Issue 7
Monday, 22 May 2017
Charles Darwin University
Dr Adam Britton: searching for answers to a deadly problem. Photo: Julianne Osborne
Dr Adam Britton: searching for answers to a deadly problem. Photo: Julianne Osborne

Combating the croc menace in Timor-Leste

By Andrew Hall

Charles Darwin University Senior Research Associate Dr Adam Britton is trying to find better ways to prevent people in Timor-Leste falling prey to crocodiles.

In a paper recently published in the CSIRO’s Marine and Freshwater Research Journal Dr Britton and co-authors Brandon Sideleau and Professor Karen Edyvane – using the CDU-sponsored CrocBITE database – revealed that of 45 human-crocodile conflict (HCC) incidents that occurred between 2007 and 2014 in Timor-Leste more than 82 per cent were fatal.

“The people of Timor-Leste regard the crocodile as a totemic figure in their culture,” Dr Britton said.

“This adds another level of complexity to keeping people safe in a society that relies on rivers and coastal areas in a subsistence economy.”

Dr Britton said that estuarine and shallow coastal water usage in Northern Australia was largely recreational so the risks taken by people were calculated, in the same way as people took calculated risks when driving a car.

“But in the places we’re looking at in Timor-Leste many people don’t really have a choice because subsistence fishing is vital to survival,” he said.

“The high fatality rate for reported attacks in Timor-Leste is much greater than that seen in other countries where saltwater crocodiles are present.

“In many coastal communities, individual crocodiles are sighted regularly and generally tolerated, protected and even celebrated. Crocodiles are an integral part of certain Timorese customs and beliefs, and the hazards they pose often underestimated.”

Dr Britton said collecting accurate data on crocodile populations and distributions was an important contributor to finding ways of mitigating HCC incidents and making people aware of the risks in any given area.

“This is where the CrocBITE database is particularly useful, but there is a need for more research into, and mapping of, the extent of crocodile populations in Timor-Leste,” he said.

Saltwater crocodiles were protected in Timor-Leste and, Dr Britton said, it was inevitable that they would come into contact with humans, at times with fatal consequences.

But, he said, with better information and other measures designed to reduce undesirable contact between people and crocodiles – such as those seen in the Northern Territory – the death toll could be reduced.