Published in Herpinstance, March 2004
The plane flew over the lush green forests of Papua New Guinea as it flew across the country. Big rivers snaked dramatically across the landscape draining and sustaining vast swamplands that stretched as far as the eye could see. We were going to check out the most famous of these rivers, the Sepik, for New Guinea freshwater crocs. Rom was visiting PNG after a gap of 23 years while this was my first visit to that part of the world.
The small Cessna that flew us to Ambunti from the coastal northern town of Wewak was chartered from the MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship). It is the missionaries who maintain the airstrips and a fleet of aircraft that link the remote parts of the country. There were severe limitations on how much the small plane could carry. Everyone and everything was weighed and the payload calibrated. Half an hour later we landed on a very small grassy strip. One end of the strip led to the river and the other was backed against a hill.
We came to Ambunti especially to meet Alphonse Mapa, the ace croc hunter of the area, who worked with the Wildlife Conservation Department, conducting extension programs in the various villages. As we walked across the village to Ambunti Lodge, people began arriving for the daily market in dugout canoes to sell fish, sago, turtles, cuscus, possums and all else edible. The funny thing about this country is that people travel by boats and planes regularly but few would have seen a car, bus or truck; there were hardly any roads.
By evening we were out looking for crocs. The river was high but there were a few baby crocs around. Alphonse leapt out of the boat and grabbed the first baby croc he spotted. The breeze was cool and kept the mosquitoes away. Next one to leap off the canoe was Rom. There was a brown snake among the reeds and Rom sprung out like a veritable Jack-in-the-box. It turned out (he thinks) to be a brown tree snake, the infamous decimator of the bird fauna of Guam. But of big crocs, there was nary a sign. PNG is a very difficult place to see crocs. The vast swamplands are impossible to travel through and that’s where the crocs hang out. And we knew there were plenty of crocs there.
Alphonse thought we should go up river to the village of the Insect people if we wanted to catch a big fresh water crocodile. It turned out to be a marathon trip.
It was about 4 pm when we reached Swagap, the village of the Insect People. The village is off on a detour from the main Sepik River and we had to negotiate logjams and narrow waterways to get there. There was so much floating vegetation that the outboard motors had to be lifted out of the water and the canoes poled and pushed ashore. It was hard work but we got there finally. The totem of the Insect People is the praying mantis and hence the Lonely Planet nickname. Their woodwork was fine and intricate – much better than the touristy carvings sold in town.
All the village men hung out by the boats. A few guys were hollowing a massive log into a canoe, while others stood around, chewing betel nut, smoking and watching. An old guy sat nearby making a harpoon for hunting crocs. Come to think of it, every canoe moored there had 2 or 3 harpoons. And we hoped to find crocs around here!
At sunset, we all piled into the canoes. Everyone wanted to go so we had to be clear that (a) we wanted someone to guide us and (b) this wasn’t a harpooning expedition. Three boats started out running full throttle toward an ox-bow lake close-by. Ox bow lakes are formed when the river changes course leaving the old bend totally cut off creating a lake. We saw the lead boat with the guide go through a gap among the reeds into the ox-bow lake but it was obviously a tricky shortcut. The drivers of the 2 canoes following struggled to find the way and an hour later we were still stuck there listening to the distant whine of the first boat's motor. Then the second canoe managed to get through but not the third! After several minutes, we got them on the radio and coordinated movements. They had finished looking around in the lake and were coming out onto the river again where we'd rendezvous with them.
They had had some luck – they had spotted a big croc which had disappeared in a splash, plus lots of babies that they didn't want to waste time catching. It was a dismal night but we didn’t give up easily. It was past midnight when we decided to call it quits and headed back to Ambunti.
One of the ways people earn money here is to catch hatchling crocs, feed them up to a good size in three years and then sell them to the large farms. They can earn more money than by just selling the hatchlings. At such a rearing station Rom pointed out 2 wart-like bumps on top of the snout of New Guinea freshies - something no other croc has. So besides the mugger croc of South Asia, here was a croc that dummies like me could tell apart from the other species of crocodiles.
