Peter Flack | Hunter, Writer, Conservationist, Retired Game Rancher

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June 2013

Crocodiles - Birds Or Lizards? by Peter Flack

It all started many, many years ago. There were four of us. Amongst other things, we hunted together and, because I was the anally retentive one, I got the logistics job. I drew up the menus, bought the food and drink, brought the medical kit and was the camp doctor. That was where my duties ended until I bought a "mik en druk" 35mm Olympus camera. Then I became the official photographer as well. In the beginning, I merely copied some of the photos for the other guys at a one stop photo shop. And then I began sticking them in little albums with hand written notes and, later, after I had graduated to a secretary, I had the notes typed out. Of course, being a lawyer at the time, you will understand that the notes progressively became longer and longer and then there was the crocodile.

The croc was a U-boat. Derek shot it in the head with my .375. Not exactly in the middle where he should have - in fairness it was a long shot - and that was where the problems began. The croc lifted off from where it had been sunning itself on the banks of the Gwaai River in Zimbabwe like a Saturn 5 lunar module rocket launcher and plunged into the water. As Derek was on land and I was in a boat in the river, it became my job to recover the pebbly worm, which is where the word "crocodile" comes from. Krok, the Greek word for pebble - the rough, nobbly skin - and deilo for worm.

I drove the unfamiliar boat next to the monster worm - like something out of the science fiction movie, Dune - which would revolve like a high speed turbine frothing the surface before suddenly and sinisterly disappearing. Then, while we craned our necks over the side of the boat to see where it had gone, this massive prehistoric animal - they have been around more or less in their current form for over five million years - would do its imitation of a Polaris missile fired from a submarine and exit the water vertically for almost its entire body length, snapping its jaws, before bomb dropping back into the water and soaking us.

What to do? The sonic booms as its jaws crashed closed in mid-air were character building and, as no-one wanted to go near the business end, we tried to rope one of its hind legs. What we didn't know at the time was that crocs can exert some 5 000 pounds of pressure per square inch with those wicked weapons. To provide some sense of comparison, a big Rottweiler exerts about 35 pounds, a great white shark about 450 and a hyena - certainly the strongest jaw structure I have personally ever seen - about 1 000 pounds per square inch. As they used to say in the old Nedbank adverts - "Makes you think, doesn't it?"

What we did know was that, if the croc died and sank, it would not surface for about 12 to 18 hours and, by then, the skin would be ruined and unfit for taxidermy. We also knew that it was a monster. None of us had ever heard of, let alone seen, one remotely as big. I really did not want my friend to lose this spectacular trophy and did something I would never do today and wouldn't have done then had I thought about it carefully beforehand.

Frustrated by our failed attempts to lasso it or to come up with any other plan to secure the croc (who I could see was tiring) and, I thought, imminently about to sink for good; I suddenly grabbed Derek's .300 H&H from inside the boat, chambered a round and transferred it to my right hand. When next the croc rolled over onto its stomache alongside the boat, I leant over, my face uncomfortably close to the croc's smile line, grabbed its slimy left front leg with my left hand, pulled upwards with all my strength and, almost simultaneously, shot it one handed in the back of the head. I nearly dislocated my wrist and made a real mess of the skull but the shot settled matters for once and for all and we were able to drag the inert submarine to the bank with the boat.

The six of us could not pick up this dinosaur of a beast to load it into the boat - yes, along with birds, it is the closest living relative to the dinosaurs of old - and, even if we could have, it would not have fit. There was no alternative but to skin it out on the bank.

Crocodile ancestors can be traced back some 225 million years to a small, two legged, land based predator and crocodiles have existed on all continents except Antarctica. One of the many things I found interesting about them is that their nearest relative is a bird and not a lizard as you might have expected. Crocs have the same two skull openings behind their eyes the same as birds do, which makes them both diapsids. They are the most advanced living reptile and also have things in common with mammals, such as a hind brain and a four chambered heart, although their stomache again resembles that of a bird.

