The conflict between humans and wildlife is a major conservation issue. Put simply, conflict reduces the value of wildlife to people. It may be through indirect conflict where people and wildlife are competing for the same resources, or it may be direct conflict where people are being attacked by wildlife. If conflict exceeds the tolerance of those affected, wildlife becomes a pest and efforts will be made to eradicate it. When crocodiles attack people and livestock, they risk falling into this category. Therefore reducing human-crocodile conflict (HCC) is a priority for conservation. After all, it's difficult to convince people to conserve creatures that seriously affect their livelihoods or their lives.
The majority of crocodilian species do not pose a serious danger to people, although like any wild animals they will bite when provoked or surprised. However, a handful of species are undoubtedly potentially dangerous and combined are responsible for several hundred non-fatal and fatal attacks annually. It is counterproductive to hide this fact, and looking at the reasons behind attacks helps us to improve safety and hopefully convince people that crocodilians are worth keeping around.
We consider that crocodilian attacks on humans are largely preventable; the main cause of attack is a lack of awareness by the victim of the danger they put themselves in. After all, it's safe to assume that nobody ever intends to be attacked by a crocodilian. This is why education and awareness are critical. But it’s not that straightforward either. Often people have no choice but to undertake potentially risky activities. Gathering food and water, for example, are essential daily activities that often put people directly into contact with areas where crocodilians are found. People may be fully aware of the risk of encountering a crocodile, but accept that risk anyway. We all accept some level of risk in our daily lives, but the rewards usually make that risk worthwhile. Driving a vehicle is a good example where we believe ourselves to be in control of the risk because accidents are infrequent in our experience, but the consequences can be severe. Our society has even come to accept that certain loss of life is the cost paid for, in this example, a transport network. We only really notice when it affects someone that we know. Yet we understand that these accidents are largely preventable, which is why road safety is such a priority for most countries. The same should be true for safety around crocodilians.
Attacks on humans by crocodilians are, statistically speaking, extremely rare. For instance, going swimming in northern Australia means you are roughly a hundred times more likely to drown than to be bitten by a crocodile. Furthermore, less than a third of such bites prove fatal. This is not to downplay the serious consequences of ignoring the risk, only to put that risk into context. Attacks occur because people assume there is no risk to them. The actual likelihood of being attacked and the consequences varies with context; the species present in an area, the type of habitat, the degree of contact between people and places where crocodiles are found, the activities being undertaken, and more.
The bar chart above shows the number of reported attacks and the proportion that were fatal (F) and non-fatal (NF) for all species between Jan 2008 and October 2013 [please note, this graph is not linked to the database and is out of date but the message remains useful]. You can clearly see which species are responsible for the most attacks, although Nile crocodile attacks are likely greatly under-represented due to the patchy and often incomplete reporting of attacks in several African countries. For those that are reported however, Nile crocodile attacks are statistically more likely to be fatal compared with saltwater crocodile attacks. However, this hides the variability in saltwater crocodile attack statistics across its range. Further analysis on this will appear in case studies that are currently being prepared. The American alligator has quite a reputation in the US, but the data show that fatal attacks by this species are very rare. American crocodile attacks are more common and more likely to be fatal, but these data come exclusively from Central and South American populations, there are no recorded attacks in the US by this species. Again, a case report detailing this is under preparation.
We are commonly asked how many crocodile attacks occur worldwide each year. Such a figure is difficult to derive accurately because there are clearly gaps in attack reporting particularly for key species such as Nile crocodiles. However, when asked by the Gates Institute for a ballpark number of fatalities, we estimated the figure of 1,000 deaths annually. This was based on the mean fatality rate for the past three years, and included a rough estimate of how much data we believe are missing for both saltwater and Nile crocodiles. It should not be used too literally, but it is a useful guide.
More powerful user-defined presentation and analysis tools are under development.
Coming soon: statistics on risk, examples from specific countries and species
Management of crocodilians
Coming soon: risk mitigation and management
* Australian saltwater crocodile (northern Australia)
* American alligator (Florida)
* Nile crocodile (Africa)