ROCKHAMPTON, Australia — "What we're looking at is one of the last living dinosaurs," says John Lever as he stares lovingly at a 12-foot crocodile he's named Ugly.
Lever is standing at the edge of one of the ponds on his Korana Crocodile Farm, just east of this Central Queensland town. He's dangling a four-pound chunk of raw meat over the edge of the pond and cooing at Ugly.
Ugly stares back, motionless. Then as Lever drops the meat, the crocodile suddenly jumps out of the water, jaws snapping shut around the steak with a violent crack.
"Their history goes back 180 million years," Lever said, unfazed by the intensity of the animal's charge. "If there's one word I'd use to describe my feelings for crocodiles, it would be respect--respect for a survivor.
"They haven't got a great deal of beauty, they're expressionless, they can be devastating and potentially dangerous at all times. You can't love them unless you know about them and that takes a great deal of effort."
For many Australians, the idea of loving one of the most dangerous animals in their country is a bit much. Over the years, "cleaning out" croc-infested rivers was seen as a macho sport for some, Lever said. The only way to change that prejudice is to make crocodile farming a money-making industry.
"We're conservationists," Lever said. "And the only way the crocodile is going to be preserved is if we make it worth money. Nothing else seems to work, especially with an animal that doesn't have much eye appeal."
That's putting it mildly. And while crocodiles may not be a thing of beauty, tourists in Australia are fascinated by them, partially as a result of the success of the movie "Crocodile Dundee."
Lever has opened his farm to the public three days a week, offering day and night tours, both on the water and from the safety of the banks.
Guests learn about the reptiles' elaborate mating ritual, nest building, egg laying, and territoriality.
There are five-inch-long babies, fresh out of their shells, blindly exploring their world in the farm's incubation sheds. Out on the muddy islands of the lakes, low-status males go through frantic efforts to avoid territorial confrontations with others higher on the pecking order.
While some 40,000 visitors came to Korana last year, Lever has avoided turning the farm into a honky-tonk-style tourist attraction.
"Korana is a working farm and we don't do tricks," he says. "We don't wade through the water after the animals. If we do have to catch an animal, we do it when people aren't around. We don't want to give the wrong impression. We want people to go away respecting the animals for what they are: ancient, primitive dinosaurs."
Seeing the crocodiles in such a light is the sort of attitude that Lever wishes more Australians would adopt, but then not many have had his education.
The 45-year-old Queenslander was introduced to the reptiles during a seven-year stint as a manager of wildlife stations in New Guinea in the '70s. His work involved forays into the bush and interviews with members of local tribes about the fauna of the area.
And, Lever said, the more he talked to the locals about crocodiles, the more he realized his own ignorance and prejudice.
"One of the questions I asked was 'Do crocodiles eat their young?' Now most people would say 'yes.' But I posed this question to a large gathering of tribes once on the Fly River (in New Guinea).
The chief sat way in the back and his mouthpiece stood up front, answering the easy questions. When I asked this one, he sent the question back to the chief and after a great deal of discussion, the answer came forward. He just looked at me and said 'Would you?' "
After his time in New Guinea and a later two-year stint in Indonesia, Lever came back to Australia a committed croco-phile.
While his countrymen still displayed a pronounced dislike of the "living dinosaurs," Lever set about to try and preserve the animals, setting up the 290-acre farm stocked with breeders, crocodiles he had caught in the wild. (Australian law prohibits the killing of wild crocodiles for economic gain.)
Six years and nearly $1 million later, Lever has more than 700 crocodiles basking in the mud in the three lakes around his farm, most of them 4- to 6-foot adolescents. His aim is to have 5,000 crocodiles. It's an ambition that some of his neighbors don't understand.
In many parts of Australia, the crocodile is seen as a dangerous pest, something to be conscious of when fishing or swimming. Signs warning of the presence of crocodiles in rivers and inlets are common in the suburbs as well as in the bush and every year, several people are "taken," usually as the result of alcohol abuse or ignorance of the danger. Such incidents have often been followed by public hysteria and free-for-all slaughters.
While Lever says the public is correct to be concerned about the danger of crocodiles, an eradication program is not a reasonable response.