Crocs and Us
Recently we were warned that there was a great white shark swimming not far from our house on the beach in Auckland. Nobody entered the ocean for weeks. If you told me the chances of being attacked were one in ten million, I still would not go into the water while the shark was there.
Similarly, when in Australia, if I am anywhere near where saltwater crocodiles are to be found, I will not enter any body of water. The chances of being attacked are probably also infinitesimal, but something in humans makes us extremely wary of these two apex predators.
Why the fear of alligators and crocodiles when the odds are so much in our favor? Well, for one thing, these animals have the hardest known bite force on earth. Their jaw pressure (3000psi) is at least five times that of the largest lion.
And whereas another alpha predator, the orca (the so-called killer whale) has never killed a human in the wild, crocodiles do so as often as they can.
Why the difference?
Does it have to do with the fact that an alligator has a much smaller brain than an orca? Well, that is true, but not necessarily relevant. After all, crocodiles are very similar to birds (in fact they are more closely related to birds than they are to other reptiles), and we no longer use the term “bird-brain” because we have recently become aware of how sophisticated avian intelligence really is.
Nor can we call crocodiles “primitive,” a term still widely used. In fact, they live in complicated social environments, more similar to those of mammals than other reptiles. A young crocodile who utters a distress call will bring immediate help from completely unrelated adult crocodiles, even if it means risking their lives. The fact that we find this altruistic behavior surprising indicates how little we know of the intimate lives of other species.
Obviously this altruism does not extend to us. Saltwater crocodiles kill approximately one person every year in Australia. The same is true, more or less, in North America, where between 2000 and 2010, the American alligator killed thirteen people. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, it is believed that the Nile crocodile kills hundreds (possibly thousands) of people each year.
We are not prey for most supreme predators, but we are for crocodiles it would seem. They happily consume us.
And yet. I came across a fascinating article in Oryx (Vol. 35, No. 3, July 2001): “Rediscovery of relict populations of the Nile crocodile Crocoylus niloticus in south-eastern Mauritania, with observations on their natural history” by scientists from the University of Bonn in Germany. The international Union for the Conservation of Nature had listed the Nile crocodile as extinct in Mauritania in its 1992 Action Plan. But three young French travelers in 1993 rediscovered them in five gueltas (rock pools), and now we know there are more.
That is interesting. But what is absolutely fascinating is the following: the people in this area (the province of Hodh el Gharbi in south-eastern Mauritania) do not hunt the crocodiles at all, not for food nor for their skins. They believe that if they kill the crocodiles, their water will disappear and bad luck will descend permanently on their villages. So the crocodiles are considered sacred and harming them is taboo. The German scientists who wrote the article saw children swimming in the wetlands where the crocodiles lived. They saw women filling water containers with crocodiles basking in the sun next to them. They saw men make bricks next to a water hole filled with crocodiles. They saw farmers growing vegetables next to the gueltas inhabited by crocodiles. And yet: There has not been a single report of any kind of attacks on humans in this area. None. Zilch. Zero. That’s pretty remarkable.
What is the explanation? The scientists who wrote the paper do not offer any. I am sorely tempted to suggest that over thousands of years of co-habitation in the same ecological niche, the crocodiles and the humans have come to a modus Vivendi: “you leave us alone and we will leave you alone.” Is that possible? I am not sure, but it is a very attractive thesis, with far-reaching implications. It does not surprise me that an animal who is capable of compassionate behavior toward unrelated young, might well decide that we are not to be harmed as long as abide by the same code. Who knows? Perhaps these crocodiles have myths about sacred humans, too, and that harming us will bring misery into their lives as well