THE WILDSIDE

Buwaya: croc­o­diles of the Philip­pines by Gregg Yan

Animal Scene - - CONTENTS - Text and Pho­tos by GREGG YAN

Iwas in Du­maguete last month when I de­cided to pay a visit to the Sil­li­man Univer­sity’s Ma­rine Lab­o­ra­tory where sev­eral fresh­wa­ter croc­o­diles were be­ing kept and stud­ied. The lab sat in a hu­mid man­grove swamp. The heat and smell re­minded me of an ad­ven­ture I had with Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel a few years back: Close your eyes and imag­ine the steam­ing marshes of Agusan as we search for…

“...Croc­o­diles,” warns our sweat­ing, bolo-clutch­ing guide, Edgar Yu­cot as we hump through co­brain-fested trails to­wards Magsagangsang Creek in Bu­nawan, Agusan Del Sur. “They might be hid­ing in the reeds.” It is a scorcher of a day and we are on the look­out for far more than co­bras.

For the Philip­pines, Eastern Min­danao is croc­o­dile cen­tral. In these choco­late-hued swamps and streams two years back, one hun­dred brave men hauled a croc­o­dile from the depths and into his­tory. Named Lo­long to honor a croc trap­per who fell from a heart at­tack right be­fore the cap­ture, the 20.2-foot beast went on

to be­come the Guin­ness World ti­tle holder for the world’s long­est croc­o­dile be­fore cap­tiv­ity killed him in Fe­bru­ary of 2013.

Led by Yu­cot, our eight-strong squad l;eft the quiet river­side town of Nueva Era an hour back – and with­out a sin­gle croc sight­ing, our im­pa­tience is ris­ing.

“For gen­er­a­tions, we be­lieved the spirits of our an­ces­tors lived within the largest of croc­o­diles,” he says while halt­ing to un­hook a 1.5-liter wa­ter bot­tle jury-rigged to his back. “Many croc­o­diles in­habit the marsh, each dif­fer­en­ti­ated by color. Black croc­o­diles like Lo­long are the fiercest.

Green, yel­low and red ones are mid­dle spirits, while white ones are a por­tent of luck.”

Tak­ing a swig, he abruptly points to a clump of hy­acinth and bam­boo lodged dead­cen­ter in the chan­nel. “That’s where I saw a baby croc­o­dile this morn­ing.”

We sit and squint for ten min­utes, but see noth­ing but wind ca­ress­ing wa­ter.

CROC­O­DILE HUNTERS

Since 2011, Yu­cot has ded­i­cated him­self to track­ing and bag­ging an al­leged 25-footer pho­tographed in Magsagangsang Creek that year. So goes the tale from a Nueva Era res­i­dent: “Jabar Ab­dul usu­ally teth­ered his carabao near the river. We heard splash­ing one night and came out to in­ves­ti­gate. What we saw was in­cred­i­ble – the carabao was be­ing eaten by a croc­o­dile, much larger than any we’ve ever seen!”

Nick­named Lalang, the beast is the new Moby Dick of Yu­cot and the other croc­o­dile hunters of Agusan Marsh. Across the coun­try, hunters are scour­ing swamps for their ar­mored quarry.

In the man­grove mazes of Rizal in Palawan, croc­o­dile hunters are on the prowl for a beast said to be larger than Lo­long. An en­clo­sure pat­terned af­ter that of Lo­long’s has al­ready been built near Puerto Princesa.

Long, long ago, croc­o­diles were com­mon in the Philip­pines. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tan­gere de­scribed how Crisos­tomo Ibarra saved Elias from a rogue beast by the banks of the Pasig River. On dis­play at the Har­vard Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in Amer­ica is the pre­served skull of an enor­mous 27-foot salt­wa­ter croc­o­dile shot and killed near the town of Jala­jala, La­guna de Bay in 1823. To­day most of the gi­ants have for­ever slipped be­neath the murk – ex­tir­pated for space, hide, and pride.

The Philip­pines hosts two croc­o­dile species. The Philip­pine or Fresh­wa­ter Croc­o­dile (Crocody­lus min­doren­sis), crit­i­cally-en­dan­gered and found in Min­danao and Is­abela, grows to nine feet and sports sharp grooves down its nape. Only about 250 re­main in the wild.

