Man Magnum


Sinister denizens of the deep

- John Coleman

FR OM1 957, I hunted crocodiles commercial­ly an df or safari clients in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Caprivi, so I have so me ex perience.

I have never shot, or even seen a croc that measured more than about 18 feet (nearly six metres) and, as far as I know, there has never been one registered much over that size in southern Africa. The biggest croc I know of in southern Africa was shot by Boet van Bart on the Kafue River in Zambia and measured 18ft 4-inches. Van Bart was enormously strong but he, and six local men, could not get it out of the water and had to skin it in the shallows on the edge of the river. They estimated that it weighed about a ton and a half.

I shot a croc on the Kwando River in Angola which measured 16½ feet and its girth was such that when I sat straddling it, my feet could hardly touch the ground. It was a female and probably weighed about a ton.

Contrary to popular belief, a crocodile’s main diet is not meat but fish, mainly barbel and bream. Big crocs do, of course, catch animals. They usually wait at regular drinking places and when an animal comes to the edge, they explode out of the water, grab it and pull it under, rolling over and over to drown it. If the prey is small enough, the croc will usually devour it immediatel­y by violently shaking it apart. But, if it is too large, they let it rot and then clamp their jaws on it and roll over, tearing chunks off.

Crocodiles seldom attack in very shallow water, preferring to lurk in deep pools near the bank so they can quickly pull their prey under. They don’t often take humans, but will do so where people regularly go to get water or bathe. I have shot man-killers with the grisly remains of partly digested humans in the stomach – a very unpleasant sight.

I do not believe stories about crocodiles lying in wait on riverbanks and knocking their victims into the water with their tails – a crocodile can’t think that far ahead. I have been hit by the tails of large crocodiles thrashing about in the boat and it certainly wasn’t enough to knock me overboard. But beware of their rock-hard heads which can knock the side out of a boat or even break your leg.

Crocodiles’ jaws are extremely strong and, once closed, almost impossible to pull open without killing the croc. Even small crocs won’t let go – their bite is like a pair of pliers with teeth. Their jaws are easily kept closed if bound with rope or duct-tape – just don’t get bitten in the process. If you cover

their eyes with a bag, they will lie still. Their reflexes are extremely fast; if you tap them on the end of the tail you have to be very quick to pull your hand away before they twist around and latch onto it.

If a big croc gets you in the water, it will almost certainly kill you – though people do occasional­ly survive. We used to water-ski on the Zambezi above the Victoria Falls, and usually the noise of the motor would scare the crocs away, but on one occasion a friend fell in and swam for the bank, but was quickly seized in a terrible, bone-crushing grip across his back and pulled under. Before he passed out, he remembered struggling and trying to push his fingers into the croc’s eyes. He awoke lying on the bank, torn and bleeding. He survived, but bore terrible scars across his back and belly. We learned to take nothing for granted and never to underestim­ate crocodiles.

ONCE I WAS called upon to shoot a crocodile that lived in a backwater of the Zambezi. It was said to have taken several local villagers while they were fetching water and to have pulled in and drowned a couple of cattle. On arrival at the village I asked for details and, accompanie­d by the most senior of the local hunters, I drove to a big, quiet stretch of water about a kilometre away. It was mostly surrounded by reeds, with a few openings where the villagers and their cattle could access the water – which was dark and obviously deep, so I was careful to keep my distance.

Luka, my tracker, found a couple of places where the crocodile had come out onto the bank to bask in the sun. He pointed out the size of the feet and the huge marks of the body in the sand. I estimated the croc to be about 16ft long – quite capable of pulling a cow into the water. About 20m higher up the bank was a patch of bush in which Luka and I hid in wait. I had my open-sighted .458 loaded with 510gr soft-nosed bullets. We waited most of the day but the croc didn’t appear.

The biggest croc I know of in southern Africa was shot by Boet van Bart on the Kafue River in Zambia and measured 18ft 4-inches

That night I recalled my friend Ken Mommsen, a very experience­d croc hunter, having said the way to get a crafty croc to expose his head was to tether a dog, which would bark when it spotted the croc. He said crocs love eating dogs and will come in close with their heads above water. So, in the morning I borrowed a villager’s dog and returned to the same spot, where I tied the dog to a tree on the bank, out in the open where it could be seen by the croc, then hid with Luka in the bushes. After a long period of silence, I was about to pack it in when the dog started whining and barking while trying to retreat from the water. Luka pointed to a nearby patch of reeds. There was a ripple and just the top of the croc’s head appeared, moving towards the dog.

I rested my elbows on my knees and took aim, waiting for the head to be more exposed. When the croc was quite close, it raised its head higher, eyes fastened on the horrified dog. I drew in a breath of amazement – its head was huge. I aimed for the back of the head, a little behind and below the knobs, and squeezed off the shot. We heard the solid thwack of a hit and the huge animal sank quietly below the surface with hardly a ripple.

A few minutes later the villagers rushed down to the riverbank. “Where is the ngwenya?” they shouted. Luka replied, “It is dead, but has sunk in the water. We must wait for it to float. It will take two days to come up because it eats meat, which does not make much gas in the stomach.” I wasn’t prepared to wait there for so long, so I fetched my small inflatable boat from the Land Rover and launched it. After gingerly probing the riverbed with a long pole, I felt something soft but resistant. It had to be the dead croc lying belly-up on the bottom. I had a rope, so I tied a noose on the end of the pole and started feeling for a foot by scraping along the body. Finally the pole contacted one of the legs and I tried repeatedly to hook the noose over its foot but kept failing. Eventually I slipped it over the leg and pulled it fast, then threw the end of the rope onto the bank and climbed out.

Luka and I carefully pulled on the rope, and when we could see the body in the shallower water, I went in and fastened another rope around the croc’s nose. As I did this, the croc began squirming, almost giving me a heart attack, but it was only its nerves causing the movement, as often happens with freshly killed reptiles.

With help from some villagers we slowly pulled the huge croc out and rolled it onto the bank – to exclamatio­ns of horror and awe from the onlookers. Luka began to skin it, and every time he cut into the skin, the croc would kick and squirm, causing a stampede – much to our amusement. When we opened up the belly, we found a few semi-digested animal parts, but no human remains. After that, the croc attacks stopped, so this one must have been the culprit. I sold the skin to a buyer in Livingston­e for a good price – that was a bonus.

Crocodiles seldom attack in very shallow water, preferring to lurk in deep pools near the bank... they don’t often take humans

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