Feature

Man shares vivid memories of 1964 croc hunt

James Greensill shot a 3.5m crocodile at Owanyilla in 1964 and it was taken around pubs in Maryborough before its hide was tanned.
James Greensill shot a 3.5m crocodile at Owanyilla in 1964 and it was taken around pubs in Maryborough before its hide was tanned.

ALBERT Rennika vividly remembers the day he and his father-in-law, James Greensill, hunted and shot a crocodile on the banks of the Mary River at Owanyilla on a fine June day more than 50 years ago.

But the incident, while probably the best documented, was not the earliest evidence of crocodiles on the Fraser Coast.

A newspaper article from the January 8, 1951 edition of the Courier-Mail tells of how the decomposing body of a crocodile was discovered on Woody Island by Jack Gordon, who was cruising by in an outboard motor boat.

Mr Gordon, who was said to have had experience of crocodiles in the islands during the war years, thought it was a saltwater crocodile, not freshwater, and to prove his story the man hacked off the top of the crocodile's jaw and took it to Torquay.

Another article says a crocodile was spotted near Saltwater Creek on April 3, 1951.

None of the party of fishermen had a gun, so they stood back and watched from a safe distance, the article from the Queensland Times read.

In 1947 the Courier-Mail reported a crocodile that had been sighted repeatedly in the Mary River and had been found dead by Mr J Yates, a professional fisherman, seven miles downstream.

The crocodile was said to be 10ft 5in (3.17m) long and it was shot by Mr M. Goldenstein from the bridge of the Lass O'Gowrie, which was on its way to Fraser Island for timber.

The article reported the animal was shot through the eye with a .303 and it disappeared into the river "in a flurry of blood and water".

The crocodile was handed over to the Bush Children's Health Scheme Appeal and hundreds of people viewed it at the Royal Hotel, where it was on show.

In January 1937, the township of Tiaro was on high alert as a search for a crocodile spotted in the Mary River got under way.

The Maryborough Chronicle reported police were organising a group to hunt the reptile, while a farmer living near where the crocodile was "suspected to have its haunt" had been issued with a gun.

A follow up article, also published in the Chronicle in January 1937, recounted a brief history of reported crocodile shootings in the region, with a reader recalling a 12ft (3.65m) crocodile killed at Tiaro and a 7ft (2.13m) crocodile shot near Saltwater Creek.

According to the article, a 17ft (5.6m) crocodile was shot by J Hunter about 12 miles down the river from Maryborough and "Mr Harry Wheller shot a 20ft (6m) crocodile near River Heads some years ago".

As far back at March, 1923, sightings were being reported in the Chronicle, with an article titled "Old-time incidents recalled" telling of how a crocodile had been seen in Tinana Creek after a flood.

The hide of the croc shot in the Mary River in 1964 is at the Bauple museum.
The hide of the croc shot in the Mary River in 1964 is at the Bauple museum.

Mr Rennika, now living in Glenwood, was share farming and remembers neighbouring farmers noticing some strange incidents in the months and weeks before the discovery of the 11ft (3.35m) long crocodile living on the banks of the river.

Eddie Mayer had five calves on his property, but one day only four returned after the animals had been down by the Mary River.

On closer inspection, Mr Mayer noticed there were five tracks in the mud heading to the river, but only four tracks returning to the farm.

Then one day Mr Greensill put a large net in the river, hoping for a catch. He heard a huge splash, like something jumping out of the water when he was heading back to shore, but when he turned he saw nothing.

The next day the ropes of the net, three quarters of an inch (2cm) thick, were torn.

The mystery was solved when another neighbour George Vollmerhauser, saw the crocodile one day about 50m upstream.

Mr Rennika said he had rarely heard of crocodiles in the river, excepting a few farmers over the years who had claimed they had seen one, but upon seeing his friend Mr Rennika had no doubt he was telling the truth.

"George looked as if he'd seen a ghost," Mr Rennika remembers.

"He was so white."

The crocodile had been sunning itself in plain sight, Mr Rennika said.

Deciding to see if he could find the animal, he decided to go down to the bank of the Mary River and see if he could spot anything.

The grass had grown long near the river bank, he noticed, because none of the cows would graze there, sensing the threat lurking nearby.

