AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We end this hour with one more story about the management of fierce creatures. In the Australian city of Darwin, the saltwater crocodile is equally dreaded and beloved. Darwin is the capital of the tropical Northern Territory, and it's named for the English naturalist Charles Darwin. Appropriate, since this massive and deadly crocodile is the triumph of evolutionary resilience. NPR's John Burnett sent this audio postcard from what's known as Australian's Top End.
NIGEL: And good morning all. Welcome to Crocosaurus Cove. My name is Nigel. We're going to be feeding a couple of these big guys.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A croc attendant dangles a piece of lamb on the end of a stick before the snout of a 17-foot, 1,700-pound male that lounges lethally in a pool at a popular Darwin crocodile park. He strikes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
BURNETT: In the last century, Crocodylus porosus - the world's largest reptile - was hunted to near extinction. Then in 1974, the Australian salty - as it's affectionately called - became a federally protected species. Today, its population has rebounded to near precolonial numbers. An estimated 100,000 of the creatures thrive in the sluggish estuaries and billabongs of the Northern Territory.
TOM NICHOLS: My name is Tom Nichols. I'm a wildlife ranger with Parks and Wildlife. And our main thing we do now is just full-time crocodile management in the Top End.
BURNETT: The croc rangers of the Northern Territory capture about 250 to 300 saltys a year. They nab them in floating traps in Darwin Harbor, and they wrestle them out of populated areas. Then the rangers zip-tie and duct-tape their jaws and sell them to croc farms. The job has its occupational hazards. An irate salty took a bite out of Nichols' left hand nine years ago. They sewed him up, and he went back to work.
NICHOLS: We are finding crocs in areas we never found them before, such as right in the town of Darwin itself. We find them in swimming pools and in backyards. We have a 24-hour callout number, and we're forever getting calls at this time of the year during the wet season.
BURNETT: That's the season when saltwater crocodiles like to move into freshwater. The question around the Top End is whether the beasts have come back too strong.
DWYN DELANEY: They're everywhere. I mean, you fall in the drink, in rivers, and you're - you want to get out of there real quick.
BURNETT: Dwyn Delaney is an outdoorsman and gun fancier who owns a western wear store in Darwin, which is full of dead animal heads. He and others believe it's time to start culling saltys to reduce their numbers.
DELANEY: So whether they get some sharpshooters - I mean, you know...
BURNETT: Would you volunteer?
DELANEY: Of course, I've got, you know, I am armed to the teeth here.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURNETT: There have been five confirmed fatal croc attacks since 2005 in the Top End and two unconfirmed deaths in which bodies were never found. The last confirmed case was in April 2010: An 11-year-old girl was swimming in Lambells Lagoon when she was, in local parlance, taken by a crocodile. That was the last straw. Alarmed wildlife managers instituted a territory-wide safety and awareness program called Crocwise.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Crocodiles can be found in any waterway in the Top End and dangerous all year round. So we all have to be Crocwise.
BURNETT: Locals fear the crocodile, they admire it, and they depend on it for their livelihoods. There are a dozen so-called croc cruises where boatloads of tourists can watch a behemoth salty leap out of the water for meat on a stick only a few feet away. Australian crocodile farms exported 52,000 skins in 2010. And crocs sell newspapers.
MATT CUNNINGHAM: As far the N.T. News goes, there's no such thing as too many crocodile stories.
BURNETT: Matt Cunningham, editor of the Northern Territory News, puts a croc photo on the front page several times a week. His newspaper is famous throughout Australia for its carnivorous journalism.
CUNNINGHAM: Crocodiles are amazing beasts. Darwin is one of the few places in the world where man and crocodile live sort of side by side.
BURNETT: Again, would-be croc hunter and media critic Dwyn Delaney.
DELANEY: The only thing that'll get a crocodile off the front page of that paper is a dingo story or a cyclone.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURNETT: Or, adds the editor, the first sting of the season from another deadly aquatic neighbor: the box jellyfish. John Burnett, NPR News, Darwin, Australia.