A perfect half-circle has been scalloped from Tommy Nichols' hand. It has left him with three robotic-looking fingers, and permanent evidence for his belief you can never predict what a crocodile might do.
It remains Nichols' only injury in 33 years of catching these unusual animals in the waters of Darwin harbour in Australia's Northern Territory, and time and missing digits haven't lessened his obsession with the saltwater croc.
At dinner at a waterfront Darwin restaurant (croc steaks are on the menu), the Crocodile Management Team senior ranger regales me with facts and tales about the saltie, their speed, their stealth, their remarkable healing ability, of how little they have evolved since prehistoric times. "I love the water, I love boats, I love getting out, and I like crocs, too," he says. "I don't love 'em, but I like them. They are fascinating."
It's a fascination shared. Just by doing his job - and for so long - Nichols has become an unwitting celebrity, with his boat regularly loaded with camera crews from Japan, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and now Australia itself; from tomorrow, he's the star of his own TV show, The Croc Catchers NT. This, he concedes, has been a surprise. "It does two things: it keeps crocs up there and noticed," he says, "and it is good kudos for the Northern Territory. I was born here, and I think it's something special. So if it promotes it, that's good."
Does he mind talking about his missing fingers? "I'll even show you a photo," he says, leading me to a pinboard in the untidy staffroom at the ranger base which charts their triumphs. Among the news clippings is a picture of Nichols leaning over the gunwales of a boat, a leaping croc beside him with, yes, his hand in its jaws. "That's the last photo taken, when my two fingers were stuck in his jaw and my wrist was twisted right around." The trouble was the croc didn't just bite, but twisted, ripping the fingers away from the hand. A croc's jaw is thought to have the greatest bite force of any animal, making it an inescapable grip.
Fortunately, they say, the crocodiles rarely exploit that strength. Dani Best, one of Nichols' team, says brightly: "As Tommy always says, if crocs used their full potential, we would be in trouble, but luckily they don't. But as you see with Tommy's hand, one day, one croc behaved differently."
Here's how they usually behave: Enticed into a floating five-metre steel and aluminium trap by a hunk of feral pig, the crocs are taken captive on a patrol boat by a ranger annoying them sufficiently with a stick that they open their mouths wide. Then a "snout rope" is slipped behind their two front teeth and their jaw zip-tied and duct-taped closed. Hessian is placed over their eyes to calm them and their legs and tail are also taped to stop them thrashing around.
So here I am to see this theory in practice. In the pre-dawn silence at the Tipperary St boat ramp, it's chilly, and it gets even colder once the boat begins racing across the harbour's flat water. No sign of the sun yet; not for another hour will a red mushroom appear on the horizon and the day begin to climb towards its eventual 35-degree zenith.
In two boats, Porosus and Danggalasa (crocodile in Latin and the local Aboriginal language), we're on their regular circuit of nine traps. By trap four, at Berry's Creek, we're beginning to worry. Then success; a trap gate is down. Best leaps out and finds this one is a bit of a battler. "Every croc is different," she says, wrestling, "some will go up and down and make you look silly, some will open up [their mouths] right away and make you look professional."
Eventually, the croc's subdued. I pick him up. He's only 1.8 metres long - they've caught animals up to 4.8m in the past - but awkwardly heavy. Because it's the "dry" season - the "wet" is the peak, when they get three emergency call-outs a day - he's our only capture for the day.
At the rangers' base, a dusty yard on the outskirts of town, the crocodiles are tied up in a concrete pen and "scoops" cut from their spine to give them a unique "number" for tracking purposes before they are sold to a crocodile farm. A large male or breeding female attracts up to $380; males under 3m are killed. Some are used for meat, others for their skins, although they are considered second-grade (good for belts) because of their hard, violent lives; first grade (handbags) come from farm- reared crocs.
Traditional landowners also enjoy a $35 per egg bounty from the croc farmers, and this lucrative income has split public opinion on the burgeoning croc population. For the first 16 years, croc catching was a bit part of Nichols' job. It became his full- time gig because in 1964, the NT government afforded crocodiles protected status. Until then, you could - and they did - merrily take potshots at the crocs and numbers declined to 5000. Now Darwin's waters teem with about 100,000.
And the sprawl of the Northern Territory's capital has seen humans come ever closer to the crocodile's domain, the harbour's mangrove-choked creek system. Nichols' six-strong team catch 250 crocodiles a year; he took 76 in his first year. "We're creating a vacuum - we take one out, another comes in, but if we didn't have this programme going, numbers would be extremely high and the number of fatalities would be extremely high," he says.
Some crocs go urban - they've caught them in spas, backyard pools, a couple in suburban pools (let loose by idiots) - but rarely do they leave the water to pursue a human. Crocs eat anything, says Nichols - fish, crabs, turtles, pigs, dogs, flying foxes, even their own juveniles.
He deals with about one human fatality every two years, trying to catch and kill the croc within 24 hours to retrieve the body. "It's still safer than walking down Mitchell St [Darwin's main drag] at 2am," he observes. "[The attention] is human nature. We are dulled to the fact that someone is getting killed and murdered every day of the week, and unless its someone from where you come from, you usually turn the page. But as soon as you see someone killed by a bear or a shark or a crocodile, that's interesting, and it's 'let's go and kill it'."
Nichols' team are laden with welding, automotive, first aid, diving, shooting and sailing qualifications; most importantly, he trusts them: "If someone gets hurt, I have to know you will look after him."
Blond-haired, blue-eyed, week- old-steak-tough Best says the job is a "privilege": "I can't imagine doing anything else."
I'm keen to get closer to a croc and Darwin shares Tommy's obsession. In my three days in town, the Northern Territory News has a croc story in every edition. There are three croc theme parks, the most central being Crocosaurus Cove, inside a cleverly converted Mitchell St car park.
Their star exhibits are 80-year- old Burt, original star of the Crocodile Dundee films, caught in 1981 after attacking cattle and now weighing 700kg and measuring 5.1m; Chopper (5.8m, world's fourth-biggest in captivity); Denzel (5.2m, 670kg); Houdini and Bess (prolific rooters, 32 offspring last year alone); Harry (World Cup results predictor for the aforementioned NT News). I'm given a fishing pole with a scrap of meat and watch one- metre crocs leaping clear of their tank to snatch the steak, then later, hold a baby croc named Fluffy (his jaws restrained with an elastic band) for happy snaps.
Then I climb inside a perspex box (the "cage of death") to be lowered into the chilly waters of Denzel's cage. I bang on the box, whistle, even imitate the squawk of a juvenile croc, but he's not particularly interested in attacking me. But perhaps it's best to leave the close encounters to Tommy.
The Croc Catchers NT premieres on National Geographic, Monday at 8pm.
Steve Kilgallon travelled to Darwin courtesy of National Geographic.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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