National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Croc Capture Offers Lessons on Living With Killers

Brian Handwerk
for Ultimate Explorer
June 10, 2004
 
On the shores of Africa's Lake Victoria in Uganda the tiny village of
Lubango lives under the shadow of man-eaters that have killed nearly a
dozen people and maimed many others. The killers are giant crocodiles.

Villagers say the crocs, reported to be over 20 feet (6 meters) long, have repeatedly attacked people along area shorelines. Residents say the reptiles have even hauled victims from fishing boats.

Is there a solution that will help humans and crocs to coexist? Ultimate Explorer correspondent and crocodile expert Brady Barr was asked to capture and relocate the deadly animals—and to teach villagers how to live safely with crocs. National Geographic Ultimate Explorer recently spoke with Barr about the experience.

Why are these animals preying on humans?

The crocs are not doing anything wrong. They are just being crocs. In that area, their historic food supply is gone. People have overfished the lake.

We saw very few fish of any size. And a big croc isn't going to make a living by just eating fish. It will sometimes pull down an antelope or a baboon—something like that. But we saw no animals there—literally none—other than people.

The crocs are survivors, so they've turned to the next available food source. Unfortunately, that means humans.

Of course the people [there] are just trying to survive as well, so it's a delicate situation.

Is this a unique situation? Or you find dangerous crocs like this in other places?

Unfortunately you see this all over the world now. Historically, people live around water because they need it to survive. In the tropics, that's the same place you're going to find crocs.

In Malawi, for example, we did a film on the same problem—too many people had exhausted the area's natural resources. So the crocs there also turned to the next available food source.

How did you come to tangle with these man-eating crocs in Uganda?

The Ugandan government contacted me. They asked, "Can you help? If you can't, we'll have to shoot them." But these were big wily crocs, and the [local] rangers were having trouble even trying to find and destroy them.

These are some of the biggest crocs on the planet. There aren't many big crocs left, so they are a tremendous resource. It's a crime to lose them.

So in this case we were going to capture two problem crocs and bring them back to a zoo in the U.S., which is better than seeing them destroyed. [Uganda has no facility capable of holding giant crocodiles.]

Are there too many crocs in the area?

Based upon what I saw, the croc population has been devastated. I went to three or four villages, and every village had one or two giant crocs in residence there. We didn't see any juveniles or hatchlings.

In Lake Victoria there's not a problem of too many crocs. The problem is that they've almost been wiped out. It's just a handful of survivors—the biggest, wiliest survivors—who are now making a living preying on humans.

Can these people and crocs coexist?

Whatever happens, education needs to be a key component of the management plan. It's at the point now where people have to learn to live responsibly around these remaining crocs. They need to know not to fish with fish tied to their waist, and to avoid wading on the lakeshore.

We created some safe areas where we fenced off part of the lake for water collection and laundry. We also gave Ugandan officials a crash course in how to catch crocs for relocation.

We also have to help people realize that crocs have a benefit. It's been shown that ecosystems are in better shape with crocs than without them. For example, it has long been a wives' tale that fishermen should kill crocs because they eat all the fish. Actually, it has been shown that crocs seem to choose fish that are unfavorable for humans, so they increase favorable fish populations.

But the people out there have a tough life. It's one of the planet's harsh environments. There are lots of emotions involved in the debate, and it's hard for them to believe that crocs make for a better place to live. It may be an impossible [idea to] sell.

Do human-croc relationships differ throughout the world?

They do. In some places people use crocs as a food supply. Elsewhere, because of cultural beliefs or other reasons, they do not.

There are some unique situations. In Papa New Guinea, for example, the locals believe that if you have sustainable use of a resource, it replenishes itself. So they kill only certain size crocs, and they leave the big breeders alone. They've found that kind of management is beneficial to them.

You were able to capture one of these giant, deadly crocs—but that wasn't the end of the story.

On the first, night within the first ten minutes on the water, we had one of the problem animals on the rope and captured it pretty uneventfully. Back in the village we were like kings for a day. There was a big celebration. We'd caught the monster that had eaten some of the villagers' family and friends, so they were understandably happy.

We put [the croc] into the crate and bolted it shut but were awakened at dawn by someone yelling in Swahili. [The croc] had broken out of the crate and was back in the lake.

The people were horrified. They said, "You've enraged this animal, and now it's back in the lake." We were incredibly disappointed.

That was a very strong containment crate. It seems amazing that a croc could break out.

We had a zoo official with us who has transported many of these animals, and he just could not believe it. We thought at first that someone had to have let it out, but it actually broke free. The power that [crocs] have is absolutely incredible.

Its funny, we had a hard time finding an air carrier that would transport the croc. They all thought that it would break out and somehow crash the plane. I said, "That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard. That will never happen."

Well, we might have to take a picture of the smashed crate and send it to the airlines with a note saying, "Maybe you had a point."
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.