The larger Es­tu­ar­ine or Salt­wa­ter Croc­o­dile (Crocody­lus poro­sus) has a smooth neck. Once widespread through­out Asia and North­ern Aus­tralia, it has been pushed to ex­tinc­tion in sev­eral coun­tries – in­clud­ing Viet­nam, Laos, and pos­si­bly Cam­bo­dia. “Sal­ties are the largest rep­tiles on Earth,” ex­plains for­mer DENR Sec­re­tary and rep­tile-ex­pert Dr. An­gel Al­cala. “Some grow longer than 25 feet and live up to a cen­tury.” Around 1000 of them lurk in the man­groves and coasts of the coun­try, the hubs be­ing Palawan and Min­danao.

IN HU­MAN HANDS

To­day, both Philip­pine croc­o­dile species are threat­ened with ex­tir­pa­tion. Quips Dr. Al­cala, “Wild num­bers have taken a nose­dive be­cause of hunt­ing, habi­tat pres­sure, and "

Croc­o­dile farms might be a vi­able con­ser­va­tion op­tion. In 1986, the Philip­pine gov­ern­ment set up the Croc­o­dile Farm­ing In­sti­tute (CFI) in Irawan, Palawan, to ex­plore the vi­a­bil­ity of com­mer­cial rear­ing and prop­a­ga­tion. Now con­verted into a tourist draw and re­named the Palawan Wildlife Res­cue and Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter (PWRCC), the breed­ing com­plex hosts thou­sands of crocs – in­clud­ing gi­ants like Suri­gao, an 18-foot Saltie.

To fast-track de­vel­op­ment, CFI se­lected six can­di­date farms for pi­lot test­ing in 1999. To­day as many as 8000 croc­o­diles – mostly Sal­ties – are kept in var­i­ous farms across Lu­zon and Min­danao. # $ sold for hide and meat. Al­ready, del­i­ca­cies like croc­o­dile sisig and teriyaki are grac­ing menus across the coun­try.

Nu­mer­ous ques­tions are posed by croc­o­dile con­ser­va­tion­ists. Are farmed croc­o­diles to be than live­stock? Do breed­ing pro­grams truly in­tend to re­lease % wild? How will we re­lease them if they have no homes to re­turn to?

The main prob­lem, of course, is that hu­mans are en­croach­ing into croc­o­dile habi­tats. To pro­tect lo­cal res­i­dents gu­rami, tilapia, and tasty $ & % dugout ca­noes, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment of Agusan ' and “res­cue” croc­o­diles large enough to be deadly to peo­ple. In the end, hu­mans won out, leav­ing the fate of these an­cient crea­tures squarely in hu­man hands.

“Peo­ple call us croc­o­dile hunters, but we are re­ally here to pro­tect them,” rea­sons Yu­cot as we head back to Nueva Era, our chances of see­ing crocs evap­o­rat­ing with the ris­ing mid­day heat. “The peo­ple of the marsh have al­ways revered croc­o­diles, but re­cent attacks on peo­ple and live­stock have pushed many to fear them. Those that get too big must now be re­moved for their own good – or else they might be killed from fear and anger. Be­lieve it or not, the best way to keep them safe is to cap­ture them.”

* my brow and nod, tak­ing a last glance at Magsagangsang Creek and its mys­te­ri­ous res­i­dents. As we leave the hu­mid swamp, I can only won­der: will their fate be bet­ter than Lo­long’s?

*An ear­lier ver­sion of this ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished by Pos­i­tively Filipino Mag­a­zine. This up­dated ar­ti­cle has been reprinted with per­mis­sion from the au­thor.

Lo­long be­ing mea­sured by a DOST team at the Bu­nawan Eco-park and Croc­o­dile Res­cue Cen­ter in Agusan del Sur

Ma­rine or Es­tu­ar­ine Croc­o­diles (Crocody­lus poro­sus) are the largest rep­tiles on Earth. In 1823, a gi­gan­tic 27-foot croc­o­dile was shot and killed near the town of Jala­jala in La­guna de Bay

Croc­o­dile hunter Edgar Yu­cot shows the team what a typ­i­cal Agusan dugout ca­noe looks like. In 2009, a rogue croc­o­dile at­tacked and ate a 12-year old girl as she pad­dled atop a sim­i­lar ca­noe. Hu­man-wildlife an is­sue to be fully re­solved by WWF and other con­ser­va­tion groups.

Au­thor look­ing for crocodil­ians in the swamps of North Amer­ica

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