Old man and the river
I asked Alphonse about the biggest croc he had ever killed. The skull of this massive creature presided over the lobby of Ambunti Lodge. Rom estimated it to be a 17 feet long. The story was that the croc began biting boats and killing people. Alphonse’s family lived on the riverbank and he feared for his children’s lives as they canoed to school everyday. So he decided to go after the croc. Someone had already taken a pot shot at the croc and blown its nose off. After several nights of stalking and baiting Alphonse finally caught a glimpse of the croc and harpooned it. He quickly lashed a couple of 20-gallon drums to the rope. That way he could tell, by the bobbing drums, where the croc was, even if it dived to the river bottom. That was about 9 pm. Then followed a monumental struggle between man and beast. Finally at 2 am an exhausted Alphonse felt the dead weight on the harpoon’s stay rope stop yanking and he knew the croc was dead.
More people live in close proximity to large crocs in PNG than anywhere else in the world. People have seen family members being taken in front of their eyes and felt helpless against the power of the master predator. They sought to immunize themselves from the unpredictable attacks by carving the prow of their boats in the shape of a croc, their large drums that were beaten on ceremonial occasions were in the shape of a croc and whole tribes adopted it as their totem animal and scarified their bodies to imitate the ridges on a croc’s back. In fact crocs permeated all their stories, artifacts and way of life. Croc meat was highly prized in the swamplands and a regular staple in their diet.
Then with the coming of European influence, the tribal people were introduced to a market that highly valued croc skins. Croc skins didn’t have any value in the local economy until then and so local people had no concept of what the skin was worth. Rom narrates stories of tribal people selling huge croc skins worth hundreds of dollars for a mosquito net or some worthless trinkets.
Puk puk (Crocodile) Project bilong Papua New Guinea:
In the late 1970s the newly independent Govt. of PNG sought United Nations funding for setting up a sustainable croc skin industry. Unlike other countries, most of the land was owned by the people. There was very little Govt. or common land. So when crocs nested, they were doing so on someone’s private land – be it swamp or garden. The idea of sustainable use and conservation had to be taken directly to the people. If the people weren’t convinced, tough luck, there was nothing anyone could do about it. The goal was to teach people that nesting female crocs were a renewable source of money and should be left alone. They lay eggs at the same site every year. So instead of killing large female crocs, people could harvest 50% of the croc nests found on their land– the hatchlings were either sold immediately to farms or kept in pens for a period of time before being sold as larger animals. Hunting of crocs for their skins was permitted but no croc with a belly skin width (from armpit to armpit across the belly) of more than 21 inches could be killed. The logic behind this stricture was that anything larger than this would be a breeding size croc capable of replenishing the croc population during the next breeding season and ought to be left alone. To back up this entire operation, the Govt. would monitor the wild croc population every year by conducting surveys on nest transects.
Twenty years later, when we visited the country, the Govt. had not done any surveys in 4 years while croc exploitation continued as before. The IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group and the Animals Committee of Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) put pressure on the Govt. to uphold its side of the deal. Like every other developing country, funds were short. The Govt. was to use funds it earned as tax from the croc ranching operations to do these surveys but instead the money was probably lining a minister’s bed! Into the impasse stepped Mainland Holdings, the world’s largest croc farm with an estimated 25,000 crocs. The company, based in Lae on the northern coast, had everything to lose if the Govt. didn’t honour its part of the bargain which could lead to the IUCN and CITES banning PNG croc skins from the international market. So the company funded 50% of the cost of this year’s aerial surveys while the Govt. chipped in the rest. The results look good. There has been a steady increase (6.12% every year since monitoring began in 1982) in the number of nests. And in the year 2003 alone, the villagers of Ambunti received K 7438 (Rs. 111, 943) just from egg harvests. The Sepik is the focus of all the attention on crocs as this is the single largest area exploited.
Just to get an idea of what this industry means to the local people, I asked Alphonse how much of his annual income came from crocs. He looked me like I was from Mars (or Venus) and said he could send his kids to school for an entire year just from exploiting the croc nests on his land. Each egg is worth 7 Kina (Rs. 105) and an average nest, with about 30 eggs, is worth Rs. 3150.
There are accusations that crocs are being hunted illegally and the skins smuggled across the border to Irian Jaya where the Indonesian authorities condone it. May be this happens but the scale of illegal operations is not big enough to be worried about. The results of the aerial surveys are indicative of the relative abundance of the croc population. In this age when making such programs work in developing countries is a huge challenge, we can celebrate the fact that crocs that have had a bad rap for centuries finally have a future at least in some places on this earth. And it is no small achievement that this program has been running successfully for 20 years now. It has had its ups and downs but the basic principle – that wild croc populations can survive alongside people if the people are actively involved in their management - still holds strong.