How a narrowly avoided crocodile attack gave rise to a multi-million-dollar farming industry
George Pawlowski says he enjoyed life on his parents’ crocodile farm. (Supplied: George Pawlowski)
Fifty years ago, two dirt-poor Polish immigrants incidentally set in motion an industry that would go on to supply the world’s high-end fashion houses with luxury goods.
Ron and Krystyna Pawlowski had separately fled conflict in Poland before they met in Australia; they drove across the Nullabor and eventually wound up in Karumba in Queensland’s Gulf Country in 1955.
The family — Ron, Krystyna and their three children — lived in sparsity, initially knocking up a humpty using second-hand material from a meatworks. Often they went without electricity.
Their son, George, recalls these days as some of the best of his life — but they were almost marred by tragedy.
George’s sister was playing on the beach one day when he spotted a lurking crocodile moving slowly in her direction.
He grabbed the family gun, aimed and pulled the trigger.
Krys Pawlowski and her husband were known for their croc-hunting prowess. (Supplied: George Pawlowski)
“When we shot that croc, it was hard to make a living,” George recalled.
“So we found out how to skin it from and old bloke and we got 10 quid.”
In Mr Pawlowski’s enterprising mind, a solution to the family’s poverty had presented itself.
In the years that followed, Ron and Krystyna would hatch a legacy that would go down in history.
Trial and error
Accounts of the pair’s escapades paint a picture of a legendary duo of crocodile hunters who ventured deep into inhospitable terrain.
Krys is described as a talented hunter who would later lay claim to having shot the largest crocodile on record.
Ron was a self-taught photographer and documentary maker who kept his camera handy.
As their knowledge of the ancient predators grew, so too did their interest in conserving them.
“He really became like a researcher and biologist,” George said.
“He’s got photos of crocodiles hatching out of their eggs and growing.”
Then, in 1966, he decided to farm them — it was no easy task.
As Ron’s knowledge of crocs grew, so too did his interest in conservation. (Supplied: George Pawlowski)
What to feed the creatures, how to keep them in captivity and how to grow them: all were questions answered through trial and error.
But George describes his parents as tough, pioneering people.
The children, meanwhile, earned their keep by hand-digging the croc pools and helping out around the farm.
“We used to catch some of them, even up to a metre-and-a-quarter long, by hand,” George said.
From the swamp to the runway
Professor Grahame Webb, a world-leading researcher and the founder of joint tourism-farming venture Crocodylus Park, said the learning curve remained steep.
“When you have to farm animals, you have to bring them in together, and with our species of crocodiles, in the wild, they’re pretty sensitive about being together,” he said.
“The salties are like a bunch of ballerinas all competing with each other about who’s going to get out on stage first.”
“It’s really seriously challenging.”
Since the Pawkowskis’ farm closed following a drawn-out battle with the Queensland government, the majority of crocodile farming activity has moved over the NT border.
The practice didn’t start in the Territory until a group of businessmen started a farm in Noonamah in 1979, and the industry grew as the species recovered.
Today, the NT is a global leader in the field and has a reputation for providing high-quality skins to the world’s most luxurious fashion houses.
Its contribution to the NT economy in 2014-15 was more than $50 million, according to a report by Ernst and Young.
It is also fascinating to realise that what ends in high-end fashion houses begins in the Territory’s unglamorous, humid swamps.
From there, it also involves one of the most dangerous jobs in the world — crocodile egg collecting.
The farm started after the family narrowly avoided a croc attack. (Supplied: George Pawlowski)
“It is very dangerous work and you’re always aware of the capabilities of the animal you’re working with,” collector Brodie Moloney said.
In the wet season he spends long days suspended in a cage by a helicopter, scouring wetlands for lucrative eggs, occasionally putting himself in harm’s way
“But they’re amazing animals to work with. Good job satisfaction comes with it.”
‘It’s a complex problem’
George says what started on the family’s farm in Karumba in 1966 can be credited with laying the foundations of the industry.
Ask him about his parents’ greatest legacy, though, and he will tell you they led the charge for the protection of crocodiles in the wild.
The conservation of crocodiles continues to be a delicate balancing act, according to Professor Webb.
“The trouble with a predator is if conservation works and numbers increase, then they start eating people and everyone wants to get rid of them,” he said.
To offset any intolerance towards crocs, the NT’s management programs use incentive-driven conservation, meaning money from farming flows back to landowners and stakeholders, including Indigenous people.
“Most people in the north perceive crocodiles as being of value to the north,” Professor Webb said.
“They might not be making money out of them, but they know other people are.”
In government documents, the annual collection of 120,000 eggs from the wild is thought of as “displaced mortality”: more hatchlings survive in the long run if fewer are competing to make it to nearby water bodies.
Most would die anyway.
People are often surprised to learn that the collection of so many eggs makes no difference to the overall population, Professor Webb said.
Incubated eggs need to be kept at precise temperatures in high humidity. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“We cannot detect a difference between rivers that are harvested annually and rivers that are not harvested — totally sustainable,” he said.
It’s a complex formula, and one that fascinates researchers like Professor Webb to this day.
“Anyone can get involved in conserving some little koala or quoll … but once you break that barrier of these animals eat you, then you’ve got all the human variables to deal with,” he said.
“It becomes a more complex problem, and I like that.”