Crocodile Tears

Crocodile Tears
(Credit: The Bulletin)

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 at stake.

Crocodiles 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.

The 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 him.

When 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."

The 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."

Yet 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 thigh.

...believed safe, Broome crocodile farmer Malcolm Douglas is unequivocal: "They're unpredictable, simple as that."

As 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.

The 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 conduct.

Says 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'."

Irwin 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.

Lever, 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."

So 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.

The 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]."

While 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.' "

There's 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 the same.

When 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.

In 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 advertising endorsements.

No 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.

Such 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 "crocodile hunter".

But 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 matter."

But 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.

Irwin 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 it."

Noted 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," Webb says.

Webb, 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 Group.

"Australia's 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," Webb says.

"Irwin 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.

"Irwin 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 people."

For 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.

Once bitten
(Credit: The Bulletin)

A 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

New 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.

Most 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 a fight.

A 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.

"We 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.

followed 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 already faded.

With 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 the remains.

Three 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.

This 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.

Although 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.

As 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.

Phil 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.

Hauser 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."

The 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.

Mann's 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.

They 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.

With 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.

Those 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 -

0,000 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.



The Bulletin



The Crocodile Hunters

Crocodile Mick Pitman

Keith F. Adams "Crocodile Safari Man"

Steve Irwin


Crocodile Hunter biting employees?


Crocodile Hunter