Collecting crocodile eggs, Northern Territory
We talk to the star of the National Geographic Channel series, Outback Wrangler, about life in the Northern Territory wrestling crocodiles.
By Jessica Wilkinson
Published: May 30, 2017
He’s been called the Bear Grylls of Australia and the next Steve Irwin, but Matt Wright is actually just unapologetically himself – a ‘true-blue’ Aussie bloke who spends his days wading into crocodile nests, hanging out of helicopters, mustering wild brumbies, and deep-diving into the heart of the Northern Territory. For Wright, this is life – it just happens to be an incredibly fascinating one.
A welcomed addition to the Friend of Australia family, we talk to Wright about saltwater crocodiles, the dangerous mission of collecting croc eggs, and life as an Outback Wrangler.
Matt Wright on Instagram
I’ll be honest, I find crocodiles pretty terrifying. Do you feel that they’re a misunderstood animal?
"Well, the reality is that the saltwater crocodile is a dangerous animal – it is an opportunistic apex predator that can kill people. However, they are one of the most beautiful and intriguing animals on earth and like any animal deserve to be respected and protected. Salties play a critical role in the health of many aquatic environments and are one of the few remaining links to our prehistoric past. I am fascinated by them and am passionate about educating people about their role and importance because people will never care for or protect anything they don’t understand."
Saltwater crocs are the most dangerous of the species – not many would choose to go near them on a daily basis. What made you decide to go into this line of work?
“I have a natural born instinct and attraction to wildlife and love working and connecting with reptiles in particular. I’ve always done jobs outdoors or alongside animals. Being a helicopter pilot I found myself landing a job slinging into and slinging people onto crocodile nests to collect crocodile eggs, which is a little out of the ordinary. It can get a bit hairy and it’s not a job for everyone for obvious reasons, I think there’s about 15 of us in Australia who do it.”
Why collect the eggs? Is it to ensure the species' survival?
“In the 1970s there was an uncontrolled trade in croc skins which depleted the wild population of saltwater crocs to the point of extinction. In the early 1980s, the Northern Territory government introduced a new strategy aimed at informing the public of the environmental and economic benefits of crocodile conservation. A key part of this was egg collecting, which was, and still is considered the best way to encourage sustainability and reward landowners for protecting the wild population of saltwater crocodiles on their properties. This incentive driven practice has become one of the best conservation programs in the world. Salties are no longer a threatened species in the NT with over 140,000 in the wild, which is back to their original numbers. Frustratingly there is still a lot of ignorance about egg collecting and people don’t understand it is part of a broader conservation model. But educating people about this is one of the key motivators for my TV show Outback Wrangler.”
What’s involved in collecting eggs from crocodile nests? What sort of protection do you have?
“Dangling from a chopper, you get slung into a swamp with some pretty rancid conditions - 90 percent humidity, big spiders and leeches crawling all over you. You enter with a pole in one hand to fend off any crocs and a crate in your other hand to collect the eggs. Sometimes, the croc nest is built on floating grass, hidden in cane grass or nestled along waterways. Once you’ve established your position you begin to mark and load the eggs meticulously. You have to make sure the eggs stay upright – if you turn an egg on its axis the yoke will crush the embryo within so they have to be packed in the crate correctly. Once you’ve cleared the nest you get slung out and taken to the next – it’s tiresome work. We tend to collect 40 to 60 eggs per nest and do about 20 to 30 nests per day with two choppers and two collectors.”
You also relocate crocodiles (which isn’t for the faint-hearted). What’s involved and why do it?
“My preference is always to relocate a croc instead of killing one. I avoid killing crocs at all costs and it breaks my heart when I hear of a large old croc being killed or poached without cause. If a crocodile is identified as a problem, meaning it is harassing people or livestock, then this is when one of my relocations takes place. Moving problem crocodiles keeps the balance between people and crocs – a croc doesn’t get shot and a person doesn’t get eaten. I understand that unfortunately, I can’t save every croc but if there’s an opportunity where I can remove a croc before it is destroyed I try to take that option first. No animal should ever get killed unnecessarily.”
What’s the hairiest situation you’ve ever found yourself in?