Mr Rennika had taken his calmest horse, which he joked would practically fall asleep while it was being ridden, and it became fidgety and nervous near the banks of the river.

"The horse knew something was there," Mr Rennika said.

About 110m from the river, Mr Rennika spotted something in the water, right in the middle of the river.

"It was like a big piece of wood, sticking up out of the middle of the river," he said.

He realised that was the crocodile and, with half its body submerged, he estimated it was about 7ft (2.1m) long.

Mr Rennika returned home and told his wife, Marjorie, what he had seen.

She told him they needed to report it to the authorities, but he was reluctant.

Sgt Greasley was the police officer at Tiaro.

Mr Rennika thought he might not be taken seriously, given the dearth of official crocodile sightings in the region.

"I thought 'he'll laugh at me,'" Mr Rennika said.

In the end he decided it had to be done and when informed, Sgt Greasley alerted the Maryborough Chronicle.

An article was printed telling the community that if someone wanted to attempt to catch the crocodile to do it tomorrow morning, otherwise the two men would be going out to shoot it about 11am.

Mr Greensill purchased bullets for his .303 and the two men, armed with the .303 and a shotgun, went searching for the crocodile on June 11, 1964.

The two quietly snuck over sand hills, wary of disturbing the creature.

But Mr Rennika said it must have felt the vibrations of their approach, because about two sand hills away from the bank of the river, they heard a huge splash as the crocodile returned to the water.

Knowing the crocodile was aware of them being there, the two men raced over the sand hills and spotted the crocodile making its way down the river.

About 20m to 30m downstream, the reptile made its way back to the shore.

Mr Rennika could only see its tail through the bushes by the shore, but Mr Greensill was confident he had a clean shot at its head.

He took the .303 and shot the crocodile, with the report in the Chronicle stating the creature had been shot through its left eye, with the bullet lodging in its jaw.

Towards dusk, the men returned with a boat, shovel and hay stick and found the body of the crocodile, which they brought back to shore.

Mr Rennika remembers the difficulty of getting the large reptile onto the boat after retrieving its body from the bottom of the river, using the hay stick to lift up its tail and then bring part of its body into the boat.

Mr Rennika then backed a trailer up to the river and the crocodile's body was loaded onto it.

In all it measured 11ft 1in (3.5m) long - one inch (2cm) longer than the trailer it was on.

The Chronicle went to the property and took photos. The crocodile had a stick placed in its mouth to show the full ferocity of its gaping jaws.

When the men checked the content of its stomach, it contained mullet and water hen.

The crocodile's skin was sent away to be tanned, which cost 70 pounds at the time, Mr Rennika recalled.

The skin was kept in Mr Rennika's family but it is now on loan to the Bauple Museum.

Crocodiles were protected under Queensland's Nature Conservation Act in 1974 and the unlawful killing of a wild crocodile would attract a fine between $11,000 - $330,000 or two years in jail.

There have been numerous sightings of crocodiles in various Fraser Coast waterways over the years, off Fraser Island, at River Heads, Eli Creek, the Mary River and, most recently, Shelly Beach between Torquay and Urangan.

The elusive creatures have mostly avoided being photographed, but in 2012 the official sighting of two of the animals at Beaver Rock in the Mary River near Saltwater Creek, made the enduring myth of crocodiles residing on the Fraser Coast a reality.

Last November, rangers captured one of the crocodiles, a 3m-long male that had long been wary of those trying to target it for removal.

The reptile was caught via a non-lethal harpoon and was moved to a Rockhampton crocodile farm where it was to be used for breeding.

The other crocodile, measuring 3.5m, sex unknown, is still in the river and has been spotted several times.

Mostly recently it was photographed on the river banks at Dundathu, although, like the other resident crocodile that has now been removed, it shows no interest in the food traps laid out by rangers.

The crocodile sightings on Shelly Beach, made by several reliable witnesses, suggest another crocodile may have made its way to our shores, with those who sighted it estimated the crocodile to measure about two metres long.

It seems clear sightings of crocodiles will continue well into the future around the waterways of the Fraser Coast - and many of those sightings may well be true.

The captured Mary River crocodile ready to be relocated to a tourist park in Rockhampton.
The captured Mary River crocodile ready to be relocated to a tourist park in Rockhampton. Valerie Horton

Topics:  croc crocodile history maryborough mary river owanyilla shot



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