Sunday, November 17, 2013

Co-existing with crocodiles

CROCS CONSERVATION: One of the biggest challenges in crocodile conservation is inculcating better human-crocodile interaction while raising awareness of the importance to co-exist with the reptiles in the vast river networks of the state.

CAUGHT: SWAT in action.


KUCHING: Crocodiles do not prey on humans and human flesh is not anywhere near the top of its menu.

This is one of the messages Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) is trying to get across to the people in the state through its 3M Buaya programme to dispel the perception that crocodiles are a menace to human and they should be banished from our rivers.

3M Buaya is a three pronged campaign to help the people know, understand and conserve (Mengenali, Memahami dan Memulihara) crocodiles aimed at educating people living in crocodile-infested areas to live with the presence of the reptiles in their areas safely.

SFC Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation Division deputy general manager Oswald Braken Tisen told thesundaypost recently that through 3M Buaya the corporation hoped to raise understanding and awareness of the nature of crocodiles and minimise exposure of the people to the reptiles reduce future conflicts.

Given the wide media coverage on crocodile attacks on humans over the years achieving the objectives of 3MBuaya is likely to be an uphill task.

It will take a lot of convincing to persuade the people that the crocs had actually been victims of bad press and that they are not what they have been made out to be.

Braken is unfazed by this challenge and he is relying on scientific studies and analysis of past attacks to spread the message of 3MBuaya.

"We have to understand crocodiles are wild animals that rely on their instincts to feed. Scientists have proven crocodiles attack in different scenarios.

"The first is they attack for food. As crocodiles also feed on monkeys, mistaken identity may occur due to humans resembling primates in the eyes of the reptiles.

Braken added that this was proven by the fact that in many cases of crocodile attack on humans the reptiles let go of the bodies without eating them.

"A crocodile will drag its victim underwater, only to release it once it found the victim is not a monkey. This is proven in cases where the body of a human victim was found intact after they were dragged off by the reptiles. In such a scenario, the victim died from drowning," he explained.

The act of startling can also lead to an attack such as when a person accidentally steps on a crocodile as it lies motionless on the riverbank for hours - usually well-camouflaged and hard to spot.

According to Braken, a startled crocodile will snap as a reflex action.

He said in one attack at Pasir Pandak, Santubong, the crocodile displayed such a behaviour.

The incident was considered a "startled attack" because the crocodile released the person after grabbing him in its jaws.

Another scenario that could lead to an attack is territorial defence. A male crocodile can mistake a person swimming in the river for another male crocodile and this usually triggered an attack.

Crocodiles are most aggressive and dangerous during the mating season where the chances of attacks are higher. A study is still underway to determine the mating season of crocodiles here.

On the other hand, a female crocodile will attack anybody in defending its nest.

CROC DISUSSIONS: Braken and Rambli (left) discussing crocodile population density and setting up of CFZ and crocodiles protected areas.

NEW LIFE: SFC officers rehabilitating a captured crocodile at a new river network.

CROC AT BAKO: A crocodile spotted during a surveillance expedition at Bako.


Braken stressed the need for the public to be educated on crocodile attacks, saying it is important to understand the scenario so to identify the attack areas. Normally, such spots are teeming with fish and prawns.

"The key is getting people to know crocodiles are dangerous animals. Humans, being the intelligent ones, should know how to conduct themselves to protect against and reduce attacks by crocodiles," he added.

Braken pointed out human beings could not claim exclusive rights to rivers and we must learn to co-exist with other creatures living in these waterways.

"The main issue with crocodiles here is that humans and reptiles share the same river source - so there have always been river interactions between them.

"The most important thing we need to advocate is how to co-exist with crocodiles. SFC aims to tell the people they can live with crocodiles despite the species being dangerous," he said.


Ecologist Rambli Ahmad from the Division's Ecosystem-Habitat Management, highlighted the need for proper rubbish disposal - NOT into the river. As rubbish sometimes consists of food, wrappings, packets and the like, crocodiles may eat these throw-aways and form the habit of waiting for people to dump their garbage.

"When you throw rubbish, everything smells like food, especially rotten meat, to a crocodile. This will entice the reptile to move closer to the settlement area, apparently conditioned to think that the act of throwing rubbish into the river signifies feeding time," he explained.

On crocodile attacks, Rambli said the numbers were consistent over the years - not on the increase as feared most.

"There is neither any significant rise nor drop," he pointed out.

