The King of the Amazon

By Donna Mulvenna, ILCW Member (French Guiana)

 “To sit back hoping that someday, someway, someone will make things right is to go on feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last – but eat you he will.”
– Ronald Reagan

CRIKEY! A word made famous by oneman, Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. That he loved and respected crocodiles so much is evident in his daughter, Bindi. She is named after his favourite pet, a saltwater crocodile of the same name.

 

Despite Irwin’s work in spreading the virtues of saltwater crocodiles (salties), visions of them propelling their bodies out of the water to eat whole chickens and stories of them stalking their prey, often for days, have many tourists too terrified to venture north of Sydney. In fact, ask any Australian what they know about crocodiles and they will tell you, “to stay the hell away from them!”

Not too long ago, a fisherman in Weipa was attacked by a croc just down from his local pub. The croc locked its jaws around his leg and started to pull him backward toward the water. The fisherman held fast to a mangrove root until his pub mates, alerted by his screams, ran down and group tackled the croc.

Later, over a cold beer, the fisherman admitted to throwing his little dog into the water as a diversion. Any sympathy he had coming quickly vanished as all focus switched to who was looking after the poor dog. That little dog made the local news. The crocodile was the cold-blooded, grinning killer in the background.

 

My fear of crocodiles does not make logical sense when you consider I drive a car to the river, an undeniably risky business, and that the stifling, energy-sapping humidity of my home in the French Amazon presents a greater risk to most than an errant crocodile. But fearful emotions are seldom logical. To me, all crocodiles including their alligator and caiman cousins were the reptile world’s equivalent of the great white shark.

 

So, when my boyfriend suggested I accompany him to the local swamp where children feed a one-metre long caiman, I found that as about appealing as jumping out of a plane.

 

“Donna, just come and watch,” he said. “There is something I want you to see.” “And bring some bread.”

A small timber pontoon stretched out over a muddy bank that was lined with thick tufts of razor grass. The water was shallow and completely still, not stagnant but not inviting either, and there was a half-metre band of water-weed lining the edge.

“Throw a piece of bread into the water and see what happens,” my boyfriend said.

I watched and waited, for what I didn’t know. The previously blue sky began to cloud over and a dark shadow crept across the pond shifting my thoughts to the Rupununi river people in nearby Guyana. They absolutely live in fear of caimans after the attacks and deaths of several of their loved ones.

 

So here I was throwing bread to one of the most ferocious beasts in the jungle in a scene fast resembling that of a horror movie when it happened!

The long flat snout and bulging eyes of a yellowish Spectacled caiman pushed away from the bank and carved a path through a carpet of river weed toward the bread. It immediately snapped it up. I expected it to take a big gulp before turning its attention toward me.

But it didn’t do that.

It held the bread in its mouth, turned around and headed back toward the bank. It then placed the bread on the edge of the green sludge where it joined the water and retreated to about 20cm away. It sunk down below the weed and waited, completely motionless, until a few moments later when a fish surfaced to eat the bread, and — Splash, Snap!

“No way!” I said. “That caiman is using the bread to catch fish!”

Rather than being a lethargic, stupid and boring survivor of an age of dinosaurs and not much else I thought it was, this caiman was smart. At one point the fish were onto him so he swam a short distance away before rapidly doubling back on himself and — Pow! Another fish swallowed whole.

Was it intentionally swimming away to lull the fish into a false sense of security? Could it be that clever?

Zoologist Vladimir Dinets who studies the predatory behaviour of crocodiles, alligators, and caimans, seems to think so. “They might be second only to humans in their hunting prowess,” he said.

They learn to avoid snares and hide after just one encounter with scientific researchers, dance in scenes resembling those of Jurassic Park, and drive fish from deep water into the shallows where more agile alligators block their escape. In one instance, a huge saltie scared a pig into running off a trail into a lagoon where two crocodiles were waiting in ambush, suggesting that the three crocodiles had anticipated each other’s positions and actions without being able to see each other.

They watch and learn the habits of their prey, just like that cunning old croc had watched the fisherman leaving the pub to throw in a line each day.

The caiman episode convinced me to rethink everything I thought I knew about the unfeeling and mechanistic mind of a crocodile. Wasn’t my mind superior to this reptile because I knew how to use tools, grasp past and future, communicate effectively, and have a sense of self? And hadn’t that caiman just tipped that assumption on its head?

