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Crocodile Hunter's academic sidekick is keeping the dream alive

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In the creeks and rivers of far north Australia, where crocs still rule, one man continues the legacy of Steve Irwin in a mission to tell the world we neglect these animals at our peril.

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The all-khaki workwear and all-Austrayan drawl are missing, but by crikey, Professor Craig Franklin is the real deal when it comes to sharing the personal space of tropical north Queensland’s most feared predators.

A distinctly ‘hands-on’ academic, this researcher from the University of Queensland shares a special bond with the crocodiles of Australia’s far north, and the late global superstar who is being honoured with his own international tribute today.

As the world marks International Steve Irwin Day, in honour of the bloke who turned nature documentaries into high-adrenaline television and built a global brand as the ‘crocodile hunter’, his good mate and collaborator will be no doubt recalling the years they spent uncovering the secret lives of crocodiles and revealing them to a captive worldwide audience.

And while Irwin would get the accolades and fame for the decidedly rare skill of being able to leap into murky rivers onto the backs of crocs, wrestling them into position for the camera while exclaiming “Crikey, she’s a little beauty!” all in the same breath, it was his quietly-spoken crocodile expert and scientific mentor responsible for the preparation of the money shot and the ongoing technical advice.

Fifteen years after Irwin’s death (due to a sting-ray, not a crocodile), in many respects it’s the role Franklin continues to play, remaining connected to the research work and the Irwin family’s efforts to keep the focus on crocodile preservation.

Franklin working with Steve Irwin (left) on tagging and releasing crocodiles for research in Lakefield National Park near Cooktown in 2006.

As creatures of never-ending fascination, crocodiles are understandably good for business, but as Franklin sees it, they are also a critical barometer for the planet’s health, the quintessential canary in the coalmine, whose decline will sound the alarm should the planet’s vital signs begin to fail.

A zoologist by training, Franklin’s speciality is observing how animals respond, both physically and behaviourally, to changing environmental conditions.

Of the 24 species of crocodile across the globe, half are vulnerable to extinction and seven are listed as critically endangered.

Australia has two species – the freshwater and the saltwater crocodile – the latter of which is the world’s largest.

“In Queensland they are still classified as a vulnerable species, because up until the 60s they were hunted to the point of extinction,” Franklin said.

“Even with the moratorium on hunting that was signed in the 70s, we’re still dealing with the legacy of that.

“Now we’re facing new pressures, particularly how climate warming will change crocodile behaviour.”

As Franklin explains, crocodiles, as opposed to humans, stay in the water to regulate their temperature, not necessarily to cool off.

If temperatures rise, it may see more crocodiles, which have shown extraordinary abilities over some 70 million years to adapt to changing climates, to seek more time on land to find their food.

If urban development pushes into traditional crocodile territories, the interaction could be disastrous for both crocodiles and people alike.

“They have the most incredible and resilient underlying physiology, with the most complicated heart and circulatory system in the animal kingdom, that they’ve shown a remarkable ability to be able to move from one climate system to the next over millennia,” Franklin said.

“I guess that’s why I love them so much.”

But Franklin is also looking at whether crocodiles may look to submerge deeper and for longer in water that is cooler, which will in turn change feeding patterns, disrupting finely balanced ecologies, of which the outcomes are still unknown.

His research has proved, however, that controlling crocodile numbers through violent means, which is illegal in Queensland, will not make humans safer.

“In the river environments, crocodiles are the apex predator,” he explained to InQueensland.

“The big alpha males dominate their sections of the river and generally keep to their allotments the same way people divide up real estate.

“In these sections they have their food source and their breeding females established. It’s the roving males moving between these territories that cause the most problems because they are competing for territory, food and females.

“Hunting only exacerbates this disruption, which means the more roving males you have increases the chances of attacks on humans.

“But I’ve worked with crocodiles for years and I’ve never come close to being taken by a crocodile.

“If you follow really sensible guidelines you should only ever have to respect them, not fear them.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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