As I stood underneath the tree in Australia’s Northern Territory, I thought about what the saltwater crocodile hanging from it had lived through. Born some 50 years ago, the reptile had grown from a two-and-a-half-ounce hatchling into a 15-foot-long colossus weighing 1,000 pounds. It hatched toward the end of a 25-year period of intensive commercial hunting that had pushed the species to the brink of extinction. It was the perfect predator, and I feared that I was somehow celebrating its death.
I made this photograph to commemorate an epic hunt and the men who took part in it. Some might assume that because they took its life, the men standing beside the crocodile have no respect for the animal. But I’ve learned that it’s possible for hunters to love the creatures that they kill—and to be part of a solution that saves a species. This is the complex situation I wanted to explore when I documented crocodile hunting for National Geographic.
In 1971 saltwater crocodiles became protected in the Northern Territory. As part of the government’s strategy of “incentive-driven conservation,” a set amount of eggs may be collected from the wild, with the hatchlings eventually being farmed for their skin; and a limited number of crocodiles, including those that have threatened humans, may be hunted each year. Even with that regulated harvesting, the wild saltwater crocodile population in the Northern Territory has grown from about 5,000 in the late 1960s to approximately 100,000 today, a number scientists say is close to what it once was. To put this into perspective: Fifty years ago, at the height of commercial hunting, people would swim in the region’s rivers and lagoons; now no one dares.
I made eight trips over four years to the Northern Territory, spending months with the professional crocodile hunters in this photograph: Roger Matthews on the left and Aaron Rodwell on the right. In that time I learned several things. Both men love crocodiles dearly; killing crocodiles is not something they celebrate, though they admitted to feeling a thrill in the moment; and the danger to the hunter is roughly equivalent to the danger faced by the animal. Hunters need to get close to a crocodile to kill it because shooting it from a distance won’t work. Unless the shot is perfect—a centimeter or so behind the ear, straight to the brain—the crocodile will be able to retreat underwater, where it will bleed to death, a fate that horrifies most hunters I know. So hunters risk their lives to prevent it. But that doesn’t mean that death comes quickly.
This animal was a “problem crocodile,” in official parlance. It had almost taken a woman in Arnhem Land—Aboriginal land—while she was collecting file snakes along the bank of a lagoon. Her husband, Samuel Nayinggul, requested that the animal be removed, and Aaron obtained an emergency permit from wildlife officials.
The hunt began just before sunset and lasted until around three in the morning. Roger steered his small aluminum boat through the lagoon while Aaron shone a powerful halogen spotlight on the water’s surface. Samuel served as guide. I was in the back of the boat. Four hours into the search they finally spotted the crocodile. Aaron struck it with a homemade harpoon attached to a spool of venetian blind cord, but the crocodile dislodged the hook and disappeared underwater. Another hour passed.
Then Roger said to me, “Sit down now.” Aaron moved to the boat’s prow and stood there with the spotlight in one hand and in the other his makeshift weapon, which was designed to hook the animal, not kill it. Aaron focused the spotlight on the crocodile while Roger inched the boat forward. When we were within two or three feet, Aaron thrust the harpoon into its neck. That made the crocodile mad as hell. In an instant the boat spun sideways, knocking Aaron off his feet and onto the floor of the boat.
What happened next was straight out of Hollywood: The crocodile began pulling the boat—not rapidly or violently but just enough to demonstrate how strong it was. That crocodile pulled us around the lagoon for more than two hours. When it finally resurfaced, it was clearly exhausted. Roger grabbed a snout rope, which he tried to loop over the crocodile’s upper jaw to subdue it.
Again, the crocodile had other plans. It launched itself at the boat and bit the side, thrashing our 17-foot vessel from side to side like a dog with a toy. Luckily, it didn’t crush the boat or dump us in the water. After a long struggle to get the snout rope on, Roger and Aaron managed to pull the crocodile’s head up onto the side of the boat. Roger then wrapped duct tape around the crocodile’s jaws. Once the crocodile was secure, they placed a piece of burlap over its eyes to calm it and Roger used a .22-caliber revolver to end its life. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness knowing that this magnificent creature was no more.
Death can be both tragic and beautiful, and I spend a good deal of time trying to make photographs that show this. I know I wouldn’t have been able to take this photograph if Roger or Aaron had seemed happy or triumphant. But they didn’t. Instead we all shared an eerie moment of silence.
After this picture was taken, the crocodile was dismembered. Roger and Aaron removed its head, skin, and tail. Aaron salted the skin, rolled it up, and placed it into a cooler along with the head. Later in Darwin, the largest city in the Northern Territory, the head was treated with chemicals to remove its flesh. The skull later sold for around $2,500. The skin was sent to a tannery in South Australia and sold for some $5,000. That was their pay.
The man who had requested the crocodile’s removal received peace of mind—and the tail, for its meat.