Last week, floods liberated thousands and thousands of crocodiles from a Limpopo farm. J BROOKS SPECTOR examines humankind’s hard-wired fear of these creatures.
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
– Lewis Carroll
South Africa is back in the international news yet again – and no, this time it’s not because of yet another outbreak of civil or labour unrest by residents of a desperately poor informal housing settlement or miners at a platinum mine; or the exposure of yet another politician found in a web of corruption, deceit and dissembling; or even another astonishing scientific discovery of the skull of yet another precursor to anatomically modern humans at the Cradle of Humankind.
No, this time around it is because of a special man-made disaster. Last week, thousands and thousands of crocodiles were suddenly and unexpectedly set free into what the British novelist and poet laureate of empire Rudyard Kipling had so famously called, “the great, green, greasy Limpopo” River in his Just So Stories. In How the Elephant Got Its Trunk Kipling told a tale for children of all ages about the elephant calf who got into a tussle with a wily crocodile hiding in the Limpopo’s murky waters. The crocodile pulled the elephant’s nose so hard, and for so long, that the struggle gave rise to the elongated trunk elephants have today. But today’s story, while it is certainly all about crocodiles, is most definitely not for children – of any age.
During recent torrential rains and widespread flooding, on one of the country’s largest crocodile farms, up near the Botswana border, the Rakwena Crocodile Farm, the manager says they were forced to open up the sluice gates of a dam that had served as part of the giant enclosure for thousands and thousands of the crocs. They did this to prevent the dam from collapsing and the ensuing flood destroying the farm owner’s home. Oh, and by the way, opening the gates just happened to allow somewhere between 7,000 to 14,000 crocodiles (various media sources have very different numbers) to swim their way to freedom into the tributaries and main riverbed of that “great, green, greasy Limpopo”.
Crocodiles are no laughing matter. The country is a major exporter of the beasts – or at least their hides. Official stats say some 30,000 of the creatures are sent abroad every year, but other sources indicate there is a much larger harvest of about 45,000 or so annually. According to the SA Crocodile Farmers’ Association, the 60 registered crocodile farmers in the country have about half a million crocs in their care and the reptiles are worth about R45 million or so (minus the value of the ones who have made their recent dash to freedom). Of the crocodile skins produced every year inside South Africa, fashion houses in Europe and Japan apparently purchase about 90% of the yearly production – the high quality skines – for bags and fashion accessories. Lower grades go to buyers in other Asian markets. Of course there is also a small, niche market for crocodile meat destined for foreign and domestic restaurants alike – and yes, it does taste like chicken, or maybe iguana, or perhaps tuna.
The problem, of course, is when the crocs aren’t where they are supposed to be. Experts say the Limpopo and its tributaries have been largely free of the reptiles in recent years – that is, at least up until the recent floods. Now there are somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000 of the creatures out there, while only about 2,000 or so have been recaptured so far. As a result, animal safety experts have been telling people to stay indoors – and homes in the affected area have even been evacuated as a precaution.
The SA Police are calling for crocodile experts from around the world to come and help recapture the thousands of creatures still at large. (Keep in mind, of course, that this is a species that survived the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period after the Yucatan asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs.)
Regarding the call for croc capturers, police spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi said late last week that experts are needed right away to help sort out the crocodilian crisis. “Due to the number of crocodiles that have been washed away there is a need for expertise, people who have expertise to come and assist. So we are just making appeals to anyone who has knowledge of catching crocodiles to come and assist.”
Meanwhile, Zane Langman, the son-in-law of the man who runs the Rakwena farm told media, “There used to be only a few crocodiles in the Limpopo River. Now there are a lot.” And the beasts are apparently now being found as far away from the farm as the town of Musina, some 120km away. After admitting one of the creatures had been found on a school sports field, Langman added, “We will catch them as the farmers call us and say there are crocodiles.”
News reports, meanwhile, have shown people out at night, like a local version of the TV reality show, Swamp People, capturing the smaller specimens by shining lights into the water when the croc’s eyes reflect the light. But some of the escapees, are about five meters long – more than a bit too big for amateurs to capture with the torch and grab technique.
