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Article  •  19 July 2016


Dead-set dangerous

Crocodile egg harvesting with Outback Wrangler Matt Wright.

With ten years of crocodile egg collecting in the Northern Territory under his belt, Matt Wright has plenty of stories of hairy and at-times life-threatening situations. He’s also played a part in some innovations that dramatically increase the life expectancy of crocodile egg ‘collectors’. Straight from the pages Outback Wrangler, Wright outlines three crocodile egg-harvesting techniques that most people would sooner leave to the professionals.

Floating mat is a term collectors use to describe the native grass that grows at the edges of the big rivers and lakes of the Top End. The grass spreads out from the bank and across the water and provides the perfect conditions for crocs to hunt. The floating mat is thick enough to support the weight of an animal, but not so thick as to prevent a croc from bursting through and dragging unsuspecting prey to the murky bottom. For this reason, floating mat is one of the preferred places for crocs to build nests and one of the most dangerous places for humans to venture.

The nests are like little floating islands that are constantly patrolled from beneath. The moment an egg collector sets foot on floating mat, he or she is on a ticking time bomb. The crocodile feels the disturbance in the water and swims undetected beneath the mat. Stalking from below, the croc waits until the person stops moving. If the collector remains still for too long, he or she will be in the jaws of a crocodile before knowing what has happened.   

Collecting eggs on floating mat is all about speed – get in and get out. That means landing the chopper as near as possible to the nest and reducing the amount of time the collector stands on the mat. Large inflatable floats would be fitted to the skids. The pilot would keep the rotor spinning so that the chopper would remain light on the skids to enable a quick getaway. It’s easier said than done.

Slinging a collector onto a nest is all about reducing the time a collector is exposed to danger. In the early 1980s, when people began collecting crocodile eggs, they’d use a chopper to spot a nest and drop collectors as close as possible. This was often kilometres away, requiring the collectors to walk into the swamps with only a rod and crate to keep them safe. It was very dangerous. They were exposed to heat exhaustion, deadly snakes and large male crocodiles patrolling the swamps.

Today, thanks to special conditions permitted to us from CASA [Civil Aviation Safety Authority], we’re able to use the slinging technique with a double-hook set-up underneath the chopper. This means that the collector being slung underneath the chopper has a back-up hook if one breaks. We’re the only people in the world sanctioned with these permissions and it makes our job a heck of a lot safer.

Using the slinging technique, we drop the collector into a nest where they unhook themselves and the chopper flies away. A collector must have all senses working to increase safety. If the helicopter remains hovering above the nest while the collector clears the nest, the engine drowns out the sound of approaching danger. Once the crate is filled, the collector will call the pilot back. The chopper returns, the collector reattaches to the sling and is winched off. 

There had been a string of near misses and close calls. A feeling of doubt started to creep into the operation. If things didn’t change, someone was going to get killed. The Professor challenged us to come up with safer methods of collecting croc eggs. We got together and came up with the idea of a ring.

The ring is a lightweight fence encased in a thick, brightly coloured plastic sheet similar to canvas, with metal ribbing on the inside. The material was similar to an air-conditioning duct but on a larger scale. It’s about five feet high with a five-foot diameter – wide enough to fully enclose a nest – and attaches to the collector’s harness. It serves as a visual barrier between the collector and any crocodiles patrolling the nest. At first, it was a resounding success. The crocs didn’t know what to make of it. But just like every other invention devised to improve safety while collecting croc eggs, the ring doesn’t guarantee safety. I learnt that for myself out at the Arafura Swamp.

The Outback Wrangler Matt Wright

The Outback Wrangler takes you on a wild ride, where that special outback flavour of danger, adrenaline and adventure comes together in the personal stories of a unique Australian.

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