Australia's fearsome saltwater crocodiles were hunted almost to the brink of extinction mid-last century.

But since they became a protected species in 1971, the population has bounced back - so much so that the federal government is now considering legalising crocodile safaris.

In the Northern Territory, where hundreds of the man-eaters are fished out of Darwin Harbour every year, the Government is pushing for a two-year trial that would allow 50 of the biggest crocs to be hunted.

But some conservationists, including the father of the late "Crocodile Hunter", Steve Irwin, oppose the plan, as do animal welfare advocates, who fear the crocs would not be killed humanely.


Canberra rejected a similar proposal a few years ago, but has agreed to review the issue in the light of soaring crocodile numbers - there are now estimated to be 100,000 to 150,000 in the tropical "Top End". Environment Minister Tony Burke will rule on whether the trial can go ahead when a consultation process ends late next month.

Proponents believe safari hunting would boost tourism and provide much needed income for indigenous landowners. More than 70 per cent of the land inhabited by crocodiles in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal-owned, and big game hunters - particularly from overseas - would pay about A$5000 ($6368) to add a saltwater croc to their trophy collection.

Experts such as Graham Webb, who runs a crocodile farm outside Darwin, also point out that 500 of the giant reptiles are already killed every year - and their meat and skins sold - as part of a sustainable management programme. "The landowners get about A$500 to A$1000 for a skin, but they'd get far more if people were hunting on their land," he said.

Bob Irwin, however, said his son would be "turning over in his grave".

Irwin senior, himself a noted conservationist, told ABC radio that trophy hunting would create few jobs, and traditional owners would make more money taking tourists to view live crocodiles in the wild than allowing hunters on to their land.

"This is a real step backwards. Can you imagine a boatload of tourists seeing some big white hunter shooting an animal that they came to photograph? I feel absolutely disgusted about it."

He also warned that killing large males - which can grow up to 7m long and weigh more than a tonne - could result in more attacks on humans.

"What worries me is that when you take those big, dominant, male crocodiles out of a river system, that then allows the teenage crocs to run riot ... They will test their predatory skills, and hopefully there isn't anyone in the way."


Mick Pitman, a veteran crocodile hunter who stuffs his prey and turns their skins into wallets, wrist bands and mobile phone holders, rejects that argument. "These are the animals that are going to be taken out anyway, because they're the ones causing a problem."

Pitman is working in partnership with Jida Gulpilil, head of the local Gupulul Marayuwu Aboriginal Corporation, to pass on his taxidermy and leatherwork skills. "This is a perfect opportunity for [traditional owners] to stay on country, live out in the bush and earn a good dollar."

Crocodile numbers were down to just 3000 when hunting was banned. Pitman said: "We've got plenty of crocs out there now, so we don't have to worry about the numbers any more. We're already harvesting 500 of them; all we want to do is change who pulls the trigger."