When Crocodile Dundee hit the silver screen in 1986, the film's croc-wrestling, hat-wearing, knife-wielding protagonist quickly became the quintessential symbol of Australian machismo. But long before Mick Dundee, there were these real-life reptile wrestlers:

Directed by prolific filmmaker Lee Robison, this government-commission mini-documentary was filmed in 1949, but has only recently been released by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).

The clip takes us on a ten-minute journey into the billabongs of 1940s Northern Territory to see how traditional hunters from the Daly River’s Brinkin tribe, as well as more modern gun-wielding hunting groups, first harvested crocodiles for their meat and skin. It's as fascinating as it is, in parts, disturbing.

"For a film so early, you don't always get that complete picture of what's going on, but in this you get to see all sides," NFSA production coordinator Richard Carter told 105.7 ABC Darwin.

Brinkin men are seen tracking the animals through the murky water before making the kill with barbed harpoons, while non-indigenous groups (often led, in truly discomforting colonial fashion, by a local tribesman) open fire on a croc resting beside a lagoon.

"For the Brinkin hunters depicted, the pay-off was mostly meat, while the non-Indigenous hunters depict the beginnings of the Northern Territory's now-booming crocodile leather industry," writes ABC News.

Although Aboriginal people had long been hunting crocs for their meat, the effects on the population were minor, and it wasn't until a surge in the availability of rifles in the wake of WWII, combined with declining supply of skins from Africa, that the commercial skin trade really took off, taking its toll on crocodile populations Down Under. Between 1945 and 1972, around 300,000 Australian saltwater crocodiles were killed.

Croc hunting also became popular with adventurous tourists, and by the 1960s, populations of both saltwater (Crocodylus porosus) and freshwater (Crocodylus johnsoni) species had declined dramatically. Legal protection eventually came to the rescue in the early 1970s, and the salties quickly bounced back, with numbers today approaching pre-hunting levels. 


Header image: Peter Nijenhuis/Flickr