Rare pale-headed crocodile kills man in Australia
(CNN) — A man has died after being attacked by a pale-headed saltwater crocodile nicknamed “Michael Jackson” in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The 57-year-old man was fishing with his wife on the bank of the Adelaide River Monday when his line apparently became snagged, Northern Territory Police said.
“It appears he has entered the water and tragically was taken by a crocodile while retrieving fishing equipment,” they said in a statement on Facebook.
Parks and Wildlife Rangers and members of the Water Police Section subsequently shot and killed the 4.5 meter (14.7 foot) crocodile, they said. The man’s body was found nearby.
The incident is believed to have occurred about 5.30 p.m. local time Monday (4 a.m ET, 8 a.m. GMT), police said.
Peter Saltmarsh, from Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise, told CNN it was the first time in his 20 years working as a guide on the river that such an incident had occurred.
“There are plenty of crocodiles up here and we don’t have many problems as a rule. There are lots of signs, there are lots of cruises, there are lots of warnings and there’s lots of knowledge,” he said.
Five companies operate crocodile cruises in the area with the giant reptiles distributed about one every 100 meters along the river, on the banks of which they could sometimes be spotted, Saltmarsh said.
“They normally eat fish and kangaroos and other things — they’re not after us. They’re very timid and elusive animals, they’re very lazy and very rarely seen.” He said crocodiles could stay underwater for up to four hours.
“Michael Jackson” was recognizable for its pale head and had been known to locals for about 10 years, Saltmarsh said.
The late pop singer Michael Jackson had suffered from the skin condition vitiligo, which caused parts of his skin to lighten.
Saltmarsh said it was unfortunate that the victim had apparently entered water inhabited by big crocodiles at dusk to retrieve his lure.
“The crocodile could have thought he was any sort of an animal. It’s just really, really unfortunate. This person’s made a tragic error of judgment.”
Dr. Adam Britton has been researching crocodiles in the Northern Territory for about 18 years and was familiar with “Michael Jackson.”
“What made that particular animal special was that it had a very light colored head, so it was very recognizable,” he said. “It was missing part of its tail, two limbs and had a big scar on its belly.
“He was an old, beaten up, battle-scarred crocodile that everyone knew,” Britton said.
“When this report of someone being killed came in, people knew he was pretty much the only crocodile that lived in that territory,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t want to see him shot.”
But Britton said that it was a legal requirement that the crocodile be killed so that the coroner could confirm the cause of death by, for example, matching bite marks and examining the reptile’s stomach contents.
Evidence also suggested that if a crocodile successfully took a human it would be more likely to do so again in the future, he said. “Crocodiles learn patterns and routines and we know from their wild behavior that they’ll actually come back to the same spot to catch a prey animal.”
Britton said that he had heard of other people previously fishing from the same area where the man was taken. It had better access than most of the Adelaide River, which is mainly edged by muddy mangroves, he said.
The fact that others may have fished there without incident could have created a mistaken sense of safety, Britton said.
“One of the things that makes crocodiles so dangerous is that you can do things like that and get away with it. Because crocodiles don’t always attack,” he said. “That leads people into a false sense of security about how risky it actually it is.”
In the wrong place at the wrong time, tragedies like this could then happen, he said.
“Often crocodiles will hone in on people who are actually fishing,” Britton said. “There have been examples of crocodiles sneaking up and stealing fish. Likely when [the victim] stepped in to get his lure back, it was right there under the water — probably expecting a fish. As far as the crocodile was concerned that was potential food for it.”
“It’s just a tragedy on every level, there are no positives that can possibly come out of this,” Britton said, adding that someone shouldn’t have to lose their life to drive the safety message home.
While “Michael Jackson” was not actually an Albino — a genetic mutation — it was rare to see crocodiles with its coloring, which likely resulted from temperature changes during its incubation, he said.
“It doesn’t happen very often. But if you hatch out thousands of eggs you’ll see a few examples every few years,” he said.
Britton said Michael Jackson was probably 40 to 50 years-old, meaning he would have hatched at a time when the number of crocodiles in Australia was low.
Declining numbers led to their protection in Australia in 1971, but the population is now regarded as being almost fully recovered, he said.
The species was found throughout South East Asia, Britton said and a database — Crocbite — had been created to record confirmed attacks across the world going back to the 1800s.
Prior to Monday’s fatal attack, the most recent suspected attack in the Northern Territory was on Melville Island, where Australian Broadcaster ABC reported that “biological remains” had been found inside a crocodile after a man had gone missing earlier this month.