Life

‘Monster Croc Wrangler’ Matt Wright Discusses Conservation And Australia’s Northern Territory


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When I told my fellow Uproxx Life writers that I’d be in Australia for a wedding this month and was looking for a side trip, maybe in the Northern Territory (a part of Australia I’d never visited but which looked beautiful in Top End Wedding), they suggested a safari camp run by Nat Geo host and acclaimed conservationist Matt Wright. It sounded so good that signed on without even watching Wright’s show first.

Then I looked up the show and discovered that it’s called Monster Croc Wrangler. The first clip I saw showed Wright and his assistants, Jono and Wilo, standing on a tiny aluminum boat, nearly falling into a murky swamp as they tried to hook a 20-foot croc. My first thought was What the hell have I gotten myself into?

Monster Croc Wrangler is back for a fourth season, which debuts this week on Nat Geo Wild. But while our natural fear of gigantic crocodiles and natural love of Aussie wild men make a great hook for a show, for Wright the press is just a way to bolster his conservation efforts. So while he seems like a wild adrenaline junkie on the surface (and I’m not entirely convinced that he isn’t) the thrills mask a genuine passion for helping humans and crocodiles coexist — through smart policies like egg collecting and helping satisfy commercial demand for things like crocodile skin and meat in ways that actually preserve wild crocodile populations rather than decimate them.

It’s worked. Crocodiles’ rebounding numbers are a conservation success story.

It’s a heady time for Wright, who’s expecting his first miniature croc wrangler with his wife, Kaia, any day now. While “crocodile relocator” sounds like a fake job an Aussie would use to pick up women, Australia is actually one of the most urbanized countries in the world — with the vast majority of the population living in cities and near the coasts. So in some ways, Wright is nurturing a disappearing skill set in one of the planet’s most vast wilderness areas. Wright’s child will no doubt grow up with one foot in the modern urban world and one foot in the wild.

On the eve of both fatherhood and a fourth season, we hoped Wright could help tell us what makes the Northern Territory so special, and perhaps more selfishly, give me some tips on not getting eaten by crocodiles.

So how did you end up with this job?

As a kid I grew up around wildlife, loved it. Wanted to be around and rescued it, and brought it home and then it just sort of grew into more of a profession. And from mice and cattle to collecting crocodile eggs to catching crocs, you know? So I traveled the world just sort of working with wildlife.

Where was home?

Australia was home, the southern part of Australia when I started. Always as a kid we traveled a lot and our family, our whole lives, diving off the south coast of Australia, that was always with a lot of big sharks. And then we’d sort of head up north for some cattle stations we were mustering, and the choppers. Then up to Cape York, so we would cover so much country in Australia.

And now you’re in the Northern Territory, obviously. Do you have favorite places to go in the Northern Territory?

The whole territory is pretty much my favorite place. It’s so diverse, and with the helicopter, I can cover so many places. During the wet season, we pretty much cover all the coastal country and there’s sort of no part of it that’s extra special. It’s all special.

How much competition do you have in the relocating-wild-animals business?

There’s no competition there, we work a bit with the Parks and Wildlife but there’s no one else who really does it. There’s a few hunters up there that try and hunt, I try to sort of put a stop to it. If there are any big crocs, we’re the people that are going to get called to step in and move them out.

How did you become the people that they called when they need a big croc moved somewhere else?

Just experience, I think. I was always handy with wildlife. Whether it was bringing in brumbies and wild cattle and then crocs or even working over in Canada catching bears, and wolf, and caribou. Reputation is what it was and it just came from there.

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I saw some footage from previous seasons where you and your partners are in like a rickety boat trying to hook a crocodile, and one of them almost falls out of the boat. So, uh… what’s the insurance like for a show like this?

[laughs] Insurance? No, we don’t get insurance. We’re a good candidate for an insurance company but no one will insure us, no.

Is that actually something you’ve looked into?

Yeah, a lot. I think they quoted me 80% of my total income on everything.

Did you say 18 or 80?

80, eight zero percent. In other words, they’re like, “Yeah, it’s not going to happen.”

Yeah, that seems like it wouldn’t be a good business model. Is it hard to convince cameramen to work with you guys in this kind of business?

I’ve got my main cameraman, Ash, and the main team. So we don’t really use anyone outside of that because everyone knows what they’re doing. And they’ve been doing it for 10 odd years, 10, 15 years now with Ash and he’s very experienced and he knows what’s going on. All our boys are really experienced when they go in there. Even on our team, we don’t use anyone green or at least we’re training them.

Are they subject to the same risk that you guys are? Is there any difference between what you guys are doing and what your camera team has to do?

Oh no, if it’s a sketchy situation I’ll always be the first in it to make sure it’s reasonably safe. And then we’ll work out areas where the cameramen… we’ll explain to the cameramen where they’re going to be able to go and stand and not go into different areas where they’re going to get bitten.

In that clip that I was talking about, you guys had guns on your hips. I was just wondering, how helpful is a sidearm if you fall into a murky pond with a full-grown crocodile?

I don’t carry a sidearm, but I think Wilo does, or did, I don’t know if he does anymore. I think the sidearm actually adds another level of danger to it where we’ve had a bloke shot before through their elbow, and yeah I don’t like them. I’d rather them not have them there, we don’t really take them, no.

