most
agricultural production is about conflicting values,
and adopting different value systems to suit different
Stainton, the continuation of the sustainability versus
conservation debate is a case of people "trying
to dredge up everything they can find". While
he says he is not aware if Irwin's views on the issue
have been tempered in recent times, "people do
change". However, as the consequences of Irwin's
TV footage continue to reverberate among animal handling
professionals and the general public alike, only time
will tell if Irwin is prepared to change what up until
now has been a lucrative formula.
hunt is on in the Top End for two corpses: one a killer
crocodile, the other the young man he apparently attacked.
His death has sparked renewed calls for an open season
on crocs. By PAUL TOOHEY
Year's Eve and the Finniss River, 80km south-west
of Darwin, is running fast and deep. Seated rain-drenched
in a small dinghy, side arms pouched and black Steyr
automatic rifles nursed at the ready, the camouflage-clad
cops look as if they're headed up the Mekong on covert
military business. And in a sense the Finniss has
become enemy territory. They are looking for two bodies:
one belonging to 22-year-old Brett Mann, who was grabbed
by a crocodile as he washed downstream on December
21, and that of a 3.8m crocodile, shot by rangers
seven nights later.
locals head onto the Finniss armed with no more than
a brace of flashing lures and an Esky. This time,
however, Territory Response Group police have to be
prepared to destroy any opportunistic crocodile that
may have commandeered either of the bodies for itself.
If it has, it will not surrender the prey without
white rope dangling from a tree, 1km downstream from
where Mann was taken, marks the spot where Northern
Territory Parks and Wildlife senior conservation operations
officer Phil Hauser shot the 3.8m crocodile with a
.308 rifle. It was 10.30pm, December 28, in soft steady
rain, and the croc's eyes showed up red in the dinghy's
spotlight. Those in the boat got a long, hard look
at the animal as it ducked and resurfaced.
had a few approaches to it," says Hauser, who
is convinced he shot the right croc. They are territorial
creatures and one big croc tends to dominate a stretch
of water to the exclusion of competitors. This one
fitted the size and the location. Hauser fired one
round only. He thinks he hit the spot: just behind
the eyes, in the back of the head.
running patrols up and down the river, waiting for
the croc to swell up and float to the surface. For
the sake of Mann's parents, the searchers needed to
know whether the crocodile held any of their son's
remains. But it didn't surface in the search zone.
And, by then, hope of finding Mann's intact body had
the monsoonal trough settling over the Top End, the
Finniss has been going through its annual cleansing
ritual, rejecting all debris and spitting it downstream
to the sea. Fallen bamboo logs have managed to gather
on the river's edges, out of the swift current, forming
dense platforms. These might have concealed either
Mann or the crocodile but there was no way you could
tell. Every passing day gave the river's other sizeable
predators and their lesser assistants, the turtles
and the catfish, further opportunity to do away with
local men - boys really - were hacking about on their
quad-bikes, shoving aside the drenching heat as they
sped through the tropical wilds, pausing in black
wallows to cover each other with mud flung from spinning
back wheels. They went to an old and rarely used crossing,
inaccessible to all but the fat-wheeled quads at this
time of year, to wash down their boots and clothes.
It was not outrageous carelessness. Any Top End river
user takes a chance every time they launch a dinghy.
A vigilant eye to what might be sneaking up on you
is all that is required. But the sandy shallows on
which Mann was standing collapsed beneath him and
he was washed downstream through a grove of trees.
crossing is a shallow -bottleneck that flows swifter
than the river's deeper open sections. Such bottlenecks
are the favoured haunts of crocodiles. They lie in
wait on the downstream side, at the point where the
river opens up. They are hunting the barramundi that
are in their turn loitering in the run-off, waiting
to pick off the smaller fish -coming through the pass.
big and strong, Mann was unable to make his way back
to shore. His mates, Ashley McGough and Shaun Blowers,
both 19, jumped in and managed to head him off. As
the three made their way back to shore, McGough -spotted
the croc and cried out. Then they lost sight of Mann.
the two latched on to a small tree growing in the
river and clambered up it to safety, the croc appeared
beneath them holding Mann in its mouth. It swam away
but returned five minutes later, this time without
their mate. Although blinded by the night, the boys
believe the croc waited beneath the tree for the 22
hours they clung upstairs. They felt for each other
in the dark to make sure they were both awake, trying
not to move too much so as to crack the flimsy tree.
The boys' parents knew where their sons were. In a
tricky operation the following day, a rescue chopper
held position above the tree, the rotor downdraft
smacking branches down into the river before the boys
were plucked from their miserable, failing perch.
Hauser believes the croc lost its grip on Mann to
the rapid waters and returned to the tree in the hope
of picking up one of the other two men. Either that
or it quickly stashed Mann's body and came back for
more. With near-impossible search conditions on the
Finniss, experienced crocodile hands lost hope of
finding either Mann or the croc as the first days
of 2004 rolled in. The rangers were prepared to shoot
a slightly smaller 2.8m crocodile they'd spotted in
a pool just downstream from where the suspect went
down but they could not justify a total croc slaughter
in order to gut and inspect all resident creatures.
On January 5, the search was abandoned.
is an old hand at crocs, having dealt with just about
every one of the Top End's maneaters or troublemakers
in the past 20 years. He got no joy out of shooting
the suspect. "Hell no," he says, "we'd
much rather catch him alive. And we catch them 99%
of the time. But the conditions up here for live capture
are awesome, with the snags and the flow. If we were
to harpoon him and snag him up we'd lose him anyway.
We ran out of options."
truth is, no maneater has been captured live in Australia.
Wild killer crocs always get the bullet because the
coroner needs their insides inspected for the record.
Nor is there is any such thing as the "crocodile-infested
rivers" of popular literature. A crocodile's
is a solitary world except for mating season but,
as Mann found out, one crocodile is enough.
parents have made a plea for the limited culling of
larger crocodiles, arguing that they have become too
brazen since the NT outlawed croc hunting in 1971.
Regular outdoor types, they say they came to this
view long before their son was killed.
are right that crocodiles are becoming audacious but
more and more people are recklessly entering the crocs'
world. People complain of "cheeky" crocodiles
hanging around boat ramps but ignore signs asking
them to gut their fish elsewhere. Or (see the German
girl told by a tour guide in 2002 that a Kakadu billabong
was safe) they disregard warning signs and get eaten.
a cull program scheduled to begin this year, and talk
of allowing limited trophy hunting of bigger crocs,
feelings are mixed on whose rights should prevail
on the Territory's rivers: those who set out to catch
a barra in dinghies which are often shorter in length
than the resident crocs, or the crocs themselves.
who argue that crocodiles clash with the Territory's
celebrated outdoors lifestyle must ask themselves
what sort of lifestyle they really want. Crocodiles
are a dangerous presence but somehow they keep the
whole experience real. The bad news for crocs is their
numbers are so high in the Territory right now -
compared with 5000 in 1971 - that a cull is easily
sustainable. Big crocodiles, from 4m to 5.5m, claim
stretches of all Territory rivers and the taking of
a human is an almost annual event. In just about every
case, downright stupidity is the explanation. In Mann's,
bad luck had a big say.
F. Adams "Crocodile Safari Man"
Hunter biting employees?