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SYDNEY (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 (US$6,000) on swimmers caught in crocodile waters, as a means of separating man from man-eater.
"It's a classic example of lateral thinking," Queensland politician Bob Katter said on Thursday in ridiculing the plan.
"Instead of removing the crocs, they're going to remove human beings," said Katter, who believes crocodile culling should be re-introduced as the prehistoric-looking creatures venture closer to populated towns and beaches.
Commercial hunting of crocodiles was banned in the 1970s, and many people in northern Queensland believe crocodile numbers have exploded, saying crocodiles now cruise beaches, boat harbors and freshwater swimming holes used by locals and tourists.
Surf lifesavers at Forrest Beach near Townsville in northern Queensland have spotted six crocodiles in the water since December.
"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," Katter told local radio recently.
"Surely people have the right to protect their kids from a dangerous predatory animal," he said.
"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." Another Queensland politician, national Senator Ian Macdonald, who also backs crocodile culling, said the new conservation plan favored animals over humans.
"I'm a great conservationist, but when it comes to people's lives as opposed to an explosion in crocodile population then I will always pick people's lives. There will be a tragedy," Macdonald said.
But the Queensland Environment Minister Lindy Nelson-Carr rejected fears that crocodile numbers had exploded.
"It's more likely that more people are visiting or moving into croc habitat, and so more people are noticing crocs," she said this week in releasing the conservation plan.
"Saltwater crocodiles are a vulnerable species with only about 30,000 believed to be left in the wild in Queensland."
But some crocodile experts estimate there could be 65,000 to 70,000 crocodiles in Queensland state.
Nelson-Carr said the conservation plan was a balanced approach to managing crocodiles.
"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," she said.
"Crocodiles are one of Australia's native predators that keep the ecosystem functioning and without them, Queensland would be a very different place."
Editing by Rosalind Russell; email@example.com; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org; +61-2-9373 1804