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Sunday, March 29, 2009

RICHARD FREEMAN: Man-eating crocodiles

On the first of December 2002 a group of fifteen British teenagers, all in their gap year, visited Lake Challa on Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania. They had spent the previous five weeks doing volunteer conservation work. The group had been surveying elephant and lion populations in nearby Tsavo National Park. Locals told them that they had nothing to fear in Lake Challa. The steep sided volcanic lake had no crocodiles only a legendary monster, the Kenyan equivalent of Nessie. They were wrong.

One girl Amy Nicholls, a beautiful 18 year old from Barnet, London, decided that the water looked too inviting to pass up a swim. She was about thirty feet from the shore, where the volcanic shelf drops off steeply into deep water, when something grabbed her. The three other who were with her reported that she was yanked violently underwater. He reappeared briefly and screamed “its` got my feet, its` a crocodile.” That was the last time anyone saw Amy Nicholls alive.

Her body was found three days later when it became entangled in a fisherman’s net. She had died from drowning and was minus and arm. It had been twisted from the socket and eaten. It was estimated that the crocodile that attacked her was fairly small, no more than two meters long.

The 1999 edition of The Rough Guide to Kenya stated that Lake Challa was a pleasant place to swim. The Kenyan Wildlife Service, however, stated that it was never free of crocodiles. A local policeman said it was infested with the animals.

There followed a media circus with lurid headlines. It was like a virgin had been sacrificed to a medieval dragon. The story is a tragic one but we in the west seem to think we can travel the Worlds` wild places with immunity. Perhaps it is because we have long since exterminated most the large predators in the “civilized world” that we believe “it will never happen to me.”

Of all large predators crocodiles account for the most human deaths. Over 500 people per year in Africa are taken by crocodiles. This is more than all the big cats, bears and sharks combined.

The general public seems to think that all crocodilians are gigantic monsters that subsist on a diet of human flesh. In reality only two crocodilians can truly be counted as man-eaters: the Nile crocodile, and the Indo-Pacific crocodile. American crocodiles, American alligators, muggers, and black caiman have killed and eaten people from time to time but these attacks are rare. It is only the two giants of the group that attack humans on a regular basis.

In the months following the attack on Amy Nicholls a spate of crocodile attacks occurred across the globe. The average number of attacks on humans was probably not any higher than usual but these attacks often involved western tourists and ergo were sized by the media.

Less than two months after Amy’s death another British tourist, Richard Shadwell was killed whilst in the Sekonyer River in Borneo. The thirty five year old musician was swimming behind a boat when an Indo-Pacific crocodile reckoned to be eighteen feet long grabbed him.

The saddest story must have been that of German girl Isabel von Jordan. The 24-year-old student had survived the bombing of the Sari Club on Bali. She and some fellow backpackers decided to ignore the warning signs and take a midnight dip in a waterhole at Kakudu National Park in northern Australia. She was grabbed and killed a by a twelve foot Indo-pacific croc. Park rangers arrived on the scream within the hour but it took six harpoons before the beast relinquished Isabel’s body.

On the remote Indonesian Island of Tenate a twenty-three foot crocodile took up residence in a river and began to eat it’s way through the population of a local village. All that remained of one victim, a teenage boy, was his head.

Not to be left out, the Nile crocodile grabbed the headlines again in December 2003. A man-eating giant was uncovered by French environmentalist Patrice Faye. The 20 to 30 foot creature was named Gustave by Faye and his team. His home is on the Burundi side of the Rusizi Delta. Gustave is estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old and may have eaten more humans than any other individual crocodile. Within year alone he has eaten 17 known people. Locals say he has been dining on manflesh for over 30 years so his human victim tally must be mind-boggling.

Patrice and his colleagues are attempting to capture Gustave alive and put him on display as a tourist attraction. They hope that this will boost the Rusizi game reserve that is currently being regenerated. He is already raking in tourists despite the wars raging in both Burundi and the Congo. Twice before the French team has attempted to capture Gustave and failed. The third attempt took place between May and December 2003. Gustave out witted them again.

It is easy to understand how such a beast, as Gustave becomes a legend. Few animals can survive being sprayed with machine gun fire but Gustave did. He has a few dents in his armor but nothing more. Aside from an elephant or white rhino, few animals are capable of killing an adult hippo. But a park warden saw Gustave killing a hippo in 2002

In November 2003 three people were eaten by a crocodiles in a single attack. A big crocodile attacked their dugout canoe in Malawi's biggest and longest river.Five people were in the canoe when the reptile dragged it under in deep waters in the Shire River, only two made it to shore.

In late December 2003 focus moved back to Australia. 22-year-old Brett Mann was grabbed by a thirteen-foot crocodile in a Northern Territory river. Brett and his two friends had been bike riding and stopped to wash their bikes in the river. His friends swam out to help him but when the reptile turned on them they were forced to climb a tree on a small island. They spent the next 22 hours in the tree whilst the croc, still grasping Brett’s body circled them. They were finally rescued by park rangers.

