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Largest Reptile Alive

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If you see one up close, it might be the last thing you ever see: a 23-foot-long killing machine exploding straight up out of calm water, a 1-ton behemoth with at least 64 terrifying teeth and jaws exerting a bite force of 3,700 pounds. Today, the world's largest reptile -- a predator so perfectly adapted to its environment that nature hasn't made any major design changes for 85 million years -- continues to rule every body of water and wetland it occupies. Meet Crocodylus porosus, the saltwater, or estuarine, crocodile.

Where They Live

Thanks to "Crocodile Dundee" star Paul Hogan and the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, in popular culture, "salties" are most closely associated with northern Australia; but they're also found in eastern India, the islands of New Guinea and Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and the Philippines. Don't let the name fool you, though -- saltwater crocs are perfectly at home in freshwater; in breeding season, they prefer it. Adult males can grow 20 to 23 feet long. Crocodile photographer Gary Crockett cites a credible but unconfirmed report of a 28-footer. Females typically don't grow much longer than 10 feet.

How They Kill

Crocodiles are pure carnivores. They will happily chow down on the flesh of anything they can kill, including animals as large as the water buffalo. Except for their ever-watchful eyes, crocs conceal their massive bodies underwater close to shore and wait for some thirsty and unsuspecting animal to wander by. When such prey bend down to drink, crocs use their powerful tails to spring vertically out of the water, then grasp a victim in their jaws and kill it with a combination of violent shaking and the "death roll" -- rolling the prey over and over in the water until it drowns. Crocodiles continue shaking dead prey to dismember it and reduce the flesh to consumable pieces.

Population Boom

In the 1970s, with fewer than 4,000 left in the wild, salties had been hunted to the brink of extinction. However, after a few decades of the Australian government's rescue program, estimates of the number of crocs in the wild range from 80,000 to 100,000, an overpopulation that is becoming increasingly hazardous to humans. Between 2002 and 2012, 13 people, including six children, were killed by crocs and some people are calling for culling measures. In recent years, crocs have turned up in storm water drains, freshwater dams, a supermarket parking lot in Darwin, and garbage dumps. During rainy season, when rivers and ponds overflow their banks, wetlands expand, allowing the crocs to migrate ever-farther inland, but trapping them there when waters recede.

Crocodile Hunting?

Crocodile biologist Dr. Grahame Webb, who farms salties for their meat and skin, also owns Crocodylus Park, a Darwin tourist attraction specializing in the reptiles. Webb was instrumental in saving the crocs from extinction and believes numbers are now getting out of hand. Every year, the government issues permits to Australians to harvest up to 500, but there's so little profit in it that fewer than 100 are issued. If some of these permits were set aside for trophy hunters and permits priced accordingly, the aboriginal people who own most crocodile-inhabited land could profit both by charging hunters for access and selling their services as guides, Webb says.