Perhaps they are more intricate and complex than I assumed and their intelligence isn’t higher or lower than ours, just incomparable. Even more bewildering is the possibility that their brain is only the size of a walnut because it is somehow superior to ours, not unlike a computer chip — smaller and faster.

Recognising this level of intelligence made them seem so much scarier to me than they were before. Fortunately, most caiman species are too small to be dangerous to humans, with the exception of one: the black caiman, the super-predator of the Amazon that rivals the Saltwater and Nile crocodile as the world’s most dangerous.

Not even a jaguar will take on a full-size black caiman, which explains why a policeman so hastily unsheathed his gun when he found himself standing face to face with one in the city of Cayenne.

The adult black caiman had left his inland home at the Kaw swamp by simply drifting along in a river current stronger than usual. No doubt he was just as surprised as terrified bathers when he washed up on a popular swimming beach. I can imagine the scene, “Is it a leatherback turtle, a sheet of black plastic, a beached whale?” “Oh, my word! Run for your life, it’s a black caiman!”

There was once a time when nobody in their right mind would have threatened one of these big fellas, the largest species of crocodile in the Western Hemisphere. But it is amazing what a group of policeman, the Paris Fire Brigade, a herpetologist, and the staff from the Kwata conservation association can do. Within a short time the caiman’s body was bound in rope, and those powerful jaws, strong enough to shatter a turtle shell, were duct-taped shut. It was then carried up the beach, loaded into an army truck and promptly transferred back to where he came from.

Not surprisingly, panicked beachgoers started to ask how many more caiman might be lurking off the coast. How long would it be before someone was attacked and why and how was this allowed to happen? It was almost as if they expected a barricade to be erected around the reserve to protect them from further encounters.

Human interaction with these dangerous animals has been reflected in myths and legends dating back to earliest recorded history. However, feared as a symbol of ruthless predation and voracious appetite, they have never been, nor are they ever likely to be, allies of humankind.

Yet, after a 200 million-year run on the planet, no crocodilian species has gone extinct since humans became dominant, a testament to their resilience and adaptability.

In South America, they were pushed to the brink of extinction during the 1960’s and 1970’s when 6 to 7 million skins were sold in Brazil alone. This lucrative leather trade hired light aircraft to fly low across the Amazon rainforest to locate pockets of caiman. Armed with this information, hunters and trappers then hacked their way through the impenetrable jungle killing the caimans so their skin could be made into human indulgences such as handbags.

Today, black caiman are strictly protected in French Guiana, but they still face threats from habitat loss and climate warming, making it unlikely they will reach numbers to rival those of alligators in Florida that frequent golf courses, infest lakes, splash in backyard pools, or devour family pets anytime soon.

Nobody likes to have a crocodilian in their backyard, but we do love to identify with them. We embody them in tattoos, corporate logos, bumper stickers, and clothing, use them as mascots and celebrate sports achievements by raising one arm, lowering the other and quickly snapping them together in a gesture known as the chomp.

However, when it comes to coexisting with them, we are positively terrified. That is human nature. “We strive to be wild on the inside, while we wipe out the wild on the outside.”

In many ways, crocodilians represent the ultimate test of human willingness. To coexist with them we have to accept them as much a part of nature as dolphins, woodland, and hurricanes, and stop destroying their habitat through development, logging, mining or turning large tracts of land into pasture for domestic livestock.

Crocodiles, like all apex predators, provide ecological stability to their habitat. If they are removed from the picture, there are consequences. In South America, two animals the caiman preys upon is the piranha and the capybara, the world’s largest rodent. Corresponding with a decrease in caimans the capybara population increased, wreaking havoc on crops throughout Bolivia and Brazil, and an unchecked outbreak of piranhas meant that cattle were being attacked and killed as they moved across flooded grasslands.

A lack of apex predators absolutely tips the balance and can kill off entire ecosystems rendering them lifeless.

So if you see a caiman, smile back. They were here before the dinosaurs, alongside the dinosaurs, and survived the dinosaurs, and their amazing resilience can help to save the human species.

However, continue to keep a safe distance as even Steve Irwin said, “Crocodiles are easy. They try and kill and eat you….”

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