Will crocodiles soon be gone?

Posted: 20 April 2012

Author: Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

The Philippines became the toast of the world in September last year when a crocodile was caught in a Magsagangsang Creek in Bunawan.

Measuring 20 feet and three inches (6.17 metres), Lolong – as the crocodile is known – is the longest ever captured alive.

In November 2011, Australian crocodile expert Dr. Adam Britton of National Geographic sedated and measured Lolong in its enclosure. He confirmed it as world’s longest crocodile ever caught and placed in captivity. The previous record-holder is Cassius, which is kept in the crocodile park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Cassius is 17 feet and 11.75 inches (5.48 metres) long.

Lolong, the biggest crocodile ever caught alive. Photo © Henrylito Tacio

Today, the giant crocodile – named Lolong after the hunter who led the hunt – is being kept in the nature park of barangay Consuelo. It is housed in an 800-square-metre pen with 1.2-metre-high concrete walls topped by welded wire.

Bunawan Mayor Edwin Cox Elorde said Lolong was not captured for commercial reasons, as some complained. “We captured him to save the residents in the area and to save Lolong” because residents were planning to poison it.”

Experts say the capture of Lolong will protect the crocodile’s survival and provide an opportunity for scientific study. However, animal rights activists have urged Philippine authorities to return the crocodile to its natural habitat. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argued that if the crocodile remains in captivity, it is likely to develop abnormal behaviour and endanger its caretakers and visitors.

But Mayor Elorde disagreed. He said about 1,300 residents who rely on fishing in the area could be attacked by the crocodile once it is released into the 13,910-hectare Agusan marsh again.

The mere thought of a crocodile makes some people shudder with fear and revulsion. A rumour about the presence of a crocodile in a river is enough to make people shun the area. After all, they are dangerous creatures, especially during the mating period.

According to the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, crocodiles actually have no any wilful inclination and intention to attack humans. In fact, there are many wildlife sanctuaries in the country where crocodiles live peacefully together with human beings.

It is only when human beings disturb the habitat the crocodiles are living in that they attack people. But with a growing human population of more than 92 million, and constant land area, the pressure on crocodile habitant is very real.

Soon extinct

“Crocodiles are being hunted down and killed,” deplored one environmentalist. “Unless we do something to save them from vanishing in our waters, they will soon be extinct. We may only see them in national parks or museums and not in their natural habitat.”

“Roughly a quarter of the world’s 23 crocodilian species is either threatened or virtually extinct in the wild,” says the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group. “Before new populations of Philippine crocodiles were discovered on the island of Luzon in 1999, none had been spotted in the wild for years.”

The Philippines is home to two kinds of crocodiles: the Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis) and the saltwater crocodile (C. porosus). Both are listed by the Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) under Appendix I, which means trade of species and subspecies is strictly prohibited except for educational, scientific or research and study purposes.

The Philippine crocodile is an endemic species. Its existence was discovered in 1935 at Lake Naujan, Oriental Mindoro by Karl P. Schmidt, an American curator of Herpetology of the Field Museum of Natural of Chicago.

A small crocodilian, it grows up to three metres and weighs up to 100 kilograms in its adult stage. Young crocodiles prey on shrimps, dragonflies, small fish and snais. Adults, on the other hand, feed on large fish, pigs, snake and water birds. It is known to thrive in small lakes, riverine tributaries and marshes, particularly in the islands of Mindoro, Busuanga in northern Palawan, Masbate, Negros, Samar, Mindanao and in the Sulu archipelago.

The IUCN lists the Philippine crocodile as “critically endangered.” The estimated number in the wild is only 200.

Saltwater crocodiles

Despite its name, saltwater crocodile can also be found in freshwater areas such as rivers, lakes and marshlands. It is found in certain parts of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Lolong is a saltwater crocodile so is Pangil, the 1,000-kilogram crocodile displayed at the Davao Crocodile Park.

Pangil, saltwater crocodile at the Davao City Crocodile Park. Photo © Henrylito Tacio

Bigger than the Philippine crocodile, the saltwater crocodile grows up to seven metres or 30 feet. Young crocodiles eat insects, amphibians, crustaceans and fish. Adults can potentially eat animals such as monkeys, pigs, birds, cattle, bats, and even sharks. They have also been known to attack humans who enter their territory. They like to bask in the sun or swim in the water, and prefer to hunt at night.

Some Filippino businessmen found out a few years ago that there’s money in crocodiles. “Growing global demand for croc-patterned luxuries has turned commercial crocodile farming into a profitable industry – with more than $200 million in annual international sales of skins alone,” reports the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group. “The high-end leather goods produced from crocodiles earn ten times that amount in retail sales.”

Aside from the skin, other parts of the reptile have monetary value. The oil, derived from its flesh, has also a big market. It is widely used as stabiliser for perfumes and cosmetics.

Crocodile spare ribs
Crocodile spare ribs. Photo © Henrylito Tacio

Crocodile meat, which tastes like chicken if properly cooked, can be canned for export to some European countries. In the United States, people are eating dishes like crocojambalaya, ‘gator steak, and croco-spiced Cajun.

The meat also commands a good price in some Asian countries, especially those having large populations of ethnic Chinese people. They considered crocodile meat a delicacy. In Thailand, dry crocodile meat costs about US$120 per kilogram.

Crocodile farms

Due to uncontrolled hunting of crocodiles for their valuable hides and other parts and the continued destruction of their natural habitat by human beings, the population of both species of crocodile in the Philippines has dwindled. In 1982, the population was about 500 to 1,000 heads. No reliable current data is available.

Unfortunately, it seems that the best hope for saving crocodiles in the Philippines from extinction is by raising them just like other animals. As an enterprise, crocodile farming doesn’t break any laws. Farms are legally allowed to operate, as well as to sell skins and meat from their stocks.

“Crocodile farming was introduced to prevent the further decline of the crocodile population in the wild,” said Director Mundita Lim of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB). “With importers of crocodile skin buying from crocodile farms that offer them good-quality skin, hunting in the wild will eventually stop.”

“Going into crocodile farming is not about making profit alone. It is about wildlife conservation,” said Vicente P. Mercado, president of J. K. Mercado & Sons Agricultural Enterprise, which is one of the six firms licensed to operate crocodile farms in the Philippines.

 Henrylito Tacio is South East Asia correspondent of this website.