2005 was a bad year for crocodile atacks in Ausralia.A 56-year-old man was killed while scuba-diving with a friend north of Darwin.Five days earlier, a 37-year-old British engineer Russell Harris was killed by a large Indo-Pacific crocodile while he was snorkelling off the Northern Territory. Police found his body the next day.

In August, a 60-year-old man was dragged out of a canoe and killed by a crocodile in northeastern Queensland state.

The most infamous single case of man eating took place during WW2. A biologist named Bruce Wright, who was accompanying British soldiers observed the events. The British troops had driven 1000 Japanese infantrymen into some mangrove swamps between mainland Burma and Ramree Island. The coast was blockaded by the Royal Navy and the infantrymen’s ships could not pick them up. Under fire from the British they were trapped. As darkness fell hordes of Indo-pacific crocodiles appeared and all hell was let loose. The men on the British ships were horrified by the screams of the Japanese and the thrashing and crunching of the giant reptiles. Of the 1000 men that were trapped in the swamps only 20 were alive the next morning. The remaining 980 had been eaten by crocodiles.

The single most infamous killer croc was a giant that terrorized the Lupar River in Sarawak, Borneo. Bujang Senang was 19 feet long and had lureked in the river for several decades. I have covered his man-eating career in a previous post on this blog.

Sebtember 2008 saw the dissapereance of 62 year old Scotsman Authur Brooker. He had been checking crab pots near Cooktown, North Queensland. A 15 foot crocodile was trapped and forensic tests confirmed the remains inside the stomach were that of a human male.

An X-ray of the crocodile had revealed a wedding ring in its stomach.

A spokesman for the state's Environmental Protection Agency said that because of the man-eating reptile's size, it was a protected animal that could not be killed.

However, it could not be released either, and under Queensland state law prevented it from being displayed in a zoo or wildlife facility with any sign indicating it had eaten a human being.

That left a breeding programme as the only alternative - so the animal will be put out to stud on a farm for the rest of its life.

"Any crocodile four metres or over is... an iconic crocodile, so it needs to go into a facility where it can be used in a way that benefits crocodile conservation," the EPA spokesman said.

In Febuary 2009 the remains of five year old Jeremy Doble were found in the stomach of a 14 foot male crocodile.The creature was trapped in the flooded Daintree River in the far north of Queensland.Jeremy went missing from a nearby spot on February 8.

He had been playing with his seven-year-old brother Ryan and his dog behind their home in a mangrove swamp when he disappeared. Ryan told police that he saw a crocodile immediately after but did not see an attack.

A 10 foot female crocodile was trapped last week but later released after a surgical procedure found no evidence it had been responsible for the attack

Then in March 2009 an Indo-Pacific crocodile said to be 30 feet long attacked a canoe in the Agusan Marsh in the Philippines. The canoe was carrying children to a floating school. One unfortunate girl had he head bitten off. Around 100 members of the Manobo tribe have been forced to leave their houses, which sit on the lake on stilts, amid fears of another attack.

Allso in March 11 year old Briony Goodsell, her sister and two friends aged 12 and 10 were been playing in a creek in Lambells Lagoon, near Darwin, northern Australia, when the youngster was dragged under by a crocodile. AA search of the marshy area uncovered her remains 450 meters down stream

The area where they had been swimming was within the restricted Black Jungle Conservation Reserve. It is just 3km from the crocodile-infested Adelaide River floodplains - and access to the reserve is strictly by permit only.

These stories make gruesome reading but such attacks are relatively rare. Crocodiles do kill more people per year than any other large predator but those numbers are tiny when compared to the toll taken by creatures like the mosquito and the tetse fly. So just what is it that makes a crocodile turn man-eater?

One clue could lie in the species most often implicated, the Nile, and Indo-Pacific crocodiles. They live alongside large mammals and have adapted to feed on them. Species like the American and Orinoco crocodile very seldom attack humans. Could this be due to the lack of large mammals in Central and South America?

Another factor could be lack of prey animals. In the case of Bujang Senang it was said that the wild pigs that once abounded around the banks of the Lupar River had all but been wiped out. With no wild animals to kill a crocodile will start to take domestic stock. Then it is just a small jump to taking human prey. In other areas crocodile attacks are very rare. One of these is Lake Baringo were the abundant fish stocks keep the crocodile happy and natives consider them harmless.

In the Agusan Marsh case mentioned erlier it was thought that crocodiles had become aggressive because a recent flood had swollen the lake, dissipating the fishes and leaving the crocodiles little to feed on.

Native people sometimes take amazing risks with crocodiles due to their tribal beliefs. As we have seen many people in Sarawak think themselves immune to crocodile attack due to folklore. In Africa people think that charms can protect them. A dangerous over-familiarity has been noticed in several areas of Africa. German explorer Heinrich Fonck recorded several examples of this. On one occasion a hunter had shot and butchered a hippo. The blood had attracted a number of crocodiles but at sunset the native women came to fill their water vessels and took up position between the carcass and the crocodiles.

On another occasion a Zulu at St Lucia Bay had jumped into the water to push a pontoon away from the bank. He knew full well there were crocodiles about. The Zulu was snatched and eaten by a crocodile. But the next day more Zulus came down and swam in the water.

