Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Australia's Saltwater Crocs: "Shoot the Bastards."

There's an interesting legal dispute brewing in Queensland, Australia right now over what to do with an apparently growing saltwater crocodile population. What's particularly interesting in this humans v. animals showdown is that instead of the choice being between killing vs. saving the "salties," sanctioned killing is countered by criminalizing human contact in acknowledged croc territory.

At the center of the controversy is increased contact between humans and the crocs. From Reuters: "Fears that crocodile numbers have exploded in northern Australia, with more sightings off surf beaches, in swimming holes and near towns, have sparked calls for the re-introduction of crocodile culling. But a new saltwater crocodile conservation plan for the tropical state of Queensland proposes instead to slap heavy fines up to A$7,500 (3,000 pounds) on swimmers caught in crocodile waters, as a means of separating man from man-eater."

Bob Katter, a Queensland pol who's leading the anti-croc forces thinks it's crazy, but doesn't exactly reek of sanity himself: "I think that there should be a bounty paid on crocodiles for a period of time and in selected areas and I think that there should be proper armaments provided to people to be able to do that cull. Surely people have the right to protect their kids from a dangerous predatory animal. Action needs to be taken to cull them and push them out of settled areas. Shoot the bastards. The people who tell us we can't shoot them would die of fright if they saw one."

Katter is doing a couple things here that I find questionable. Let's start with the idea that sounds sane - giving people the right to protect their kids from the crocodiles. That makes sense, of course; if a non-threatening herbivore decided, for some reason, to chomp down on your kid's leg (let alone Katter's "dangerous predatory animal") I'm all for hitting, kicking, stabbing, shooting, tickling the animal to protect the child.

Katter, however, is equating protection with preemption on a dangerous scale since he's not talking about self-defense but mass-preemption. Since he's taking the realistic protection argument to a ridiculous extreme, I thought it might be fun to see how his methods stack up legally if the crocs were actually human. That is, instead of putting environmental law to the test here, let's see how Katter's argument looks under the lens of human law to see if we can illuminate this topic from a side-angle.

Preemption (officially, the term is "anticipatory self-defense") is an intertionally accepted (meaning, legal) action; it is a customary law, meaning that it is recognized and understood despite not being codified. Defined by Emer de Vattel: “Certain rules and customs, consecrated by long usage and observed by Nations as a sort of law, constitute the customary Law of Nations, or international custom.” Article 38.1.b of the Statute of the International Court of Justice cites “international custom” as an authoritative function of international law.

While it is therefore legal to make a preemptive strike (and I honestly don't know if anyone has ever tried to apply this law to animal culling in a court of law), the possible attack must be imminent, and your preemptive strike must be in proportion to the expected attack.

In The Law of War and Peace (1837), Hugo Grotius argues that “it is permissible to kill him who is making ready to kill,” but reminds us that “the danger … must be immediate and imminent.” Crocs are not running the streets of Queensland and snatching babies from cribs in the middle of the night, so the idea that the danger they pose in "immediate and imminent" seems a large stretch.

Katter also potentially violates the concept of an accepted proportionate response. While he states that crocs should be culled in "selected areas" and for a "period of time," he doesn't offer specific guidelines. In terms of proportionality, the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention outlaws indiscriminate attacks as those “which are not directed at a specific military objective, those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective, or … are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” Further, a state must take specific precautionary measures in their military operations. Reinforcing the conditions of discrimination, military leaders must “ do everything feasible” to verify they are not targeting civilians or civilian objects, “take all feasible precautions” to limit “incidental loss of civilian life,” and refrain from attacks where the incidental loss of civilian life or objects “would be excessive in relation to concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” By leaving the time open and failing to give strict guidelines on how many crocs could be killed, Katter is leaving open the possibility that the response to the crocs would far outstrip the potential harm they could bring to humans. He's right to mark certain areas as acceptable (and thus others as not), but the open-ended questions he leaves of time and overall size of the culling would put him on shaky legal ground.

The second problem I have with Katter is the idea that he not only wants crocs culled, but that he wants a bounty placed on them. He wants to turn Queensland's waters into a Wild Wild West showdown where anyone can go out and bag a croc and collect a bounty on it. Yeah, that's safe. Even more insane, he wants to arm people to do it: "I think that there should be proper armaments provided to people to be able to do that cull." As if offering a cash prize wasn't enough, Katter will give you the armaments to go out and do it. If the salties are that big of a problem, why not, I don't know, have professionials take care of the problem. Maybe that will ultimately be his plan, but for now he's leaving the doors too far ajar.

I think Katter is, to an extent, playing off bloodlust by apparently turning the cull into a job for weekend warriors instead of professionals. The long term effect of this, of course, is that you get people involved in sanctioned killing, which makes it potentially easier to get them involved next time.

On the other side of the issue Queensland Environment Minister Lindy Nelson-Carr told Reuters concerns are overblow: "It's more likely that more people are visiting or moving into croc habitat, and so more people are noticing crocs. Saltwater crocodiles are a vulnerable species with only about 30,000 believed to be left in the wild in Queensland. In developing this plan, the Environmental Protection Agency aimed to get the balance right between public safety, sustainable commercial use of saltwater crocodiles and protecting these ancient, vulnerable animals in the wild. Crocodiles are one of Australia's native predators that keep the ecosystem functioning and without them, Queensland would be a very different place."

What makes this all sorta tricky is that crocs are, well, not all that cude and cuddly. Growing up to seventeen feet in length, and living for seventy years, saltwater crocs are predators in the truest sense - they hide, they're patient, they're entrenched, and they're vicious and decisive when they do attack, dragging prey into the water where victims have to fight the croc and drowning.

The Reuters article is peppered with slams at the crocs. Reuters writes that there is a fear that "crocodile numbers have exploded." Exploded is never a good thing when talking about predator population, apparently, and just to be sure they use the term twice more, stating "many people in northern Queensland believe crocodile numbers have exploded," and "Nelson-Carr rejected fears that crocodile numbers had exploded." Reuters has a quote from Nelson-Carr saying the croc pop in the area is 30,000, then adds, "but some crocodile experts estimate there could be 65,000 to 70,000 crocodiles in Queensland state." Of course, they don't mention who these experts are, or offer any direct quotes from them, so even if the higher numbers are correct there's no reason to believe them from this report.

By all estimates that I could find, saltwater crocs are not in danger of going extinct. National Geographic puts the estimate at between 200,000 to 300,000 worldwide, which makes it tougher to garner support for protecting one population base, even if that base might represent between 10% and 30% of the total population.

It will be interesting to see where this goes and if the Queensland government ultimately decides to act and then study, or study and then act based on exactly how many crocs are out there and exactly where they're taking up space.


Tommbert said...

I was somewhat amused by a strange connection here. Craig Ferguson in a rerun this week mentioned that a spike in a certain frog population in Hawaii has irritated the residents because of the noise. So they're going to bomb them with hydrated lime (the calcium hydroxide one, not the fruit).

Let me repeat that because it bears repeating: They are annoyed because of the noise so they are going to lime-bomb them out of existence.

Not much to say here, but it almost--almost, mind you--makes the Aussies look right on track here. I am with them, at least conceptually granting them their premises, until they get to the part about giving out the guns. Sheesh. Either way, both cases have the same end. Nothing clever to say. More dumbfounded than anything.

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