Later, when we visited Angus van Jaarsveld's croc farm near Binga on the shores of Lake Kariba to clean and salt the skin, Angus told us that this was the biggest crocodile he had seen in 28 years of croc catching and farming. According to him, a crocodile doubled its body weight for every foot it grew over 14 feet and "our" monster, as I still think of it, measured 16 feet 4 inches and was the world record for many years. We had no scales large enough to weigh the beast even if we had been able to keep the monster in tact but, judging by what I know now, it must have weighed more than 500 kilograms despite that fact that, being winter, it had not eaten for weeks and its skin was hanging on it.

My photo album of the trip was the most comprehensive I had made thus far and, with the encouragement of my friends, I converted the captions to a story, which a hunting magazine published way back in September, 1988. It was the start of many things - my story writing for one and my fascination with crocodiles - one of two animals on the African continent which really scare me - for two.

I shot the first one in Botswana.  We were hunting in the Okavango Swamps and, early one morning, were greeted by large clawed footprints in the mud at our boat launching area - the croc's front foot has five toes all with claws and the rear has four toes (although there is a fifth hidden toe) of which three are clawed and with webbing between them. The tracks were not a good sign and I, for one, was more than reluctant to wade into the water to launch our mokoros. When we returned that afternoon, I climbed into a leafy wild fig tree whose branches spread over the launching area and settled down to wait over some meat we left on the bank.

There was not one but three crocodiles patrolling the river past my tree. I was impressed by their watchfulness and stealth and, in the beginning, battled to spot them. At times, they would disappear for ages - crocs can stay under water for up to two hours if they are still - and I could see that patience was going to be required. It was only later, when I realized that the bits of wood that did not bob up and down with the slow flowing water weren't bits of wood, that I was able to see and follow these prehistoric monsters with any degree of regularity.

One of the things I noticed from my tree top hide was that, as clear as the waters were, when the crocs sank below the surface, I could not for the life of me see them unless they moved and showed the paler colours underneath their bodies. Their camouflage was outstanding. This was confirmed on a later boat trip when we passed over a smallish seven footer in a shallow hippo channel. The croc took off from directly under our boat and spurted away up the channel before halting. We could see by the bubbles and commotion where it was and followed. The croc would lie still on the bottom of the channel and, even when directly over it in two to three feet of water, could only see it when it moved.

It took hours for the first cautious croc to emerge from the crystal clear waters of the Okavango and poke its head out onto dry land in the direction of the bait. When it did, I shot the seven footer through the top of the head. And no, I did not try and recover the croc on my own. Do not for one moment think that you could handle a little old seven footer if you were attacked by one. Some years back, an eight footer nearly did for three very able bodied men in Kruger Park and, at the end of the day, after a titanic struggle, although they all survived the attack in knee deep water, two of the men were very badly hurt. The croc also appeared badly injured but somehow still got away.

You know the joke about the Pom walking along one of Australia's pristine north eastern beaches? Being hot, he decided to go for a swim but, aware of the shark risk, approached an old aborigine sitting on the shore. "Are there sharks here?' he asked. "Naaah," replied the man. He enjoyed his swim and, on his return, passed by the same old man. On a whim, he turned to him and asked, "Why aren't there any sharks here?"  The man replied, "Because the bloody crocs have eaten them all!"  And it is true that saltwater crocs in Australia grow to great lengths.

It is also true that crocodiles have salt glands in their tongues which allow them to secrete salt. This gland grows bigger or smaller with changes in the salinity of the water and crocs can therefore adapt and thrive despite the changes in the saltiness of their watery surroundings even though they do prefer fresh water. This may help to explain how they made the 350 kilometre ocean crossing from East Africa to Madagascar - they swam!

The biggest croc I ever shot was on the shores of Lake Kariba and measured 13 feet 4 inches, a mere tiddler compared to those shot in the last few years by clients of Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris in Lake Chamo where, before the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, in one of its many inexplicable decisions, banned croc hunting, they were shooting six submarines a year that averaged around 18 feet in length!

Like many a successful hunt, we spotted the animal first, swimming lazily down an islet and paralleled its course on shore while staying well within the tree line - crocs have excellent senses. After it beached itself, we waited patiently for it to settle down, relax and feel comfortable and confident in its new surroundings. Crocs never seem to do anything in a hurry apart from the final moments of their well planned attacks.