Most startling was a woman at Lake Albert who was observed washing her baby whilst a big crocodile swam by. A European shouted a warning but she responded by saying that crocodiles don’t eat people!

Crocodile expert Tony Pooley worked as a ranger at Natal Parks Board in South Africa. He was horrified by the attitude of some natives. Children and their parents would swim deep rivers rather than pay the few pence to take the ferry across. When a child was eaten people would be back swimming at the same spot the next day.

Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson, who had put paid to the man-eating lions of Tsavo, observed this “matter of fact attitude”. He was walking beside the Tsavo River with a group of Wa Kemba people when a crocodile snatched a man and swam off with him. When the shouts had died down the other tribesmen simply picked up the victim’s bow, arrows, and stock of meat, then walked on as if nothing had happened.

This behavior is matched by the stupidity of tourists and even westerners who live locally. Ignoring warning signs and advice from natives people will do the most stupid things. In March 1987 American Ginger Medows, who was on a boat trip up the Prince Regent River, Australia decided to swim in a creek with a friend whilst doing some exploring. She paid with her life in the jaws of a crocodile.

Another American, Bill Olsen, a member of the Peace Corps, was in Gambela, Ethiopia in April 1966. He and three friends decided to go swimming despite being warned of a large Nile crocodile that had recently devoured a woman and child. The sixteen-foot animal grabbed Bill after he lingered in the water. It hauled him downstream and ate him.

Australian Beryl Wruck, decided to go swimming in the Daintree River. It was Christmas night 1985 and she had been drinking. You might forgive a foreigner for such a careless action, but the idea of an Australia, even a drunk Australia doing something so foolish is unthinkable. She was eaten by a 17-foot crocodile.

Another case of fatal nonchalance occurred in 1987 on the East Alligator River. Local angler Kerry McLoughlin decided to wade over Carhill’s Crossing, a tidal ford, despite having been drinking and despite the large sign warning people about crocodiles. A croc decapitated him in front of horrified on lookers.

Much has been made of attacks on surfers made by great white sharks being a case of mistaken identity. The shark sees the surfboard from beneath and mistakes it for a sea lion or seal. Could something like this be the case with crocodiles?

Crocodiles do attack boats, there are many records of this. The Victorian lady explorer Mary Kingsley was attacked by an eight-foot crocodile whilst canoeing on the Gambia. She managed to beat the creature off with an oar.

Major A.S.H Gibbons, explorer and big game hunter, was traveling down the Zambezi in an aluminum launch when a crocodile rammed it with such force the at first thought he had struck a rock. Fortunately he was able to keep his balance. Others have not been so lucky.

In August 2003 Seventeen-year-old Katy Reeves was canoeing at Mano Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, when a crocodile attacked her vessel, destroying it and eating her.

Two British explorers Justin Matterson and Rupert FitzMaurice managed to escape a similar attack. Whilst kayaking on the Zambezi in 1996 when the biggest crocodile they had ever seen appeared almost dragging Justin’s kayak underwater. The pair made it to shore and, thankfully, the crocodile did not press home its’ attack.

Clearly some attacks on boats are predatory in nature but could there be another factor. The most infamous boat attacking crocodile was a 17-foot Indo-Pacific crocodile known as Sweetheart. Sweetheart lived in Finiss River south of Darwin. Between 1974 and 1979 he was involved in many attacks upon boats. Amazingly he did not kill a single person. His aggression was directed at the boats. He bit through metal hulls. Overturned boats like toys, and crunched up outboard motor. It has been suggested that the attacks by Sweetheart and other big male crocodiles on boats is brought on by the crocodiles mistaking the vessels for other crocodiles. The sound of an outboard motor is very like the gurgling threat vocalizations males make during the breeding season. Thinking the boats to be rival male interloping on their territory the crocodiles naturally attack.

Defense of nests and eggs may also be a factor. In an investigation into crocodile attacks in Northern Zululand and southern Mozambique 39 of the 43 documented cases in one year occurred between November and early April. This is when females are guarding their nests and males become aggressively territorial.

Despite the fact that crocodiles do kill people we should look at these events in perspective. Thousands of us visit Africa, tropical Asia, and Australia every year without being attacked. You stand more chance of being hit by lightning that ending up in the mouth of a crocodile. Compared to the number of lives lost on the world’s roads every year the toll taken by crocodiles is tiny.

So what steps can a tourist or explorer take to stop becoming a statistic?

* If locals tell you crocodiles are present then take care.

* Always obey any signs warning you of crocodiles.

* Never swim or paddle in water where crocodiles may lurk.

* Never gut fish or other game close to water.

* Do not let children or dogs play near water.

* Do not dangle your hands, feet or other parts of your body out of a boat.

* Do not make your camp on a rivez side or beach if you suspect crocodiles are there.

* Do not fill water containers from the river. Use small streams or put the container on the end of a long pole.

* If you happen across a nest, eggs, or hatchlings move away quickly.

* Remember, human stupidity is a big factor in crocodile attacks.


1 comment:

L said...

What a complete article. Thank you for sharing. I feel fully educated on crocodile attacks and very respectful of them.