There are more than 100,000 saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia. They grow more 20 feet long, weigh over 1000 pounds, and bite with a force exceeding the weight of a small car. And yet there are a group of people crazy enough to hunt them. They cruise around in boats at night with nothing more than a big light, a big harpoon, and a gun, searching for pairs of glowing eyes peeking just above the water.
“It’s somewhat unnerving,” says photographer Trevor Frost. “It’s not like I think the crocodile is going to jump out of the water and eat me on the boat. But it’s eerie. Eyes are everywhere.”
Frost tagged along on 11 hunts for his ongoing series Cult of the Crocodile. The project captures all aspects of the croc-human relationship, from a breeding farm producing highest-quality skins to delighted tourists gawking at crocodiles gobbling up chicken meat. “Here’s this creature that’s been around for millions of years unchanged,” he says. “It can kill people. Some people love it. Some people hate it. And there’s this entire industry around it.”
Nicknamed “salties,” the Australian crocodile lurks in warm rivers, lagoons and billabongs, chomping down on large beasts like pigs, water buffalo, and even sharks. But in the 1960s, the crocodile disappeared almost completely due to over hunting. The government banned killing them in 1971, and the population quickly bounced back. Today, a crocodile management program provides “incentives-based” conservation, allowing for a regulated $100 million commercial industry that includes collecting wild eggs, breeding, and about 1,200 hunting permits a year. Hunters must describe the crocodile they want to kill, then film the death so authorities can verify it was cruelty-free. Many crocodiles are killed due to complaints from locals about them wandering too close to neighborhoods or eating their cattle.
Frost lives in Richmond, Virgina and became fascinated with crocodiles when he visited Australia in 2013 on assignment. He met hunter Aaron Rodwell while purchasing a souvenir crocodile tooth, and Rodwell eagerly showed Frost a cell phone video of him wrangling a croc with his bare hands. Frost was hooked. “The hunters are exposing themselves to a serious amount of risk in order to get a crocodile, and it could go either way,” he says. “The crocodile could get one of them. Or they could get the crocodile.”
He shadowed Rodwell and his partner Roger Matthews on hunts over the next three years. The men set sail in a small aluminum boat at night, beaming a spotlight into the water to pick up the creature’s eyes. They then quietly sidle up beside it and thrust a harpoon in its neck, letting the croc thrash and hiss in the water up to several hours until it tires out. They then lasso its jaw shut, hoist it onto the boat, and execute it with a .22 revolver. There were some close calls. Once, Frost was shooting when a 16-foot croc chomped down on the side of the boat and shook it violently. “When you hear, ‘Get the fuck down!’ that’s when it’s scary,” he says. “Afterwards your heart is beating a thousand miles an hour.”
The cinematic images are fascinating, strange, and often downright grisly. In one photo, a man sits in a hot tub with baby crocs he keeps as pets. In another, Rodwell and Matthews pose proudly with a crocodile strung up in a tree. It’s something you don’t see every day, but not so unusual in a land of 100,000 crocs.