Inside the Rugged Lives of Crocodile Hunters

A photographer explores the complex issues around crocodile conservation and hunting in Australia.

A saltwater crocodile head, hunted in the Northern Territory of Australia.

“It’s insanely dangerous,” says Trevor Frost, a photographer and National Geographic grantee. “It’s hard to focus on taking pictures and at the same time make sure that your hands and arms aren’t going to get bitten off.”

Frost has spent the last three years documenting saltwater crocodile hunting in northern Australia, where the gigantic animals have made a comeback from near-extinction in 1971 to as many as 100,000 today in the Northern Territory alone.

Roger Matthews (left) and Aaron Rodwell stand next to a 15 foot, approximately 1500 pound, male saltwater crocodile that they legally caught and killed in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Rampant hunting from the 1940s to late 1960s drove saltwater crocodiles to near extinction in Northern Australia.
Saltwater crocodiles are both the largest and the most aggressive crocodile on the planet, as a result they are also extremely territorial.
Hunters searching for crocodiles at night.
Roger Matthews (left) and Aaron Rodwell hunt crocodiles using harpoons from small boats.
Rodwell (left) and Roger Matthews skin a crocodile that was caught the night before.
Aaron Rodwell touches the head of the 15 foot crocodile he caught with fellow hunter Roger Matthews in the Mikjin Valley area.
After a saltwater crocodile is caught and killed in the wild it must be skinned and the skin must be salted immediately to preserve it until it can be put in a chiller or chill room.
A severed saltwater crocodile head.
Crocodile skins being dried and preserved.
Roger Matthews (foreground) and Aaron Rodwell carry out the skin from the large saltwater crocodile they caught in the Mikjin Valley area of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.
Two aboriginal people inspect the head of large saltwater crocodile that was killed on the land of their father.
Aaron Rodwell (right) and a young aboriginal man use a shovel to carry the head of a 15 foot saltwater crocodile that was killed on a billabong in the Mikjin Valley area of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.
Roger Matthews (center) sits on a sandy beach next to a billabong with an Aboriginal family and talks to them about crocodiles.
A typical coastline in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Joe Wilson, pictured here, owns a small family operated crocodile farm in Elizabeth valley, just outside Darwin, Australia.
Joe Wilson, owner of a small family operated crocodile farm, hangs 200 feet in the air by a steel cable attached to a helicopter.
Saltwater crocodile eggs neatly packed into a cooler, ready for transport by helicopter to a nearby crocodile farm where they will be incubated until baby crocodiles hatch from the eggs.
Saltwater crocodiles build nests in which they lay their eggs, usually 40-50 eggs. The eggs incubate in the nests for anywhere from 80 to 110 days.
A typical view in the remote bush of the Northern Territory of Australia.
A female saltwater crocodile seen from above.
Tanned skins of saltwater crocodiles.
Two tourists inside of an acrylic cylinder called the "cage of death" are lowered into the water while a 18 foot, 2000 pound, saltwater crocodile is fed chicken from a stick and string.
Crocodile hunter and expert taxidermit, Mick Pitman, in his workshop outside Darwin, Australia.
These small saltwater crocodile skulls are from a local crocodile farm in Darwin, Australia.
Aaron Rodwell, one of the crocodile hunters, loves reptiles. He keeps reptiles at home, including crocodiles, rescues snakes from the road–even highly venmous ones, and cares for other injured reptiles, like turtles hit by cars.
A fairly large, approximately 14 foot, male saltwater crocodile conceals himself amongst the rushes of the Mary River in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Tap images for captions

Crocodiles numbers have bounced back so much that some people started worrying about their safety, and called for widespread culls of the animals.

To ease concern, the Northern Territory decided to allow a limited number to be hunted each year. The hunt gives people a way to make money from the crocodiles, creating an incentive to keep them around. The tanned skin of a 14-footer can be worth up to $10,000, Frost says. And a skull can sell for as much as $3,000.

This concept, sometimes referred to as “if it pays, it stays” conservation, has been tried around the world in many other contexts. In a lot of cases, it fails—resulting in poaching of the protected animal. But Frost’s years of on-the-ground reporting have convinced him that in Australia, when it comes to saltwater crocodiles at least, the approach works.

A saltwater crocodile surfaces in Northern Australia.

The hunter must have a permit to kill a crocodile, and it specifies what size he’s allowed to take. He must film the catch and slaughter and present the video to the authorities, Frost says, so that they can verify it was killed according to humane standards.

He tells the story of one the most momentous—and emotional—hunts he went on. An aboriginal landowner whose wife was nearly attacked by a giant crocodile on their land called in two hunters that Frost had been shadowing. The hunters and Frost set out at night in a 14-foot aluminum boat, looking for the croc. One person manned the motor; the other stood on the bow swinging a spotlight back and forth looking for the crocodile’s eye shine.

They found him. Based on the distance between the eyes, they knew he was massive. Keeping the light in the croc’s eyes so it couldn’t see, the hunters pulled the boat up close. They shot a harpoon into the back of its neck. Then the fight began.

“The harpooner takes hold of the reel and plays it out like a fish,” Frost says. “It’s very much a dance.”

Gunther Trnka, a real estate agent in Darwin, Australia, keeps a 12 foot male saltwater crocodile named Jaws in his backyard.

This massive croc was so strong that it ran all the slack out of the reel and began pulling the boat. “We were being dragged pretty quickly,” Frost says. After two hours, it finally started to tire. It would come to the surface, hiss, and then dip back under.

Finally, the boat was able to get close enough to lasso its jaws, which would need to be duct-taped shut before the hunters could shoot it dead.

All of a sudden, the crocodile bit the side of the boat and began thrashing. The boat was in danger of tipping over. One hunter yelled at them to sit down. “I got two cameras around my neck and I just drop to the bottom of the boat,” Frost says.

Eventually, the croc tired. They were able to lasso it. Using a revolver, one of the hunters shot it in the brain stem, causing immediate death. It was 2 a.m. when they got back to shore.

When they measured the crocodile, it came in at nearly 16 feet long.

Frost didn’t grow up around guns or hunting and doesn’t consider himself a hunter. I asked him if it was hard watching an animal fight so hard for its life and ultimately lose.

Roger Matthews holds the heads of two saltwater crocodiles he caught in the Mikjin Valley area of Arnhem Land.

“It’s definitely emotional. More emotional than anything was that it was an 80-year-old animal,” he says. “It was as old as my grandmother. It had been through the second World War, probably the Great Depression. It had seen so much.”

Frost’s work was funded by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council.

 

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