By Sarah Hudson, The Weekly Times
MATT Wright looks out the backdoor across his 2430ha Northern Territory property.
“It’s a sunny 32C with a light south-easterly blowing,” says Matt, on his mobile phone.
“I’m looking out to a few termite mounds and Tripod is resting in the sun, about 30m away.”
Tripod, Matt casually explains, is a 5m saltwater crocodile (with three legs) who has taken up residence in the backyard.
No fuss really: another day, another crocodile.
To followers of his National Geographic TV series, the 37-year-old is better known as the Outback Wrangler, which follows his day job working on cattle stations, relocating problem crocs and sustainably harvesting crocodile eggs for the Top End’s crocodile industry.
More recently Matt has also become the face of Australian tourism, promoting our shores overseas and running his Outback Floatplane Adventures from his NT property, taking half day and overnight tours by chopper and boat of about 4000 visitors a year.
Since he gained his helicopter pilot licence at 21, and started jackarooing on outback stations about the age of 17, these prehistoric man-eaters have become common place in Matt’s life.
“I was about 22 when I caught my first croc — about 16 foot from memory,” he says.
“The owner of the cattle station told me to go and catch this croc — as a junior pilot one of your jobs is to catch crocs and collect their eggs. He didn’t think I’d do it, but I went out and set a trap and got him.”
While Matt admits his heart was racing and he cracked a sweat, to this day he believes catching the reptile is easier than lassoing a bull.
“If you’re in a four-wheel drive, a bull is easier, but if it’s rope on a horse, anything can go wrong with a bull. You’ve got a 700kg bull bearing down on you, it’s daunting.
“Whereas a croc is a creature of habit, they live in one area and want food. Once you understand the animal — how it’s going to come at you without you getting chewed — it’s easier.”
Even today, the tally of injuries he has suffered is zero from a croc, but his leg was broken in three places when a horse fell on top of him.
Compared with his younger years, though, Matt doesn’t catch as many crocs these days.
“Although we have to catch about 200 little ones by the end of the year on a property,” he says, adding that this catch will be filmed for season four of Outback Wrangler. (Little ones? “Oh about 10 to 12 foot”.)
“There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into catching them. I do it now more to help out station owners and mates.”
When he’s not catching crocs, filming, promoting Australia or running his tourism business, Matt spends about four months of the year working with a team harvesting croc eggs for four farms, collecting about 40,000 eggs annually.
It is, he says, the most sustainable way to manage the population.
Between 1945 and 1971, a lucrative and uncontrolled trade in saltwater crocodile skins depleted wild populations to the point of extinction.
Now estimates put the population about 140,000, with the species no longer threatened in the Northern Territory and numbers — according to the NT Government — reaching near natural carrying capacity.
The commercial collection of eggs from the wild (which are raised into hatchlings) is considered the safest strategy for sustainable use, with the egg stage an abundant but naturally vulnerable part of the life cycle.
This has seen nesting habitat on private lands become a commercial asset, with farms supplying big fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Hermes with leather. Station owners get paid about $25/egg.
“By collecting the eggs we don’t impact the population,” Matt says.
“Whereas if you shoot crocs, it’s no different to shooting livestock on a station.”
Matt was born on the south coast of South Australia — his father a wool classer and his mother from a sheep farming family.
He grew up around Cairns and left school to be a jackaroo on cattle stations, with stints as a plumber, in the army and working in the snow fields, including in Canada.
A love of freedom led him to gain his helicopter pilot licence at 21, now owning two helicopters and clocking up at least 15,000 hours in the air.
It was in his early 20s — working on cattle stations and around crocs — that Matt realised how unique his life was and began to investigate ways to catch it on camera.
Channel 7’S Sunday Night program first featured him, and in 2011 the first National Geographic series was broadcast
It propelled him into the spotlight and for a time he was Australia’s most eligible bachelor, a title snaffled by his fiancee Kaia Hammond, whom he will marry in November.
With three publicity tours to the US under his belt, comparisons with Steve Irwin have been inevitable.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Steve. He had a big personality and did wonders for Australian tourism and awareness of wildlife,” he says.
“We’re different people but at the end of the day we’re striving for the same thing — to look after the environment and the wildlife that lives in it.”
Matt Wright is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.