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Australia Considers Controversial Crocodile Safaris - 2004-08-26

Australia is considering a controversial plan to allow the hunting of saltwater crocodiles, fierce predators that have been protected since the early 1970s. However, the authorities in the rugged Northern Territory want to introduce crocodile safaris to boost tourism and to help impoverished aboriginal communities.

Australia's seas and rivers are home to some of the world's deadliest predators - from sharks and jellyfish to the prehistoric saltwater crocodile.

Here in the tropical north, the world's largest reptiles are top of the must-see list for many tourists.

A small boat like this brings visitors within touching distance of a creature that is more than capable of killing them. Male saltwater crocs in Australia can reach seven meters in length, and weigh ore than four hundred kilograms.

This profitable tour business is run by two brothers, Harry and Morgan Bowman.

They are veteran bushmen with hair-raising stories of close encounters with their reptilian neighbors.

Morgan Bowman tells of coming within a whisker of death in the jaws of a crocodile.

"I had one here one day just here at low tide,? Mr. Bowman says. ?A croc was waiting in the mud. I didn't see him there. I was sort of a bit hung-over from the day before. As I was walking down one of the guys shouts 'look out!' and he leapt out of the water at me and his face was about a foot from mine and he went 'snap' like that and the old heart rate went up."

At Darwin harbor, around 150 are captured every year in steel cages. They are taken away to crocodile farms to keep them away from local residents.

The croc population has boomed since the species was protected more than three decades ago. It is estimated there are now more 70,000 saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory.

Mike Letnic, a government scientist, says the animals were once almost hunted to oblivion in the years after World War II.

"There was a bit of a free-for-all in the rivers,? he says. ?Crocodile skins had a market price and people went out and hunted crocodiles. Crocodiles were largely seen to be a menace or a resource and they were heavily exploited. ? During that time the crocodile population decreased markedly."

Although the crocs are protected, indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory are allowed to kill up to 600 a year for their skins and meat.

But territorial officials say the population now is big enough to allow big-game hunters to shoot a total of 25 crocs a year.

The plan has broad support from the tourist industry, many scientists and aboriginal groups.

The territory's environment minister, Marion Scrymgour, favors the idea of small safaris on tribal lands.

"I've supported it in terms of its sustainability and opportunities for indigenous economic development, particularly in communities where you don't have many opportunities for economic development that this is a means of, you know, providing that impetus for funding to come back into the community," Mr. Scrymgour says.

Along with the alligator, the saltwater crocodile is believed to be responsible for more human deaths around the world than any other predator.

Still, tour operators Morgan and Harry Bowman think the crocodiles should not be hunted, even though they predict that the safaris would be very popular.

"We used to do a bit of hunting buffalo and pig there back 8-10 years ago and you'd have people turn up with their books with pictures of shooting polar bears, you know, and elephants,? Harry Bowman says. ?I just couldn't understand why people want to kill those animals and we're a bit like that with crocodiles but people want to do that so there you go."

Morgan Bowman flat out opposes the hunts. "I mean it doesn't take a lot of skill to shoot a crocodile,? he says. ?At low tide here they'll sit on the banks and you can go with three or four feet of them. ? I think they've got a right to live here as much as anything else and why should they be shot?"

The final decision rests with Australia's federal government. It is weighing the concerns of environmental groups and those who favor the partial resumption of crocodile hunting.