One of the reasons I enjoyed my expedition to Darwin, is that it gives you a first-hand look at a conservation success story. A number of crocodilians have achieved quite marked recoveries in numbers since the 1970s. One of those successes has been saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles in Northern Australia. Least we think that this is peculiar to rich, developed countries like Australia, it should be pointed out that Papua New Guinea has had similar success.

Saltwater Crocodile- Crocodylus Park

So, what were some of the drivers behind the success here?

First, it had a lot to do with crocodile conservationists recognising that they were faced with a moving target. The problems facing crocodiles would always be changing. They’d also be changing in ways that would be near impossible to predict. So the ideal was to have a fast-adapting management system. The flip was to avoid locking-in the same strategy. There seems to be a view by many conservationists that to protect wildlife, you devise the appropriate strategy and lock-it in. Whatever happens, you keep using that same strategy. This is the logic that almost brought about the extinction of the Californian Condor.

So, rather than sticking to the same strategy that worked when crocodiles were rare (protection, no-trade), the goal was to move to a new strategy that would work with growing abundance. That meant considering sustainable-use.

The second factor is allied to the first. This is the concept that conservation is a discovery process. It’s not a prescriptive process whereby you set out and plan what you will do before acting. It’s a process where you try to learn the best way to do things as you do it- you test boundaries, see what happens if something changes etc. For example, the first egg harvests were very simple. Collect all the eggs you could find along a river and see what happens. There’s no elaborate planning and estimation of maximum-sustainable-yields (partly because the reproductive biology of crocodiles was not well understood anyway).

Hence, there was a certain boldness and willing to try out new ideas that influenced the management. There was no timid, don’t make a move before we understand everything. This is the sort of thinking that can generate lock-ins of suboptimal strategies.

The third (and final point for this post) is the absence of NGO involvement. These harvest programmes started in the 70s and early 80s. We got lucky on the timing side. Now this may seem a surprising point, but NGOs have grown in number, size and influence throughout the late 80s and 1990s. And a lot of them don’t manifest a lot of enthusiasm for sustainable-use. At the moment, we can’t get the Australian Federal Government to agree to safari hunting of 25 crocodiles a year in the Northern Territory. The reason lies with NGO opposition, despite this having conservation effects that will be discernible. If we can’t get 25 large, nuisance crocs shot by safari hunters, the concept we could harvest thousands of eggs for commercial gain is really not going to fly. Essentially, crocodile conservation in the NT got lucky by sneaking sustainable-use in, before NGOs really started intensive lobbying.