Crocodiles released from traps by offenders posing greater risk to community, ranger says
Dawn has barely broken over the calm waters of Darwin Harbour.
But veteran ranger Tom Nichols knows something is amiss as he steers his boat alongside one of the waterway’s 26 crocodile traps.
“See how the rope has been sprung?” he says, pointing to the steel cage floating on the water.
“That means a crocodile has definitely taken the bait and someone has let the bastard out.”
Each year, rangers catch around 300 saltwater crocodiles from the harbour as part of a program designed to reduce the risk of fatal attacks.
But in the past 12 months, a dozen salties have been released by unknown offenders.
“Unfortunately, this does happen. Not very often, but there’s a small minority of people that do do it,” Mr Nichols, who has been with the Parks and Wildlife Service for almost 40 years, says.
While some might consider it a harmless prank, Mr Nichols, who lost two fingers to a crocodile more than a decade ago, says it’s an offence to interfere with the traps.
“It’s not only dangerous for the people who are letting these crocodiles out, but you are creating a problem for other people utilising the waterways,” he said.
A crocodile which has been caught in a trap around Darwin Harbour. (ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)
“And also, it makes it a bit harder to catch those crocs once they’ve been released. So it’s just more work for us.”
Today, he’s checking nine of the traps, and it’s not long before he has to put his croc-catching skills to the test.
A 2.8 metre reptile is sloshing about inside the cage as Mr Nichols hops from his boat onto the trap.
“We put the snout rope over his top jaw, where he has two teeth which protrude over the bottom jaw,” he explains.
“From there we can lift his head, depending on size, through the top gate, put a zip tie on it, then duct-tape it.
“And we will also cover his eyes to stop it from stressing out.”
NT Problem Crocodile Management wildlife officer Tom Nichols shows where a crocodile maimed his hand. (ABC News: James Purtill)
One croc out, another comes in
Mr Nichols is soon pulling the reptile onto the deck with a rope and taping its rear legs behind its back, like a police officer would to a criminal.
“All we are doing is really creating a vacuum,” he says.
“What we take out of Darwin Harbour, another one will come back in, whether it’s next week or next month.
“The thing is, if this program wasn’t going, the chances of a fatality would be quite high due to the amount of crocodiles that are entering Darwin Harbour.”
After two more hours on the water, the ranger has collected three crocodiles, which are now safely taped up and piled onto his boat.
“Last year was the record,” he says. “We broke the record, we got 352 [crocs].
“As of this year, we are just over 300, and we’ll see what happens from there.
“The biggest one was 4.7 [metres] and he did have a bit missing off his tail, so that was a good-sized croc.”
Mr Nichols remains as committed as ever to raising awareness about the dangers posed by crocodiles.
“The thing is I’ve always been fascinated by crocodiles,” he says.
“And I do like catching them, and I also like spreading the word.”
While you’re here… are you feeling curious?