Donald Strydom, a wildlife expert at the Khamai Reptile Centre, said he doesn’t think there would be a loss of human life since people are aware of what has happened and crocodiles don’t naturally hunt humans. Strydom added, “People must not go into a monster hunt and think these crocodiles are out to eat them.” In this regard, Mulaudzi added his reassurance that, “So far we are lucky. There have not been any emergencies. And we are hopeful that nothing will happen. But with crocodiles all over in the river we are saying, please, we need assistance.” Mulaudzi also said he didn’t think the crocodile farm would face charges for releasing all these animals, given the emergency nature of the situation.
But still, there is clearly something about the crocodile – and all those other very large carnivorous reptiles like alligators, Komodo dragons, and large poisonous snakes or pythons – that strikes serious, atavistic fear in the hearts of millions. Years ago, the late Carl Sagan, renowned astronomer, science fiction writer and prophet of the possibility of a nuclear winter, speculated in his bestselling book, The Dragons of Eden, that mankind’s instinctive fears of such creatures might even be a deeply hard-wired memory in all mammals back from the time when tiny furry creatures co-existed warily with giant, hungry saurians.
In fact, neurobiologists Arne Öhman and Susan Mineka at Sweden’s renowned Karolinska Institute writing on this very subject, noted that “Snakes are commonly regarded as slimy, slithering creatures worthy of fear and disgust.” They speculate that perhaps this derives from the Biblical Book of Genesis in which, “To avenge the snake’s luring of Eve to taste the fruit of knowledge, God instituted eternal enmity between their descendants.” Or, it could actually be an adaptive evolutionary heritage as Sagan proposed in which “a prerequisite for early mammals to deliver genes to future generations was to avoid getting caught in the fangs of Tyrannosaurus rex and its relatives. Thus, fear and respect for reptiles is a likely core mammalian heritage. From this perspective, snakes and other reptiles may continue to have a special psychological significance even for humans, and considerable evidence suggests this is indeed true. Furthermore, the pattern of findings appears consistent with the evolutionary premise.”
There is yet another layer to this twinned fascination and fear. One very common theme in science fiction writing is the dystopic world that follows on from a major calamity such as nuclear war when apex predators have escaped zoos and roam freely in a damaged, dangerous world of lions, tigers and bears threaten human settlements. And of course the corollary to this nightmare vision is the alternative one in which other human activity has caused the extinction of all great animals because of some other kind of ecological catastrophe. Either way, this accidental release of thousands of crocodiles into the Limpopo valley plays to some deep fears in humans. And it will go hard for someone if humans end up being casualties from this new pestilence.
Curiously, just as northern South Africa was dealing with its peculiar and artificial biological disaster, half a world away, environmentalists and game rangers have been trying to deal with the results of another biological catastrophe, coming from human wanton carelessness. In South Florida, it is now open season on thousands of Burmese pythons slithering unhindered in their way through the Florida Everglades. A small population of discarded specimens of that exotic species have survived and thrived, breeding like rabbits in the vast Floridian swamps. With no natural predators and having great skill at hunting the indigenous wildlife, they have been decimating everything in their path for years.
Animal specialists finally gave up on hoping this alien species would not take hold and have now declared open season on the creature. As a result, hundreds of people have gone through the required hunting instruction, taken out a license and set off into the swamps and forests to capture the giant, stealthy serpents. Besides killing them, the Florida Wildlife Commission and its partners in this bounty hunt say they hope this exercise will help educate the public on the dangers the exotic, invasive snakes are to the South Florida environment.
In a scene that might have come from the film Jaws when the bounty on the great white shark is first announced, hundreds of people are now ploughing into the swamps, trying to earn a $1,500 cash prize for the hunter who bags the largest number of Burmese pythons and there is also a prize of a $1,000 for the longest Burmese python. Hopefully, these amateur hunters will be able to tell the difference between a Burmese python and the indigenous snakes of the region.
Maybe the Limpopo authorities will reach out to Florida and call on the snake hunters to come help them out with Rakwena’s crocodiles, once they finish up their labours in the Everglades. God knows they need every help they could get. DM
Photo: A recaptured crocodile walks in a pen after about 15000 of the animals escaped from a crocodile farm during flooding near Mussina, on South Africa’s northern border with Zimbabwe, January 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA – Tags: DISASTER ANIMALS) – RTR3D06G
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall