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Getting Close to Australia’s Most Dangerous Animal at Broome’s Crocodile Park: A Conservation Success Story

November 13, 2015

When I returned home for a fleeting few weeks of work last June after living in Melbourne for four months, everyone wanted to know one thing: had I seen any deadly animals? Spiders? Snakes? Sharks?

My answer (unfortunately for them, and luckily for me!) was disappointing. In my first four months in Australia, I’d seen some Aussie wildlife. Penguins lived across from me in the outskirts of Melbourne, and rainbow lorikeets flocked around my block where an old lady fed them. During our road trip on the Great Ocean Road, I’d been my-heart-might-burst excited to see kangaroos and koalas. But deadly animals? Nothing. Not even close. During all that time in Victoria, I don’t think I saw so much as a single house spider.

While Melbourne wasn’t exactly the hot and dangerous Australia folks back home imagined, Broome lives up to the hype. In my nearly five months here, Cable Beach has been closed to swimmers three times. The first time it was for a shark sighting (and I wondered why the beach was so deserted that morning!); the second time, a potentially deadly irukandji jellyfish had been caught in a net. Most recently — and most mind-blowingly! — the beach was shut after crocodile tracks were spotted on Cable Beach. Later that day, a three-meter-long croc was seen swimming near Gantheaume Point.

Welcome to Western Australia, right?!

I missed all the action the day a croc shut Cable Beach down. Still, I’ve developed a little bit of an obsession with crocodiles since moving to Australia, and a couple of weeks before, I’d finally had the chance to see them up close. You know, under more controlled, separated-by-wire-fence circumstances.

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The Malcolm Douglas Wilderness Wildlife Park (better known as the croc park locally) is a popular stop on visitors’ Broome bucket lists. We visited a couple of months ago, five of us crowding ourselves into a campervan for the drive in celebration of some friends’ last weekend here. While the daily 3pm feeding stands as the park’s main attraction, we made sure to get there early enough to do some exploring on our own.

The saltwater crocodiles, of course, are front and center. They were so eerily unmoving and algae-covered that at first, despite the wire fence, I almost didn’t think they were real. As vicious and imposing as they are, I’ve learned that crocodiles are surprisingly lazy animals.

To be fair, it was the middle of a hot day, and the crocs weren’t the only animals relaxing. The cockatoos and kookaburras chilled on their perches while a little albino wallaby lazily munched on apples in the shade. Only the bright, dinosaur-like cassowary (which easily ranks as Australia’s most dangerous bird, if not the world’s) was active, pacing formidably back and forth along its fence.

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Not long before the daily feeding was scheduled to begin, a guide waved us over for a smaller demonstration ahead of the group tour. A small group of us gathered around the enclosure where a crocodile waited, teeth bared, a bucket of meat just outside the fence. Lazy they may be, but let me tell you: when these guys want to move, they can move. When the croc lurched forward for the meat, it was swift and lethal, exactly like all the wildlife documentaries I’d watched as a kid — and this was only a warm-up for the rest of the tour!

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After the teaser feed, we made our way back to the entrance for the main event. Our guide was ready, cradling in his palm a tiny baby crocodile, its snout bound with a black band. Some of the park’s handlers passed around other little crocodiles for visitors to hold.

I have to admit: while I’d been impressed with the park thus far, I was, all of the sudden, a little weary.

Exploring the outdoors and seeing local wildlife are always one of my top travel priorities, but for me, that means doing it right. I place a high value on conservation and sustainability. Whenever I visit a zoo or wildlife sanctuary — or any attraction featuring animals — I am usually careful to research it beforehand to make sure it’s an organization I want to support. When the guides starting handing out little crocodiles, I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows.

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I’ve since read about the Malcolm Douglas Wilderness Wildlife Park a little more, and while finding out that the park doubled as a farm bothered me at first, I can say with confidence that this is an organization worth supporting. Malcolm Douglas was a famous Australian wildlife documentary maker, the original crocodile hunter before Steve Irwin rose to fame. This park was his life’s dream. When he died in a freak vehicle accident several years ago, he left behind the legacy of an adventurer turned environmentalist, an outspoken advocate not only for wildlife like crocodiles and dingoes in Australia but also for the protection of the Kimberley region against development for gas exploration.

The Wilderness Park is an animal refuge. In a perfect world, crocodiles would remain free to live in the wild, always; today, however, crocodiles lurking in places dangerous to people are often moved to sanctuaries like this. That croc that shut down Cable Beach? It’s since been caught and moved here. It’s a conservation strategy that keeps both crocodiles and people safe, a far cry from the former plight of saltwater crocodiles. By the early 1970s, crocodiles had been hunted for their hides to such an extreme that their population was reduced to a mere five percent of what it had been. Australia’s government responded with strict protections for crocodiles. Farms, too, have been an important piece of their success story: raising crocodiles in captivity to be sold for their hides means that those in the wild remain mostly safe from hunting.

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As for the baby crocs? They were adorable (really — just look at their little claws!), and unexpectedly silky to the touch. Even their tiny little teeth were cute!

