As a child, Thea Ormonde remembers spending days with her family on the waters of the Meunga Creek in Cardwell, a small coastal town in Far North Queensland, Australia. Cruising along in her father’s boat, Ormonde always admired the wildlife around her: a wide variety of fish and birds, mud crabs, and, on most occasions, an enormous saltwater crocodile.

But the family, longtime residents of Cardwell, were never alarmed when they came across the roughly 15-foot-long reptile, which was often sunning itself on the creek’s banks or swimming in its murky water. That was just Bismarck, the town crocodile.

“Dad would always give him a big wave and sing out hello to him,” Ormonde told The Washington Post early Thursday. “We never felt threatened by him.”

Now, the quaint seaside town with a population of around 1,300 people is in mourning. Bismarck, estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old, was reported dead late last week — and Cardwell residents say he was shot.

“Old Bismarck has received a couple of lead injections to the back of the head from some oxygen stealing piece of [expletive],” Ryan Moody, a local fisherman who runs online fishing courses, wrote in an Instagram post over the weekend.

Moody told The Post he heard rumors that Bismarck had been killed and set out to search for the crocodile on Sunday. While scouring the Meunga Creek, he came across the grisly scene.

A dead crocodile, a “spitting image” of Bismarck, was splayed out on a fallen tree protruding from the water, he said. There were no scratches on its body or other injuries consistent with being attacked by another crocodile, said the 51-year-old, who has spent years around the animals. He noted that the large chunks of skin missing from the crocodile’s abdomen and one of his legs were likely caused by extended sun exposure.

“He had already been dead five or six days,” Moody said.

The Queensland Department of Environment and Science, which handles crocodile cases, is now investigating the crocodile’s death after someone notified the department on March 1, a spokesman told The Post in a statement late Wednesday. Wildlife officers and members of the Queensland Police Service visited the site where the crocodile was found and examined it, the statement said, adding that evidence was collected and will undergo forensic analysis. Saltwater crocodiles are protected species in Queensland. Until 1974, they were almost hunted to the brink of extinction, according to the Department of Environment and Science.

However, the agency said that at this time it “is not in a position to determine the cause of death.”

For as long as Ormonde can remember, Bismarck was part of Cardwell, described by the Department of Environment and Science as “known Croc Country.” A memorial service for the crocodile has been scheduled for March 16, she said.

“He was seen as one of our community members,” said Ormonde, 49, who was born and raised in Cardwell and is now one of its tourism officers. “He was just like the old guy in the community. You know he’s there. He doesn’t cause any trouble or anything. Every once in a while, you’d just see him.”

Though other crocodiles have been seen in the area, Ormonde said Bismarck was always the biggest, “the dominant male.” But he was different from a majority of his species, known for being aggressive predators that have attacked humans.

“Old Bismarck just had a gentle presence to him, you could just feel that he wasn’t an angry crocodile,” Ormonde said. “He used to just swim along quite happily eating the barramundi [fish] and turtles, or just sunning himself.”

Bismarck’s rare mellow demeanor quickly turned him into a beloved town fixture and popular tourist attraction. Moody said the crocodile would swim in the waters near Cardwell’s beachfront area, “gathering large crowds” eager to snap his photo.

But Ormonde said Bismarck had an even more important role in the town -- protecting residents and visitors from harm.

“Because he was such a gentle soul, he actually kept us safe,” she said, noting that Bismarck had never shown aggression toward humans. “He kept the angry crocodiles away.”

Male saltwater crocodiles are highly territorial creatures and go to great lengths to defend their territory, sometimes fighting each other to the death. With Bismarck patrolling the waters, it was unlikely that another crocodile would dare venture too close, Moody said.

“He kept everybody else in check,” he said. “He kept the peace.”

Now that Bismarck is gone and his territory up for grabs, all that could change.

“We’re a bit worried about what crocodile is going to move in next,” Moody said. “He could be dangerous. We don’t know yet.”

As they grapple with concerns over what impact a new crocodile could have, Ormonde said locals are also trying to come to terms with Bismarck’s death, with emotions ranging from devastated to angry.

“It was just really terrible he was taken out the way he was,” she said. “Someone barbarically came in and shot him. I can’t believe there would have been a reason. He was just living his crocodile life.”

Moody said he believes the people responsible are “egomaniacs,” adding that he wants to see them “caught and punished.”

“They just do not understand the animals and the importance some animals have in the system,” he said. “It’s through sheer ignorance or fear that people do that kind of thing.”

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