As we waited, it opened its mouth wide and kept it open. We manoeuvred downwind so that we could approach the reptile head on as, despite its 270 degree vision, in this position, the croc cannot see you approach. For the last three hundred metres or so we slithered down the slope leading to the water on our stomaches amongst the knee high panicum riepens broad leafed grass, stopping every few metres or so to catch our breath and ensure that the croc and, just as importantly, the plovers that were fossicking around it - they have been known to enter the jaws of a croc to pick bits of food from its teeth - were relaxed and unaware of our intentions. When we could go no further, given the lay of the land, we were still nearly 150 metres from the croc. I extended the bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel of my .375 and waited until my breathing recovered and I was calm, comfortable and steady.

The croc remained as if carved in stone basking in the mid-morning warmth. Many people have assumed that crocs are cold-blooded reptiles incapable of regulating their body heat, need external heat sources to do so and lie with their mouths open as a means of controlling body temperature.  Recent research, however, has shown that this is not true and that crocs can maintain their body temperature within a narrow range using biochemical processes. In addition, experts have argued that this habit of lying with their mouths open might be a threat display to warn off other crocs from coming too close.

Who knows for sure? What is sure is that when crocs lie like this, you can see their Gular fold, which is a tissue flap covering the throat to keep water out of the throat and lungs. Now, the most important thing when hunting crocs is to ensure that the first shot anchors them where they lie. If it does not and the croc makes it back into the water, nine times out of ten, you can wave your trophy good bye. What I found out, as a result of the shot I then made, was that if you shoot a croc through the middle of this Gular flap as it lies directly facing you, the only thing which moves afterwards are the jaws which snap shut and the tail which revolves a few times. It is a perfect croc shot in addition to the brain and spinal shots which are more usually used.

At the time, we were using the National Forestry Commission camp at Sijarira as our base. While staying there, the forester, the late Mr. Richard Alewood, was called to investigate the killing of a local Batonka woman by a crocodile. From the tracks, it was clear that the croc had chased the woman across a ploughed field for over 50 metres before dragging her back into the water. I cannot imagine a more horrifying end!  Yes, these seemingly ungainly animals may "high walk" with erect legs and dragging their tails at only about three kilometres an hour, but they can also gallop for short distances at speeds of up to 18 kilometres an hour. In other words, they can cover the 100 metre sprint in 20 seconds. Can you beat that?  I know I can't and certainly not across the soft soil of a ploughed field.

And once it grabs you in those jaws with their 63 to 68 interlocking and replaceable teeth, I'm afraid it's good night nurse!  And no, when they eat you - and they can eat up to 20% of their body weight in one sitting - those are not tears they are weeping as a sign of sorrow for killing you. Crocodiles have a Harderian gland which empties into two ducts near the eyes and produces "tears" which are often visible when they are eating large pieces of food like you.

The croc I shot did not have any bangles or necklaces in its stomache - unlike Derek's world class monster - but only a few smooth stones. No-one knows for sure what purpose these stones serve - they are present in all mature crocs (even those from the Okavango which is all but devoid of rocks and stones) - and they can weigh up to 1% of its body weight. Is it to act as ballast and assist stability in the water; to change the buoyancy of the beast and allow it to lie on the bottom; or to add weight to help the croc subdue prey? Again, no-one knows for sure.

There is also very little data on croc numbers in Africa and two thirds of all African countries have no data at all. Data from South Africa and Zimbabwe indicate that some 80 000 croc skins were sold on world markets in 1993 from captive breeding operations and, as such, illegal poaching is thought to be minimal - a precedent possibly in favour of legalising the commercial sale of rhino horn. Statistics from Botswana and Namibia indicate that 48 000 crocs were culled between 1957 and 1968 but, otherwise, estimates of numbers are quite vague at somewhere between 250 000 and 500 000 crocs remaining on the continent. The IUCN states that they are, "low risk/least concern, possibly threatened in parts of their range."

Crocodiles are one of the iconic animals of Africa. Much as I instinctively fear and dislike them, they are a vital part of the intricate interlocking fabric of wildlife and wildlife habitats without which we simply cannot live on this complex continent of ours. Thank heavens we do not live in one of those "Nanny" states where the government always seems to know, better than you do, what is good for you, as they would most assuredly ban this living dinosaur or worse. I mean, if they can ban a breed of dogs, imagine what they would do to crocodiles!

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