Once the babies were put away, it was time for a feeding frenzy. The tour had drawn a big crowd, and we moved slowly around the park, alternating between feedings and demonstrations. Not all of the crocs got fed — in fact, we learned they require a lot less sustenance than you might guess! — and every now and again, those that didn’t get meat got tricked. Over murky green pools, the crocodiles hidden completely under the surface, our guide would dangle a rubber black ball. As soon as it hit the water, it disappeared, pulled underwater in a single explosive instant. There was never time for me to get a good photo. There was only thrashing.

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For comparison’s sake, the park has also has American alligators. They are, we were assured by our guide, much less badass than Australia’s famed salties. After all, comparatively, they rarely attack people, let alone eat them.

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Besides salties, plenty of other Aussie animals call the Wildlife Park home. I would say the freshwater crocodiles were my favorite (I find the little freshies unexplicably…cute?!), but let’s be honest: from dingoes to flying foxes, I’m obsessed with them all. The bats may even have been the most entertaining of all. One particular flying fox hung upside down watching us, cocooned in his wings, and opened them wide whenever Florence spread her arms. It was actually kind of sweet — I guess you could say they had a connection!

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Weirdly enough, for all of the animals I love and obsess over, my favorite part of the whole day was encountering the animal that’s always been one of my least favorites: snakes. I respect them, sure, but they also scare the shit out of me most of the time. When we hung around after most of the tour group had left to check out the pythons, I surprised myself when I volunteered to hold a couple of the snakes.

I was excited — and a whole lot more anxious, apparently, than either Vincent or Florence.

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Look, I’m not saying that I won’t scream next time I see a snake in the wild, but I feel like snakes and I get along just a little bit better now. And as for the salties? Let’s just say that after that feeding, I’ll be running away faster than ever!

Notes for Visiting

The Malcolm Douglas Wilderness Wildlife Park is absolutely worth a visit if you’re in Broome — it makes for a fun afternoon! The park is beautiful, shady and well-organized, and the guides entertaining and informative. Most importantly, the animals are well cared for and live in nice enclosures. The park is located sixteen kilometers outside of Broome, so it’s best if you have your own car to get there. It’s open between 2 and 5pm everyday of the year besides Christmas, and its famous feeding tour runs at 3pm daily. Get there early — there are plenty of animals worth visiting besides the crocs! The cost is $35 for adults and $20 for children.

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10 Comments

  • Reply Andrea November 14, 2015 at 8:09 am

    Katie, this is a really heartfelt account of crocodiles 🙂 Your pics are great and I really liked how you could find beauty in details such as their little claws… I support your thinking about meeting the wildlife in your travels – they are part of a destination just as much as people – but also your intentions to support environmentally sound projects. Well done.

    • Reply Katie November 15, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks so much, Andrea! Really appreciate your note. It’s true — animals are such big parts of travel. When it comes to places like Australia and South Africa, I think that wildlife is pretty intrinsic to their identities as destinations. It makes doing your research and taking care to travel responsibly in those places that much more important!

  • Reply Zascha November 15, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Aaaww, the baby crocodile does look super adorable!
    However, there’s no way I would ever hold a snake. Not even if you paid me, so well done 😀
    Zascha recently posted…Bank House B&B Review, The Scottish HighlandsMy Profile

    • Reply Katie November 15, 2015 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks, Zascha! Really, though, I used to think the same. When I first travelled to India, a snake charmer came to the nonprofit where we working and my friend volunteered to hold it — around her neck! I stayed farther away than anyone. Never would have guessed then I’d be holding a much, MUCH bigger one in Australia a few years later!

  • Reply Anne November 15, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    I am sure you will see lots more animals in the wild if you stay in the north of WA.

    • Reply Katie November 16, 2015 at 12:05 am

      I’ve done alright in my time living here! I’m actually down to my last couple of weeks here in Broome, though.

  • Reply Nicky November 19, 2015 at 4:34 am

    New to your blog and I loved the photos. I too went to a crocodile conservation in Cuba and was truly fascinated. I’m glad that your journey to finding your favourite animals worked out!

    • Reply Katie November 20, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks, Nicky! Aw, I love the Cuban crocodiles — they’re so little! I’m also dying to visit Cuba, especially now that Americans can kinda sorta visit…

  • Reply Anna November 23, 2015 at 10:06 am

    What a lovely blog. I’m a complete sucker for the local wildlife anywhere I go, and I really enjoyed your insights into meeting the crocodiles. I think I’d be totally terrified, so well done you for going along. I also found that I encountered a lot less scary/ deadly than expected critters when I lived in the jungle in South America, so I guess despite all the hype these animals and insects know to stay away from us most of the time. Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures – Australia is definitely on my bucket list.
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    • Reply Katie November 23, 2015 at 10:17 am

      I’ve especially encountered far fewer snakes than expected in Australia — and for that, I’m thankful that they know to stay away! Thanks for the sweet note, Anna 🙂

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