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Chat: Dr Adam Britton

Monday, July 16, 2012

Interviewer: 60 Minutes presents a live interview with Australian zoologist, Dr Adam Britton.

Interviewer: Adam, welcome to our live online chatroom.

Adam Britton: Thanks for having me tonight, I hope I can answer all your questions.

Snappy asks: When did you first become interested in crocodiles?
Adam Britton: I became interest in crocodiles when I was a young boy of 6, I had a book on dinosaurs and the last two pages referred to "living dinosaurs" which were crocodiles. We now know they are only cousins of dinosaurs. But when you are 6 years old, the concept of living dinosaurs is very inspirational and so I became quite obsessed with crocodiles at a very young age.

Snappy asks: Why are you doing such research - what is it's purpose?
Adam Britton: Now crocodiles in the Okavango Delta were dealt a serious blow in the 1960-1970s. There was excessive hunting for skins which really depleted the population for their skins. And we know now the populations haven't recovered very well. We also know that the Delta itself is a very important area, not just for wetland but also for the people. So understanding the relationship between the people and wildlife is important. And we know crocodiles are key stone predators, if they disappear it would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the Delta. So the project is studying the genetics to look at the relationship between the crocodiles and the Delta, to help improve the manage of wildlife and the habitat.

Snappy asks: What qualifications does one need to dive with crocodiles aka doing this research?
Adam Britton: The qualifications, you need some experience in diving because there is a very strong current when you get into the water. It's not too demanding, but it's certainly good to have had a few dives under your belt. Another good qualification is having some respect for the crocodiles, because you are entering their domain, you are a guest. And so you need to be very cautious when you approach the crocodile, any fast movements or attempts to chase them will cause them to leave and make it more dangerous. So being very cautious and working as a team (looking out for the people around you) is one of the more important qualifications.

Flutters asks: Hi Dr Britton, how did you hear about the swimming with crocodiles and what made you think it was something you wanted to try?
Adam Britton: I was actually quiet sceptical when I first heard about it last year, because at the time I didn't know Brad or Andy and I had no idea whether they were being reckless or were being safe. After this, coincidentally Brad rang me up because he wanted to find out why these crocodiles were behaving the way they were when divers were entering the water. And I spent a lot time asking him quite a few difficult questions on the phone to make sure he knew what he was talking about. Everything he said matched my own experience with salt water crocodiles in Australia, so when he invited me to join the dive team I had no hesitation.

Snappy asks: What's it like being a Zoologist?
Adam Britton: As a Zoologist you have to be a detective, essentially you are trying to understand how animals work in a broader sense. It's almost like learning a different language, but you are also trying to understand a different culture. You have to try and understand their behaviour, their society (if they have one), about their biology and physiology. From a position of not knowing very much, you obviously build upon the work that others have done in the past, but the thing that attracts me to Zoology is that there are so many unanswered questions. When it comes to crocodiles, there are so many assumptions people have made (without much evidence), there are still so many exciting and tempting areas of study that exist.

phill asks: Adam, what drives you to do this? surely you would have some setbacks as you jumped into the water
Adam Britton: The first time I was preparing to jump into the water I must admit I was a little bit nervous, because it was a completely new experience for me knowing that there were no safety barrier between me and the crocodile, but I had to put my trust into Brad and Andy, both of whom were not only competent, but also very safety conscious. In fact the first time I did encounter a crocodile underwater, things almost went wrong because we took too long getting into the water and the crocodile swam up to us and bit the housing of the camera man in a defensive manner. But I actually found that quite reassuring, because the crocodile still behaved in the way we expected it to. It was not aggressive, it was simply trying to stay out of the way.

Dock asks: Hi Dr Britton was wondering if you would ever try to dive with Crocodiles in Northern Australia?
Adam Britton: Last year we looked at the possibility of doing with this salt water crocodiles in Northern Australia, there were a small number of locations here where the conditions would have been suitable to do this safety. Unfortunately when we visited these locations, the conditions simply weren't safe enough for us and so we took the decision not to take a risk and do it. One of the main reasons this is possible with Nile crocodiles is there is a small window of when the conditions are very cold and the water is very clear. Other times it would not be safe to get into the water.

poida asks: Do you ever think you may end up like Steve Irwin and die doing the thing you love to do?
Adam Britton: The only reason that we decided that it was safe to do this was because the conditions were just right and we put some very strict safety protocols in place. So I like to think that we put a lot more thought into this that perhaps some people might think and in fact isn't as dangerous as what people would think because they are basing their assumptions on how crocodiles behave under water. What we've found is that those assumptions are wrong. But obviously every time you go into the water you consider the possibility that something could go wrong, and that makes me considerably more safe. But it's a lot more interesting that staying at home.

HullRiverNQ asks: What temperature was the water when you were diving with the crocodiles in Botswana?
Adam Britton: The coldest temperature we encountered was 15 degrees and the warmest temperature was 19 degrees. 19 degrees was making us quite nervous because that was about the upper limited to what we would consider the diving to be safe.

