Nat Geo's Outback Wrangler: A monster hunter who wants to conserve, not kill

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Feb 3, 2017

Zipping through the swamps of Australia's Northern Territory on an airboat, the humidity feels like it's pushing 100 percent. I'm drenched in sweat ... and watching a bloke poke around in the water looking for a giant crocodile.

Then he finds it. Actually, to be honest, it finds us.

As the croc wrangler smacks the water with a plunger, letting out a wet "plop" each time, the massive reptile springs from below, snapping at the stick – and the man attached to it – and partially lands atop our small craft before sliding back down below.

Without a trace of irony (well, maybe a little), my inner Chief Brody thinks, "We're gonna need a bigger airboat."

The feeling in the pit of my stomach is not fear, per se, but awe mixed with primordial dread. Just a couple feet away from me is a prehistoric creature that continues to exist on this earth; to borrow from Hooper this time, I think, this thing is a perfect engine, an eating machine.

It isn’t surprising crocodiles are close behind sharks as a favorite predator elevated to giant monster status in horror and sci-fi movies. Lake Placid, Eaten Alive, Killer Crocodile, Primeval, Blood Surf … Dinocroc vs. Supergator: Though the quality ranges from "pretty okay" to "please God make it stop" bad, crocodiles have earned their spot as a man-eating favorite in film. And understandably so.

More dinosaur than reptile, crocs are incredibly fast (over short distances); they've excellent night vision, can hear well and have an acute sense of smell. They live a long time (but we don't know how long, exactly), grow to incredible sizes, and you don't see them coming when they're on the hunt. Plus, they make humans feel small and vulnerable, as if we need to rethink our placement on the food chain. And when you're in the waters with them, you should.

Back to the airboat: Whether I'm more Brody or Hooper, the Quint of this mission – standing at the edge of the airboat -- is definitely Matt Wright.

The star of Nat Geographic Wild’s environmental adventure series Outback Wrangler (which airs its second season finale tonight at 8PM), Wright is very much a figure cut in the mold of genre monster hunters like Quint or Ripley. There is a swagger to Wright; he wears his affable cockiness like he does his pair of blue jeans, boots, baseball cap and self-assured grin. A true Aussie boy from the NT, he has an abundance of quips and colloquialisms, and runs towards the danger of these predators instead of away from them. Simply put, he is precisely the type of bruce you hope to have leading a crocodile expedition .

But what’s especially curious about this particular Ahab is that he's not trying to kill his prey but save them. Like an Aussie Tarzan of sorts, Wright grew up surrounded by the deadliest creatures of Australia, such as the King Brown snake, and collected them as pets. Raised by his expert archer of a mother – and with skills honed as a professional pilot, soldier and horse wrangler – he developed a celebrity reputation as a crocodile conservationist.

And throughout the course of his show, Wright is shown flying around in his helicopter (the vast area Wright covers pretty much necessitates the chopper. Plus, it's ridiculously cool to go everywhere via this mode of transport), swooping in to assist ranchers and landowners with nuisance saltwater crocodiles who might be snatching up cattle or pets or posing a threat to fishermen.

To prevent the property owners from killing the animals, he relocates them somewhere safe (a process that involves traps, and the occasional helivac maneuver of a caged croc flying away, tethered to a chopper). Another aspect of Wright's work is to harvest croc eggs for legal harvesting. This system encourages ranchers to allow crocodiles to nest on their property; when Wright and his cohorts clear out the eggs, they are sold off, the rancher gets a cut and the crocodile black market is neutered.

This conservation effort has allowed the crocodile population in Australia to rebound after being on the brink of extinction in the late 1970s. Even now, habitat destruction by man, overheating, flooding - or even predators such as feral pigs – claim close to 80 percent of eggs. The ones that do hatch are still threatened by humans as well as natural predators, which results in about less than one percent of the Australian croc population reaching adulthood.

However, while Wright is contributing to the preservation of these creatures, he's not so much an instrument of environmental science as a self-styled action hero from a sci-fi monster flick who clearly loves what he does.

For instance, Wright choppered me into his own property -- not terribly far from a location where he plans to build a camping resort in the shape of Australia, surrounded by a croc-filled moat -- where he had been keeping an enormous specimen of a crocodile. The crocodile was previously saved from destruction, but as part of the croc's survival, Wright planned to relocate it from the waters on his land to a large, privately-owned enclosure behind a local pub in the NT. Sure, the croc would become an attraction, but it would be alive and cared for and not a nuisance to others.

What seemed like an 'easy' task with the help of his buddies (and Outback Wrangler castmates) Jono and Willow, Wright tries to locate the croc under swampy water coated in thick green algae. To discover the creature, the team decided to drain the pond, which wasn't exactly happening quickly. Still, without much water left, the croc couldn't be found – until Wright slid a door to the edge of the water to give the water a poke. After a pair of enormous jaws snapped from the opaque surface, the team shifted into retrieval mode, beginning a long, arduous task of trying to rope the top of the croc's mouth and drag it from the water, where they could tape up the powerful snapping mechanism, tie down the beast and load it up on a trailer to drive to the new enclosure.

During the process, there were more than a few moments where, as a bystander, I watched someone slip or appear too close (for my comfort) to the croc, and the thought crossed my mind that terrible things were about to happen.

I felt similar tension when we flew into a ranch with some problem crocs in the water. Wright retrieved the first of two caged crocodiles from the nearby water via helicopter and landed them on the adjoining pasture. With the stench of rotting meat filling the air – the bait the crocodile couldn't be bothered to eat once it was caught – the animal grunted, death-rolled and crashed against the cage with its enormous tail.

Wright attempted to lasso the crocodile's jaws to pull it out of the cage and tie it down but it was facing the back end of the long rectangular crate – a back end that was becoming weakened and looked to break open.

During moments like this, one can't help but wonder if Wright might find it easier to just shoot the nuisance croc and be done with it. Of course, that's illegal since the species is protected, but would anyone notice? Would the ranch owners be all that inconvenienced?

Thankfully, that's not what transpires. Instead, Wright kicks the back of the cage repeatedly until the weakened wall starts to give and the crocodile takes advantage and barrels through. Likely standing closer than I should have, I jump back and watch as Wright and Co. lasso the jaw and swiftly begin the process of tying up its jaws and taping down its feet to lessen the immediate threat of the creature (although that tail is still dangerous). Wright ties the croc to a tree so it can calm down on its own -- instead of building up too much fatal lactic acid inside its system – and would return later to retrieve the croc for relocation.

From there, it was back into the helicopter and onto the next location.

Over the course of a few days spent with Wright and his team, I was close to countless crocodiles – sometimes it seemed like I was just beyond striking distance -- and witnessed as a monster movie unfolded around me. Except this was a monster movie where the hunter was trying to keep the monsters alive.

Take a look at the images I caught from the adventure and check out the season finale of Outback Wrangler with Matt Wright on Nat Geo Wild tonight at 8PM for a look at the Quint of crocs – if Quint was more interested in conservation than killing.