Taking a bite out of Queensland’s new croc egg-harvesting law

In December last year, the Nature Conservation Act was amended to allow the harvesting of crocodile eggs. Now, some scientists have slammed the decision as unscientific, opaque and lacking in details. But will the decision really impact croc populations?
By Angela Heathcote January 31, 2019 Reading Time: 6 Minutes Print this page

“I THINK PEOPLE are more mad about the fact that this law was kind of pushed through under the radar, and I think that was the intention, but clearly that hasn’t worked and everyone knows about it now. It’s worldwide news,” says Dan Rumsey, the Head of Reptiles at the Australian Reptile Park, joining a chorus of reptile lovers, scientists, politicians and herpetologists weighing in on the new laws officially introduced by the Queensland Government in December last year.

The Wildlife Trade Management Plan was amended to allow farmers to obtain licenses to harvest crocodile eggs from wild nests, up to 5000 eggs statewide each year, and then hatch the animals for their skins and meat. The new legislation has vocal opponents and supporters. Crocodile physiologist Craig Franklin, the Deputy Head at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland argues that the science doesn’t stack up, calling the changes “opaque, with important details lacking”.

Craig is requesting that the Queensland Government present more recent scientific data and evidence concerning crocodile populations to backup their decision. “Without understanding decadal population trends it is not possible to determine if egg collection will have an impact.”

In a statement to Australian Geographic, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science said the new changes will present new economic opportunities for traditional owners. They added that it will now be easier for crocodile farms to acquire eggs and increase production, rather than making trips to the Northern Territory, where egg harvesting of up to 100,000 eggs per year has been legal since the 1980s.

“There has been a successful crocodile egg-harvesting industry in the Northern Territory for decades. Research over the past eight years has shown crocodile egg harvesting can also be sustainable in Queensland because, in some regions, a large number of crocodile eggs are lost to monsoonal flooding anyway,” the Department said.

Are croc populations rising?

A bill to allow egg harvesting and culling measures was first introduced by Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) last year after a spate of fatal attacks in 2017. Amid claims crocodile populations in the state were out of control, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science began a three-year survey of crocodile populations, from which initial results suggested crocodile numbers had not exploded. Despite this, key members of the KAP stated they were “unconvinced” by the report.

Craig takes particular issue with aspects of the management plan that puts the responsibility of monitoring crocodile populations in the hands of farmers and private businesses. “The question is, how is this possible given there has been a lack of systematic, rigorous and comprehensive monitoring of crocodile populations in Queensland over the past decade?” he says. “We do not have the baseline data in which to make this assessment.”

To support the changes to the Nature Conservation Act, the Queensland Government referenced the review conducted by Dr Laurence Taplin of James Cook University, which was reviewed by the Crocodile Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Eight years of research was conducted to assess any potential impact crocodile egg harvesting may have on populations in the Pormpuraaw region,” the Department said.

Laurence, an expert in crocodile physiology and management, has worked with crocs since 1978, in both an academic and government capacity.

Australian Geographic spoke with Dr Taplin, who said that the Pormpuraaw review “didn’t extend much beyond Pormpuraaw”, thus being narrow in its scope. He added that, beyond the recommendations in his review, he was not consulted about the final policy outcome. However, he said he was not concerned about the policy, as properly managed it is unlikely to have a significant impact on crocodile populations.

According to Craig, it will take another five to seven years before scientists will have a comprehensive understanding of current population trends. “Only a fraction of the river systems in Queensland are being monitored,” he says. Craig also says that we have “virtually no understanding” of how many crocodiles will make it from hatchlings to adults, “which is relevant given egg harvesting will affect recruitment”.

For Craig, a key question for the Queensland Government is whether it will allow egg harvesting in river systems where there are no population survey data. “If they do then the chief executive will be unable to determine if egg harvesting is having an impact… We don’t have the science to support a croc egg-harvesting plan.”

The Taplin review recommends direct Department oversight of population surveys, as well as training to ensure proper standards and GPS record keeping for independent review.

In response to questions about the responsibility of crocodile population surveys, the Department said to obtain a permit Queenslanders will have to engage a “suitably qualified person” to analyse crocodile distribution and abundance, numbers of adult estuarine crocodiles, nesting activity and the estimated number of nests in the system to prove that their harvesting activities will not impact on local crocodile populations. The timeframe over which these tests should take, however, was not specified.

The impact of hunting on Queensland populations

The unregulated hunting of crocodiles for their skin after World War II almost resulted in the animals commercial extinction, leading to the animals’ full legal protection by the 1970s. The Queensland Government’s population survey makes note of this decline, stating that while populations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory have recovered, populations in Queensland have had a “modest and patchy recovery” in comparison.

Given these significant differences, Craig says any comparison between Queensland populations and those of the Northern Territory to support the argument for egg harvesting – of which there have been many – are meaningless.

Working extensively with the Department over many years, including their most recent surveys, Laurence says the suggestion that crocodile populations haven’t recovered since the 1970s is “by and large wrong”.

“The idea that large numbers of Queensland rivers once upon a time supported many thousands of crocodiles at densities comparable to the Northern Territory is simply wrong,” he says. “I’ve not come across any evidence to support that. Many of the river systems are characterised by relatively low densities of crocodiles.”

How will egg harvesting impact crocodile populations?

Without the necessary scientific data, Craig says it’s impossible to know what the impact on crocodile populations will be, adding that it could have downstream effects on the ecosystem.

This view was echoed by Terri Irwin last week, who said the State Government is “destroying the future generations of an apex predator”. A petition was circulated by Australia Zoo requesting that the Government reverse the decision to allow the harvesting of eggs, and also asked that “necessary scientific research on crocodile populations” be completed.

The Queensland Government, however, is satisfied that the data from the Taplin review proves crocodile egg harvesting can be sustainable.  

While Laurence accepts that the review itself is narrow, he doesn’t believe waiting another 10 years is a sufficient way to actively manage crocodiles. “The argument that we need more data could go on for a hundred years.

“Even if we were to wait for another 10 years of data, I’d be confident that some people will just say ‘well, okay we need another 10 years of data because things have changed so much that we can’t rely on that data anymore.

“Saying we shouldn’t do anything until we have complete knowledge is not very practical and not something we would demand in many other spheres of endeavour. It’s just one example of making a decision on partial knowledge.

“Properly managed, I see no reason to have concerns.” Laurence says that while he has long had concerns about aspects of crocodile conservation in Queensland, egg harvesting is “not one that he would lose sleep over.”

Laurence also says that the economics of egg harvesting in Queensland, that is, the costs associated with egg harvesting in highly dispersed areas with low densities of crocodile nests, is unlikely to lend itself to harvesting at levels harmful to croc populations.  

A heated debate

Since Bob Katter’s claim that a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile every three months in north Queensland, which was found to be incorrect, the issue has received overwhelming  media attention, which peaked following the new changes to the management plan.

Dan, a crocodile lover watching the debate play out from the sidelines because he lives in New South Wales, says there’s seemingly little room for middle ground. “We’re going to have these two sides to the argument and absolutely no one in the middle,” he says, “I’m obviously more on the side of crocodiles. Once you start putting dollar signs on animals it brings out the worst in people. However, in saying that, I understand there are genuine safety concerns.”

Dan believes that the one thing missing from the debate is the importance of education. “Culling, or anything like it, is never the answer, it’s about education. If we stop taking unnecessary risks, the number of crocodile attacks will drop.” Craig agrees, adding that education about how to live with crocodiles would be of great value.