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Reflections on the Floods Down Under

By Jordan Schaul

As flooding continues to cripple Eastern Australia and take lives, I wonder what impact this natural disaster has had on the human-wildlife interface. The floods have now damaged and forced the evacuation of skyscrapers in Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city, but the untold destruction of rural areas and small towns and the displacement of wildlife may pale in comparison.

The quandary takes me back almost two decades. On the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney I was preparing for my first trip to the Land Down Under. I was 17 and for the duration of the flight I ruminated about crocs and venomous snakes. What were my chances of being drowned and eaten by estuarine crocodiles, Australian saltwater crocodiles or salties (Crocodylus porosus)? What about a run-in with a coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), the largest of several venomous snakes in the bush and the third most venomous snake in the world?

saltwater crocodile photo.jpg

NGS stock photo of saltwater crocodile by Sam Abell.

For part of my orientation with Rustic Pathways, then called Rustic Pathways Australia, I was required to watch a documentary on saltwater crocodile attacks. I thought that certainly I’d see one of these living dinosaurs at the crocodile farm listed somewhere on a rough and informal itinerary. I had no idea that myself and nine other high school seniors and graduates, all soon-to-be Outback explorers, would find ourselves at the nexus of waterways where multiple crocodile attacks had occurred over the last quarter of the last century.

And it was not as though I knew nothing of crocodilians. I had owned a spectacled caiman, which I can no longer condone, and I had cared for alligators. But I was far too naïve to know whether or not salt water crocodiles actually stalk humans—that they do sit and wait for people, often fishermen, aware or unaware of their presence and then ambush them, taking them underwater for the terminal death roll.

But soon enough I would be swimming alongside the more innocuous and much smaller Johnston’s crocodiles, otherwise known as Australia freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni). Although the freshies do consume animals as large as adult wallabies, as of yet they have not been reported to have taken humans as prey.

We would also see goannas or monitor lizards (15 species are endemic to Australia) including Mertens’ water monitors (Varanus mertensi) on a number of occasions as they darted through the landscape. All varanid lizards can swim, but water monitors readily take to water.

We flew from Sydney to Cairns, Queensland, known for its tropical monsoon climate, and began our road trip along Australia’s northeast coast from Cooktown up to the tip of the Cape York peninsula.

We, of course, took a small detour on a small fishing vessel out to the world-famous Great Barrier reef before leaving Cairns. After reaching the most northern tip of the peninsula–the most northern point of the continent, we returned down south and west into Kakadu National Park, noted for its wealth of aboriginal cultural sites and rich biodiversity. We then headed on to Darwin, named for the famed naturalist, where I did visit a crocodile farm after observing many salties in natural waterways. Some we spotted in billabongs, but most were basking on the shores of estuaries.

Darwin, situated on the Timor Sea, is the capital of the Northern Territory and the northernmost of Australia’s capital cities. We then traveled west toward the Kimberley region with its vast mountain ranges, gorges and mesas.

Few Australians have even ventured into Northwestern Australia, which remains one of the most remote regions and wildest places on the planet. Before returning east, we visited the shire and town of Broome, a popular retreat for British royalty and a true tropical paradise.

It is Queensland, known for its tropical and subtropical rainforests and grasslands that are known for their rich faunal groups that attract so many tourists from around the world, including a great many visitors from Asia.

Queensland is the third most populated state in the country and the region where so many residents endure the summer’s rainy season. It is monsoon season that brought in these recent floods and what essentially brought wildlife in very close proximity to people. Snakes and crocodiles are now a hazard to people in these conditions where everyone and everything tries to get high and dry.

An article published by the Australian Geographic Society leads one to believe that few animals escape the floods. Invasive species such as foxes and rabbits, small terrestrial animals from snakes, possums, reptiles, and bandicoots, and presumably wild and feral pigs have succumbed to the devastating floods.

In a recent online report also from the Australian Geographic Society, Dr. Richard Norris, an ecologist at the University of Canberra, makes mention of the rejuvenating and otherwise beneficial aspects of the floods on flora and fauna. From seeding and germination to the redistribution of fish species, many floodplain species rely on these tumultuous natural events.

But he also warns that one can “walk through areas half a meter to a meter deep and trees will be covered with snakes and spiders,” including, of course, many venomous species.

What about the warm and fuzzies–the endemic Australian marsupial fauna? There have been many reported rescues of macropods (kangaroos, wallaroos, wallabies) and koalas. Koalas can swim, but not indefinitely! Let us hope for a return to normalcy.


Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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