Over the past three years, there have been 23 attacks in the state. In 2011, nine were recorded with six survivors and three deaths. The following year saw eight attacks with five survivors and three deaths. And as of September this year, six attacks were recorded with four deaths.


Crocodiles play a very important role in ensuring the health of the eco-system. Often, rich and healthy marine life is found in crocodile- infested waters. The health of a river system can be measured by the presence of crocodiles despite the reptiles being dangerous predators.

"Crocodiles ensure the health of a river by picking off fish and prawns with diseases. This also goes for sick or weak animals like birds, monkeys and others which can easily be caught while drinking by the river.

"What's left is the strong and healthy. By eliminating sick animals, crocodiles prevent the spread of diseases to other animals. As for the fish and prawns population, only the strong and healthy will survive to further populate the river," Braken noted.


During the time of the White Rajah and British colonial administration (1881-1960), crocodiles were considered pests. Bounties were offered to individuals who killed crocodiles. The harvesting of skins resulted in hundreds of deliveries to the district office per month. Bounty was also extended to eggs.

Throughout the 1960's and 70's, a lot of crocodiles were slaughtered for their skin worldwide, leading to a drastic global decline in the number of the reptiles. By the 1980's, the crocodile population was regarded very low.

A baseline study, conducted in the state in 1985, revealed that for every 20km of river surveyed, only one individual crocodile was encountered. This low density led to the listing of crocodiles as Protected Animals under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance in 1990.

Under the law, only the controller can authorise the killing-culling of animals. Any person may kill or capture any animals, causing immediate danger to humans whereas animals, causing immediate danger, killed or captured, may be sold or disposed off or kept in captivity.

The low crocodile population in the country has resulted in the species being listed under Appendix I of CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The Convention controls international trade. Under this list, trading in crocodiles, taken from the wild, cannot be made internationally, except farm-raised reptiles.

Fast forward 20 years, surveys at various river basins from 2007 to 2012 revealed a significant increase in crocodile population. On average, about one to two crocodiles were found for every km.

Braken said although the population was increasing, the actual number had yet to be ascertained.

There are 23 species of crocodiles and alligators in the world. Some are already extinct in the wild and can only be found in farms. Species like salt-water crocodile (crocodylus porosus) or estuarine crocodile (buaya katak) and false gharial (buaya jujulong) can still be found in the state.

On the conservation status of crocodiles here, Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) chairman Dr Grahame Webb was quoted in an International Workshop on Human-Crocodile Conflict (HCC) in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in 2010 as saying: "Sabah and Sarawak should be proud as crocodiles in the wild have recovered in the two states. However, this has created a new set of problems - the increase in human-crocodile conflict. The challenge now is how are we going to sustain what we have succeeded to protect as now, we have a new problem to address."


To further strengthen its crocodile conservation efforts, SFC launched its five-year Strategic Crocodile Management (2012-2016) plan whereby Forestry will enhance its continuous scientific surveys and monitoring, training and capacity-building of personnel.

Meanwhile, the government will work towards getting the International Committee to support the country's downlisting of CITES from Appendix I to II. The next grading will be conducted in 2016.

"It will be a big task. You need to convince the International Committee that Sarawak is now able to manage its crocodile population to ensure the species will not face extinction and to allow certain numbers for trading," Braken said.

Last year, SFC established its Swift Wildlife Action Team (SWAT) to produce well-trained personnel in handling crocodiles and other wild life. This five-year agenda includes setting up crocodile protected areas in 2013 and 2015. SFC will determine the location of these protected areas.

This year also saw the introduction of a safe-river practice guideline.

In the next four years, efforts will be concentrated on setting up crocodile free zones (CFZ) and developing strategies to harvest and ranch crocodiles in the wild as done in Australia and the US, among others.

These countries are allowed to harvest wild crocodiles because they have demonstrated they can manage wild crocodile populations.

In addition, Forestry Department has also formulated the legal framework to promote crocodile-related business, including forming a working group to study community-based ecotourism.

Holistic crocodile studies will be conducted on four components - crocodile population; available food resources; human presence and activities in the area and water quality and distribution of crocodiles. From there, Forestry hopes to set up its CFZ and crocodile protected areas.


The government needs to provide alternative water sources to minimise human frequencies in going into the river.

SFC said setting up a system to pump water from the river will ensure supply to households for bathing, washing and cooking, hence reducing encounters with crocodiles.

On rubbish waste management, Braken believes the rural communities need to be further educated to identify biodegradable items so that these could be composted rather than thrown into the river. Moreover, plastic items should be buried.
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