Who was the guy who got shot through the elbow? And how?

Just one of the workers a few years ago. He got bitten on the arm and one of the other boys shot him. Now his elbow’s sort of a metal elbow.

Wow.

The croc didn’t do any damage, but the .357 slug that went through his elbow sure did a lot of damage.

Yeah, I bet. So when did you and Jono and Wilo first meet?

I grew up with Jono, and I met Wilo in about my thirties. He came out to do some work on a cattle station where I was catching a lot of crocs and he showed a lot of interest and wanted to be involved, so we got him involved and now he loves it.

Do you feel a responsibility for their safety at all when you guys are out on a job?

Yeah definitely, the responsibility of everyone that’s out there. I try to make sure that it’s all safe.

Do you feel that you are an adrenaline junkie at all? Or is this just part of the job?

No, I just like the adventure. I like to get out there and try new stuff, but more so just working with wildlife. If I was an adrenaline junkie I’d probably be base jumping and skydiving and riding fast motorbikes, but I like the wildlife. And I understand it.

Over the course of the seasons of this show, do you think that you take more or fewer risks now than you did at the start?

I think you grow with your experience, but the risks are less inherent the more you know. Not specific power, but I think knowing the animal gives you more power. You just don’t get complacent.

What are all the different animals that you guys have had to relocate?

I don’t know, there’s a whole list of them. From deadly snakes to crocodiles to brumbies, wild cattle, elephants, orangutans, wolves, caribou, bears, there’s quite a few out there. But it’s good, I enjoy it. We’ve done some work with rhinos as well.

Tell me about your Safari Camp and how that supports your conservation efforts.

The Safari Camp is based out of one of our properties. It takes people out into my backyard a bit and we educate them about crocodiles and sharks and the wildlife in the ecosystem that we have down there on the northern parts of the flood plains in the Northern Territory. It’s a beautiful place and the ecosystem there is unbelievable.

More to the point, how scared should I be to come visit it?

You’ll be fine, you’ll love it.

Is it your first kid that you guys are about to have?

Yeah, that’s right. We are, we’re having a little boy there and I’m looking forward to having a bit of time at home and resting a bit with my wife. I don’t get to see her much at the moment, we’ve been sort of crossing paths and I’ve been out working pretty hard to do both the media and our businesses. Yeah, we run a quite a few businesses, and plus the T.V. and the media promotion sort of thing so we’re both pretty busy. We’re looking forward to being able to spend a bit of time at home.

Do you see fatherhood changing the way you do your job at all? Or softening you in some way?

A lot of people ask me that. I don’t think so, I think if anything it’s going to focus me more on life and what I want my kids to learn and have knowledge about. It’s what I do. Yes, it’s dangerous to people in their own eyes, but generally, it’s what I’ve done for a living. If you’re good at what you do as a job it’s not dangerous.

Do you see him going into the family business? Or maybe a better question, is there a way to be raised with you and not go into the family business?

I don’t know, kids always have a fascination with wildlife and if he wants to follow in those footsteps the doors are open for him, but you never know, they might not want to go down that path. Definitely, he’s going to be immersed in the wildlife environment so we’ll give him the best of both worlds. Give him a good education and also show him the outback and the environment sort of stuff.

How did you and your wife meet? I heard there’s a cool story there.

I met my wife, Kaia, down at Rottnest Island quite a few years ago. I went down there to do a bit of work, a bit of business and met her with a group of her mates and sort of kicked it off since then. She was actually going over across to work in the UK and I convinced her to not go and come to the Northern Territory instead. It’s been great ever since.

What job was she off to do in the UK before she met you?

I don’t know, it was a good job. She’s a smart woman. She’s in the corporate world, but it’s well over my head. She was getting some bloody good job over in London, but no, she turned it down. Now she has to look after our own businesses.

You guys are like a business partnership now, right?

Yeah, we sort of restructured our lives and businesses now, I’ve started new businesses with her so it’s sort of a family orientated way to go. I think we’ve got about 20-odd employees now and two of the companies have done quite well. Been hard to keep track of sometimes.

So I feel like if I was making up a fake job for an Australian, “Crocodile Relocator” would be up there.

[laughs] Oh, mate. Definitely.


So I guess the most obvious question that comes up for your job: what do you think is so important about protecting an animal that most people are afraid of?

I think it’s animals in general, it’s trying to change human perception. We started many years ago killing animals for necessity — for food, for warmth. This day and age people kill them for hunting, or out of protecting their livestock but we need to find that balance where we’re not killing everything on the Earth instead of giving them a safe haven and looking after these animals. We’re meant to be the apex predator of the world and the guardian of everything and all we do is destroy it, so it’s got to change that and look after every animal.

Not just one that people are scared of.

Okay, last question. Is there anything I should know about the Safari Camp before I come out?

No, you’ll be all right. Bring a bit of mosquito spray, you’ll be fine.

New episodes of Monster Croc Wrangler will air back-to-back nightly at 9 and 9:30pm ET as part of Nat Geo WILD’s “Croc Week,” August 5-8.
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