“Collecting croc eggs always creates an environment for the hairy stuff. A few years ago I remember being backed into a corner in thick cane grass and not being able to move. I had a cranky 11-foot female launch at my leg and fall at my feet. We were in a Mexican standoff waiting for the first sign of movement. I remember feeling pretty stuck and my mate Mick was dangling on the 100-foot line above me not knowing whether to shoot at the croc or leave me to fend for myself. In a stroke of luck, she launched at me to take a snap and my jab of the stick caught her off guard and she retreated into the water but that was definitely one of the closer calls.”
You mentioned the National Geographic TV series Outback Wrangler which follows you as you relocate crocodiles and muster Brumbies from your chopper – is this really a day in the life of Matt Wright?
“These adventures take up a large part of my life along with running a couple of adventure tourism companies in Darwin, Outback Floatplane Adventures and Wright Expeditions which I created to bring people into my world and show them the crocs up close and personal and experience the very best of rugged Australia from the lush waterfalls, rolling plains, wild brumbies, epic birdlife, unique station life and living and breathing the outback way.”
Tell me a little bit more about your tourism businesses…”
“Outback Floatplane Adventures runs Darwin’s number one trip The Ultimate Tour that takes people into what could be considered Australia’s forgotten land. Inaccessible by land, the remote Finniss River floodplains west of Darwin is teeming with wildlife and untouched landscapes. The Ultimate Tour takes guests there via a floatplane from Darwin, flying over Bynoe Harbour to Sweets Lagoon for a water landing.
Guests then take a relaxing boat cruise and enjoy a cooked meal, before jumping on board an airboat to explore the monsoonal rainforest and encounter some of the Territory’s most unique birdlife and wild saltwater crocs. R44 Robinson helicopters then give guests a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Before getting back on the floatplane to Darwin, guests can cool off in a croc safe pool. It’s a good fun adventure for people wanting to see the best of the Top End.”
If people want to see crocodiles in the wild, where can they do that and how would you recommend they go about it?
“If you want to see crocs in the wild, the safest and most enjoyable way is with a tourism company. My tours obviously offer this and so do the likes of Jumping Crocodile Cruises on the Adelaide River and some of the cruises through Katherine Gorge. I’d recommend against going on your own expeditions to see crocs in the wild because they can catch you off guard in any of the waterways around the Territory and remember to always read the croc wise signs from Parks and Wildlife about which swimming holes you can and can’t enter.”
Let’s talk Australia. Where did you grow up?
“I spent a lot of my youth moving around Australia but spent most of my childhood growing up in South Australia. My main home was in Mount Compass about an hour’s drive south of Adelaide, there was a lot to keep me entertained on our property there, we had horses, chooks, pigs and a hotheaded billy goat. And to my delight, there were snakes and lizards everywhere.
The landscape around there is picturesque but the real fun for me was with the animals I would bag scorpions and brown snakes and take them home to my poor mum. We would take the boat out a lot to the Yorke Peninsula - my favourite spot was Seal Island just off Althorpe Island where my Mum would go diving for crayfish and we’d fish around the reefs. I still go down to that part of the world and love diving for cray and fishing for whiting off the beach.”
What’s your favourite part of Australia?
“That’s an impossible question! The best thing about Australia is its diversity from the arid bush to the lush rainforests and unbelievable coastline. But a few places that have my heart are the Margaret River region with its wine country and amazing surf, the Territory floodplains and all its creatures, the Kimberley coast with the contrast between the aqua and the red dirt, the islands off Cape York with unbelievable diving and fishing – the list goes on, nothing else beats Australia!”
You live and work in the Northern Territory, what do you love most about that part of Australia?
“I’ve lived in the Territory for 17 years and love how the NT outback enables me to connect to the land and the adventurous lifestyle it promotes. The vast landscapes give such an amazing feeling of freedom and the people are so laid back and easy going. We live in a little slice of heaven up here removed from the rat race and hustle and bustle of city life. We have incredible landscapes, waterfalls at our doorstep, smiling people, abundant fishing spots, unique wildlife, no traffic, awesome Asian fusion food, good pubs, great markets and an all-round great Aussie culture.”
What’s on your bucket list in terms of Australian destinations?
“I’d love to check out Tasmania – my cameraman from Outback Wrangler is from there and is always raving about it and showing me beautiful shots. I’ve never been and with one-third of the state being a national park or world heritage protected wilderness it sounds like my sort of playground to explore. The coastline with its epic surf breaks and underwater kelp forests look unreal as well.”