Aspiring Crocodile Dundee-types may soon have the chance to live out their fantasies if a small town in Australia's tropical north has its way. Cooktown, a remote coastal settlement in northern Queensland, is hoping to attract international big game hunters to deal with its rapidly growing number of crocodiles. Once thought to be close to extinction due to heavy hunting for their skins and meat, saltwater crocodiles are now thriving throughout tropical Australia, from Queensland to the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The town, named after Captain James Cook, says it has more crocodiles than it knows what to do with. The giant reptiles are regularly spotted on local beaches, creeks and even on the golf course. Locals say the recent sighting of a five-metre-long crocodile at the fishing wharf illustrates how brazen the creatures are becoming - the wharf is situated on the town's main shopping street. Mayor Graham Elmes, a landowner and former crocodile hunter, wants to see the animals' protected status repealed and plans to charge tourists A$15,000 (about HK$62,000) for the privilege of shooting a crocodile and having its head stuffed and mounted. Residents have even formed a Crocodile Committee to plan the campaign. Elmes, 53, estimates there are up to 15,000 large saltwater crocodiles in Cook Shire Council, an area the size of England, which extends to the continent's northernmost tip, Cape York. He says local people are at risk from the animals, particularly children in outlying areas who have to wade across flooded creeks to get to school. A home-made sign at a local beach, Cherry Tree Bay, bears a picture of a crocodile and a warning in pidgin English: 'Dispela stap hia' ('This fella lives here'). 'We have 4.6-metre long animals living within a couple of kilometres of town. The only reason we haven't had any fatalities yet is because local people know the risks and behave accordingly. But it's just a matter of time,' says Elmes. 'People in the town think it [the cull] is a brilliant idea, and I've got 100 per cent support in our neighbouring shires too.' Elmes believes crocodiles are 'just another commodity' which should be exploited to the benefit of locals. Organised crocodile hunting would create jobs, particularly for local Aborigines, who would act as guides and rangers. Tourists would be taken into the bush on foot, in vehicles and in boats, armed with high-powered rifles. Some of the hunting would be carried out at night, using spotlights to pin-point the crocodiles' eyes. For prospective hunters, reaching Cooktown would be an adventure in itself. The small, picturesque town is at the end of a dirt road which winds its way through World Heritage-listed rainforest and is crossed by numerous creeks. It was established as a supply port after gold was discovered on the Palmer River in 1873, attracting an eclectic crowd of Scottish and English prospectors, Chinese merchants and assorted vagabonds and adventurers. 'If it's managed properly it would be more than sustainable. We have thousands of crocodiles. If you take 100 a year, it would be a long time before any damage was done to their numbers,' Elmes says. Professional guides would conduct surveys of the vast region, only issuing culling permits where there was evidence that the crocodile population had risen dramatically. There is no shortage of local expertise: Cape York already supports a thriving safari business, with hunters from Australia and overseas flocking to the rugged peninsula in pursuit of wild pigs and feral bulls. There are two species of crocodile in Australia - freshwater crocodiles, or 'freshies', which live on fish and crabs and are mostly harmless to humans - and saltwater crocodiles, or 'salties', which are considered extremely dangerous. Saltwater crocodiles can grow up to six metres long and a tonne in weight. They have changed little in appearance since the age of the dinosaurs, 160 million years ago. Once fully mature they have no natural predators and regularly kill livestock, wild pigs and kangaroos, particularly around water holes and along river banks. Occasionally, they attack and kill humans. Hunting crocodiles was outlawed in Queensland in 1974, and in the Northern Territory and Western Australia a few years earlier, bringing to an end a quarter of a century of commercial exploitation. Before that, many crocodiles were shot for sport by early European settlers, who considered them vermin. By the late 1960s, crocodile numbers were so depleted that some experts feared the population had sunk below a critical level, from which recovery would be impossible. But their concerns proved to be unfounded, and crocodiles quickly bounced back. Now they have recolonised most of their former range. 'I know some areas where you could take out 50 big fellas and it wouldn't make a bit of difference,' Elmes says. He hunted crocodiles as a young man in the late 1950s, shooting around 300 in four years and selling the skins. 'We got so much an inch for the belly skin, and so much an inch for what they called 'horny back' - the knobbly bit of the crocodile. We'd shoot them from boats, then dive into the water and put a hook around the croc's foot and haul them into the boat.' Elmes has put his proposal to the Queensland Crocodile Management Advisory Committee, which brings together conservationists, government agencies and local fishermen. Committee chairman Professor Gordon Grigg, a zoologist from Queensland University who has been involved in crocodile research for 30 years, says he wants to see more information about the effects of controlled hunting, but is keeping 'an open mind' about Cooktown's proposal. 'If a farmer is allowed to charge a German or an American tourist A$20,000 to shoot a crocodile, he is likely to be more tolerant of crocodiles on his land, and that's got to be good for conservation,' says Grigg. 'But there are issues of animal welfare - whether the crocodile will be killed humanely - and political issues. A lot of people would be opposed to seeing hunting resumed.' Conservationists are opposed to the plan, arguing that locals are exaggerating the number of crocodiles in the wild. Peter Hensler, a wildlife management officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, says that in some areas crocodile numbers are still at risk. 'They're only just holding their own. There are a lot more pressures these days: more fishing, for instance, means there's a greater chance that the crocodiles will get caught in fishermen's nets. There's more development too.' But Elmes believes culling is essential. 'At least 100 big crocs have been shot up here already this year. It's illegal, but you can't blame people. If a property owner is mustering, and he finds a waterhole with a crocodile in it, and that croc could kill a horse worth A$2,000 then he'll shoot it there and then. If we don't do something soon, it will be open season on crocodiles.' Under Queensland's tough anti-poaching legislation, anyone caught killing a wild crocodile can be fined up to A$225,000 or face two years in jail. Elmes is dismissive of the resistance he faces from wildlife authorities. 'We're the people who've got to live with the problem, not the bureaucrats down in Brisbane and Canberra. 'If they want a say in our lives they should come up and live here. I believe we have a better than reasonable chance of making this work.'