When in my favorite Argentinian radio talk show I heard the terrible news that a crocodile had taken a young boy at the Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in Orlando, Florida a few days ago I thought that they really wanted to say that an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) was the culprit.
However, checking on the crocodilian fauna in the Americas I was surprised that in fact there is a crocodile there! It is known as the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and it is distributed from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern Mexico to South America as far as Peru and Venezuela. It is also reported to occur in the Caribbean. In the United States it is found in Puerto Rico and the southern half of Florida.
Orlando is therefore to far North in Florida for an American crocodile to have been the culprit so it was probably an alligator and they were saying crocodile in error. Irrespective of the culprit an attack by any of these rather prehistoric animals is always terrifying because of their suddenness and viciousness.
I must confess that during my early days in Kenya I was not really aware of the danger posed by Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) in the wild. I was lucky not to have had any accidents despite the number of activities near water I carried out (in the wild!). However, through reading and observation, I started to respect them more and more as time passed. In particular, when our children arrived, very strict rules on how to behave near water were imposed that luckily allowed us to enjoy the proximity of water while fishing and walking. These strict rules still apply to all of us and they are as critical as not crossing a red light!
One of the earlier “eye openers” on the subject of Nile crocodiles took place after some time of being in Kenya, while enjoying time at Joe Murumbi’s library at Intona ranch in the Transmara. Among the many treasures it contained I found a book called “Eyelids of Morning” by Alistair Graham and Peter Beard. This “coffee table” book attracted my attention not only by its peculiar title but also by the picture in the cover showing a truly gigantic crocodile being held by a man in lake Turkana.
As soon as I opened it I realized that it was a truly unique volume for several reasons. It was an early copy clearly sent by the authors to Joe before publication and that Joe had clearly proof-red, judging by the annotations he had made. In it, there was a graphic testimony of the dangers of crocodiles in Africa with the most amazing collection of stories and pictures.
It narrated and graphically illustrated the fate of an American Peace Corps volunteer that decided to take a swim on Ethiopia’s Baro River, a place I was able to visit in the late eighties while working in Ethiopia. This young man, after swimming in its muddy waters, sat with his legs in the river to enjoy the sunshine. Suddenly, a very large crocodile, seen by some observers, dragged him into the water and disappeared. The following day his remains were recovered when the crocodile was shot by a hunter and cut open. I will not forget the pictures of his remains the book contains.
Later on I also learnt of the unfortunate accident of the son of a colleague that was attacked by a relatively small crocodile at a really small stream at the Buffalo Springs game reserve where the presence of such an animal was very unlikely. The story went that luckily hearing the commotion, the mother managed to hold on to the boy while the father manhandled him away from the predator. Although he was severely injured, the boy survived the attack after a long recovery due to the injuries and infections associated with the crocodile tearing bites. I visited the exact spot where the incident took place and it was hard to believe that it could have taken place there!
Crocodiles are responsible for killing 2,500 people per year, mainly in Africa where most victims are people collecting water, fishing or washing clothes. Sharks kill or maim 15 people in the same period but these gets much wider world coverage!
Luckily, a number of conservation and humanitarian organizations are working in the introduction of palliative measures to minimize this on-going tragedy. In particular, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Crocodile Specialist Group is not only involved in the conservation of wild crocodilians worldwide but also in protecting the people that are exposed to them. Among several initiatives, they are introducing Crocodile Exclusion Enclosures, a rather academic name for fenced areas in the water that exclude crocodilians and reduce the risk of attack to human users.
For the fishing lovers in Africa, crocodiles (and hippos) are the main blatant threats while on a boat. Crocodiles are mainly a threat near the shores while hippos are hazardous everywhere and a much more dangerous animal. I have heard many stories of hippos attacking boats but none involving crocodiles and boats.
My first fishing experience in Kenya was trying for bass on board a rubber dinghy at lake Naivasha with our friend Paul. Although there were numerous hippos, there were no crocodiles there despite a rumour that one had been released at the lake but never seen.
We fished in lake Naivasha quite often and then we went on to fish for trout at Sasamua dam and for Nile perch in Lakes Victoria and Turkana both having sizeable crocodile populations, particularly the latter. Although we saw them frequently, many at close quarter, they did not show any interest on our boat and always kept their distance.
Although I will return to some of my fishing exploits in future posts, our experience fishing in Kenya convinced me that rubber dinghies were safe and I eventually bought one that we used extensively in Southern Africa. Being portable, we took it everywhere and it became a new medium that opened up a different field of wildlife enjoyment while fishing but always having a “crocodile and hippo spotter” -usually my wife with her keen eyes- to keep us out of trouble.