Flutters asks: How many crocodiles were down there when you were diving? Did they take any notice of you at all?
Adam Britton: We only ever dived on one crocodile each time, so it was always a one on one experience. However there were dozens of crocodiles on the river system where we were diving. They were obviously aware that we were there, and occasionally they would move off, but they never fled. They would only move into a slightly different position. And if you were very quiet and careful they would allow you to sit there and observe them for over half an hour.

poida asks: Do you think the crocodile population is getting out of hand, and do you agree that we should have a culling process like back in the 60's?
Adam Britton: Salt water crocodile populations are basically reached carrying capacity. So they are not going to grow much more than they are now. This is exactly the same situation that used to exist 100 years ago. But of course the main difference is that there are a lot more people living in crocodile habitat. So I don't think the population is out of hand, but I would say that in order to live successfully around crocodiles then some management has to take place. But safari hunting is not the answer to controlling crocodile populations, it is actually being proposed purely as a commercial venture. And one that can benefit land owners. If you wanted to control the crocodile population you would have to kill tens of thousands of them in order to begin to have any effect. One thing that the crocodile attack status from around the world shows us that the most effective way of minimizing crocodile attacks is to educate people about crocodiles and change their behaviours in crocodile habitats. But whenever you have crocodiles and people living in the same place, you will always the possibility that someone will be killed.

Finn asks: You mentioned about the chill climate of the water in Botswana helping to slow down the metabolism of the crocodile, so would it be the same in Australia with our crocodiles or our climates make it much more unpredictable ..
Adam Britton: Salt water crocodiles don't experience the same cold temperatures that Nile crocodiles do. On the other hand, salt water crocodiles are adapted to operating in warmer temperatures anyway. So since the temperatures here are not the same, but you can't immediately make the assumption that the behaviours would be identical, even if I can see similarities between them. So it would need to be approached with great caution and a good reason.

billy_dee asks: hi - recently come from a trip to Darwin, NT and surrounds – may I say croc's are fascinating.... I saw plenty of 5.5 m crocs in captivity.. How real is the prospect of an 8m croc?
Adam Britton: In November last year I measured the largest salt water crocodile in captivity in the Philippines. His name was Lolong. He was 6.17 metres. If you look at the skulls in museums around the world, they only get slightly larger than Lolong's skull. I don't think salt water crocodiles get to be greater than 7 metres in length. And even crocodiles over 6 metres are incredibly rare. But of course I would love to see an 8 metre long crocodile, it certainly would be a living dinosaur.

michelle asks: In what ways are the nile croc , both similar and different in their temperament and behaviour from salties??
Adam Britton: Individually salt water and Nile crocodiles show very similar behaviour. On a daily basis during the dry season when it is cold, they spend their time basking in the sun in the morning and sitting in the water when it gets too hot. And the way that they behave when you encounter them is very similar. Their first response is to hide and seek shelter. And even though they are naturally inquisitive animals, when it is cold their behaviour is the same, they are very quiet. The main difference is that Nile crocodiles are very social and often hunt together in groups when it is warm. Where as saltwater crocodiles are more solitary. And so they are less tolerant of the presence of people around them and so would give pause to anyone getting into the water with them.

Steve_Irwin asks: How many attacks are there on humans by crocs?
Adam Britton: In Australia on average there's just over one fatal attack per year, so the risk of being killed by a crocodile here is extremely small. But that's because we have an excellent education and management program. But in countries that don't have such programs, both Nile and saltwater crocodiles kill hundreds of people ever year. It's actually difficult to know how many people in a lot of these countries they don't keep very good records of the number of crocodiles attacks. In fact in some countries hide the numbers. That's why I said the most effective way of managing attacks is to make people aware of the risks.

michelle asks: One thing I have noticed living in Cairns is the people who are considered to be local and have lived here the longest are the ones who seem to be the most complacent and uneducated in croc behaviour... how do propose to educate people who should already know better??
Adam Britton: One of the problems with educating people about crocodiles is because the risk of attack is actually very low, people get away with doing some really dangerous things without getting attacked. But of course very occasionally someone will be attacked and that will make the news. But if you've been living around crocodiles all your life without any major incidences, then it is easy to believe you can get away with what you are doing. But a lot of crocodile attacks take place when people are doing recreational activities in water and so some of the more effective ways of improving safety is to think about minimising the contact that people have between themselves and potentially dangerous areas of the water. It is something that many people have written large reports about, including us. But ultimately you have to recognise that not everyone is going to listen to the advice that you give them and someone will always find a way of putting their life at risk even if they don't realise what they are doing. We simply have to make sure that the majority of people are aware of what those risks are and if people choose to disregard them completely, they isn't much we can do to stop them. Other than putting barrier in place around boat ramps to minimise the risk that crocodiles might attack you while you launching your boat.

Interviewer: Adam, thanks very much for your time tonight. Unfortunately it is time to wrap up. Do you have any final comments before we conclude?
Adam Britton: Thank you for the questions and I hope people had some of their preconceptions of crocodiles put into doubt by watching the show tonight, because ultimately if we're going to continue to have crocodiles living in the wild in the world, then the most important thing to do is to get people to understand they are important. And not only to tolerate them, but to also be proud of having them out there. But it's obviously extremely important to keep the risk of people being attacked by crocodiles to a minimum and awareness is the key to that.

Interviewer: This concludes our chat with Adam Britton, Sunday July 15, 2012.

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