Image: Crocodile.
Greg Wood  /  AFP - Getty Images file
A mature saltwater crocodile is seen in this July 21, 2003, photograph being enticed with meat, in the murky waters of the Adelaide River, near Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia.
updated 10/6/2005 9:06:22 AM ET 2005-10-06T13:06:22

The government on Thursday rejected a plan to allow trophy hunting of saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia despite two recent fatal attacks on divers.

Croc numbers have exploded in Australia since a 1971 federal ban on hunting the creatures.

Some northern Australians have called for a lifting of the ban after two men were killed by crocs in a span of five days last month while snorkeling in Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory government proposed allowing trophy hunters to annually shoot 25 crocodiles longer than 13 feet as a means of controlling their numbers and earning income for Aborigines, who own much of the giant reptiles' habitat in the sparsely populated northern province.

The proposal was backed by international croc experts but opposed by animal welfare organizations who regarded it as cruel.

Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell announced Thursday he had ruled out allowing trophy hunting.

"I do not believe safari hunting of crocodiles is consistent with a modern day approach to animal welfare and responsible management," he said in a statement.

Campbell said it would have been difficult to achieve humane recreational hunting.

"The problem is, if you've got an amateur shooter traveling from overseas to Australia shooting a crocodile from 50 yards, they're very hard to shoot in a humane way where you can guarantee a kill with a first shot," he told Nine Network television.

'Crocs controlling crocs'
Crocodile expert Grahame Webb dismissed the cruelty argument as a fabrication, saying crocodiles that aren't killed or captured by humans were eventually torn apart by other crocodiles in the wild.

”It's crocs controlling crocs out there," said Webb, a Northern Territory-based zoologist.

"Catch 10 big crocs and seven or eight of them will have had a leg ripped off or significant chunks ripped out of the tail, or head or snout," he said.

Webb is chairman of the Crocodile Specialist Group -- a 350-member global network involved in croc conservation and management -- which backed the trophy hunting proposal.

The population of crocodiles in Northern Territory has soared to about 60,000 since they became protected. Years of hunting had reduced their numbers to about 5,000.

Crocodiles, which can grow up to 23 feet long, lurk in rivers and in the sea throughout Australia's tropical north and regularly attack and sometimes kill swimmers

The government will continue to allow 600 crocs a year to be trapped and shot by professionals for farming, skin and meat or because they threaten humans.

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