A suspected fatal crocodile attack on a missing tourist in Australia’s far north-eastern wilderness has revived a perennial dispute about how to deal with a protected predator. Photographer Cindy Waldron was reportedly taken by a saltwater crocodile during a moonlight walk through shallow water at a beach in Queensland’s Daintree national park on Sunday.
Her presumed death, which would be the eighth known fatal crocodile attack in Queensland in 21 years, has prompted politicians to clash over whether rising numbers of the reptiles or human intrusion into their habitat are to blame.
It has also prompted the first comprehensive government survey on the crocodile population since hunting them was outlawed 42 years ago.
Authorities are still searching for Waldron, 46, who vanished underwater at Thornton beach after her friend Leeann Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to wrest her from the crocodile’s grip. The friends, who were on a holiday to celebrate Mitchell’s recovery from cancer, were reportedly walking arm in arm through knee-deep water when the reptile struck.
Environment department officials on Tuesday set three “croc traps” in the water with the hope of snaring Waldron’s presumed killer. Her parents are travelling to the Daintree from her native New Zealand to “show that we are there, that we care”, her father Pat told the NZ Herald. “Our darling girl is gone,” he said.
Warren Entsch, the federal government MP for the area and self-proclaimed “redneck progressive”, responded to the attack on Monday by saying: “You can’t legislate against human stupidity.”
“If you go in swimming at 10 o’clock at night, you’re going to get consumed,” he said.
Bob Katter, a conservative rural populist MP in a neighbouring electorate, said Entsch was “stupid” for “defending crocodiles instead of people” and said the reptiles’ numbers had “exploded” since a hunting ban in 1971 removed all of [their] predators.
“We can put nature back in balance if we have shooting safaris,” Katter, a longtime proponent of crocodile culling, said.
A spokeswoman for the Queensland department of environment and heritage protection told Guardian Australia it was “planning detailed population surveys of crocodile numbers in consultation with recognised crocodile experts”.
The results would “provide scientifically sound information about crocodile populations to guide future management of crocodiles throughout their range in Queensland”, she said.
Surveys in the neighbouring Northern Territory indicate the saltwater crocodile population under a hunting ban since 1971 has grown from a depleted 3,000 to about 100,000.
However, no reliable estimates on Queensland’s crocodile population have been done since its hunting ban in 1974.
Smaller surveys in response to crocodile sightings or encounters at various sites along the central and northern Queensland coast have indicated “the crocodile population remains steady rather than increasing substantially”. But these did not “provide definitive population numbers or trends”.
A state MP for the area, Billy Gordon, said he supported an investigation into whether a limited crocodile cull was appropriate.
Gordon that while more signage and awareness campaigns would have a role, “there could be a case for a look at culling, especially if they are coming in too close to popular beaches, like we’ve seen recently”.
Entsch warned against starting “vendettas” against crocodiles.
“It’s hard enough for some families to make a quid up there in the Daintree, showcasing crocs in their environment,” he said.
“There are warning signs everywhere up there. People have to have some level of responsibility for their own actions.”
Professor Grahame Webb, a world-renowned crocodile expert from Charles Sturt University in Darwin, said suggestions that crocodile numbers had spiralled out of control under protection tended to be “fabricated”.
“I don’t think they are out of control in Queensland, I don’t think they are out of control anywhere,”
Webb said that removing the threat for people wishing to swim in the crocodiles’ north Queensland habitat would require a massacre of about 95% of the animals.
Seven people have been killed in 24 known crocodile attacks in Queensland since 1985, according to departmental records.
The most recent was seven years ago when Jeremy Doble, aged five, was taken by a 4.3-metre crocodile at the Daintree river after trying to protect his brother Ryan and their dog. Doble, whose parents ran a tour company in the area, was identified via remains found in the crocodile after it was captured nearby.
Arthur Booker, a Vietnam veteran, 62, was taken five months earlier while checking crab pots on the Endeavour river near Cooktown.
Fisherman Barry Jefferies was pulled from a canoe to his death by a crocodile that latched onto his arm at Lakefield national park in Cape York in 2005.
Crocodiles have historically been spotted as far south as the Logan river near the Queensland capital of Brisbane but sightings in sub-tropical areas are rare.
However, University of Queensland zoology professor Craig Franklin has said warmer-than-average water temperatures through climate change would make crocodiles encounters in these more heavily populated areas increasingly more common.
The southernmost crocodile attack on record was near Babinda, south of Cairns in 1999, while the southernmost fatal attack was at Staaten river in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1985.