Humans vs crocodiles

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The increase in Nile crocodile and human populations in Mozambique has created the perfect storm…

Situated in Mozambique’s Tete province, Cahora Bassa Dam holds 55.8km3 of water and plays a crucial role in the livelihood of locals. Unfortunately, for residents on the banks of Cahora Bassa, going about their everyday life brings huge risk as areas like Zumbo have a high density of Nile crocodiles.

Photo: Marette Bennett

“The human/crocodile conflict is not very visible, but it’s a major problem in many parts of Africa,” says Richard Fergusson, former regional chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission Crocodile Specialist Group in South and East Africa. “The increase in Nile crocodiles and human populations has created the perfect storm.

“The hunting of wild Nile crocodiles from the 1930s to the 1960s caused the populations to plummet,” he says. With crocodile populations depleted, the trade of crocodile skins slowed down, but crocodile numbers have steadily increased since.

Henno Cronje was camp manager of the Chawalo Hunting Block in Zumbo for seven years and still operates in the area. Zumbo is Mozambique’s most western town, on the border of Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. During his time there, Cronje was at the frontline of human-crocodile conflict.
“At least five times a year I received a call to say someone had been killed by a crocodile and that I needed to shoot the man-eater,” he says.

“Crocodile attacks tend to happen in remote areas with limited services and are generally poorly documented,” Fergusson says. Exact figures are not known.

“Women and children are mostly targeted because they collect water and wash clothes in the water.” Fishermen are also exposed on their boats. “The mortality rate from crocodile attacks is higher in women and is related to the age, size, and physical vigour of the victim.”

Killing a man-eating crocodile is seen as a political issue. “Politicians are expected to do something the villagers can see, even if it means shooting the wrong crocodile,” Cronje explains.

Photos: Brett Ellis

“Governments have limited options for responding to human/crocodile conflict,” Fergusson adds. “So the killing of large crocodiles is seen as a means of reducing human/crocodile conflict. Killing large numbers of big crocodiles in the wild is ecologically unwise and allows other large crocodiles to occupy the newly available territory,” he says.

A crocodile reaching four metres in size is usually around 65 years old. Crocodiles tend to drag their prey underwater – away from commotion. “The likelihood of you catching a man-eater after the incident is very low,” Cronje explains, adding that humans are regarded as prey when a crocodile reaches three metres.
Indiscriminate fishing methods and the over-harvesting of wild land mammals has had a significant effect on the crocodiles’ food supply. “The predator then learns that domestic livestock, dogs and people are slower and easier to catch than wild animals,” Fergusson says.

“Most people obtain their protein from fish; they are not fishing for profit but for survival, as game numbers have dropped due to poaching in recent years,” says Cronje. Overfishing means less food for the crocodiles.
Potential solutions to the conflict include managing the crocodiles’ food supplies. “Helping local wildlife recover will reduce the number of fishermen on the lake and aid fish stocks,” says Cronje.

Photo: Brett Ellis

The area is already divided into hunting blocks by the government; sustainable hunts can supply villages with protein. “Proactive measures need to be put in place to protect people, which do not involve
killing crocodiles.”

 

Installing boreholes or water pumps will reduce the number of people who rely on the dam. “Some communities build informal fences, but it does not help when the water level drops – the fence needs to be floatable and move with fluctuating water levels,” says Cronje.

“Humans can manage the risk they expose themselves to far better than they do currently,” Fergusson adds. Increased education and awareness of how to avoid being attacked would reduce the number of fatalities.

“Communities also need to be made aware of the importance of natural ecosystems and wildlife,”
Fergusson says.

Real-life survival stories

Photo: Brett Ellis

Although there is no shortage of tales about crocodile attacks in Africa, there are far fewer survival stories.

• In September 2018 the Sunday Times reported how 71-year- old Peter Knottenbelt was crossing the Olifants River in South Africa with his granddaughter when he stepped on a crocodile, and was attacked. He fought back and rangers from nearby came to his rescue. He escaped with injuries that included a broken sternum, bruising to the heart, broken ribs, a punctured lung, dislocated collarbone, broken wrists, and fractures to his leg and foot.

• In May 2018, Zanele Ndlovu’s story made headlines worldwide. Ndlovu went canoeing on the Zambezi River near the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe with her fiancé, five days before their wedding. A crocodile bit their inflatable canoe, sending the pair into the water. Ndlovu was attacked and pulled underwater but fought back. She was rescued and airlifted to hospital, and her arm was amputated. In a 2018 report, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said 21 people were killed by crocodiles in 2017 alone.

 

Written by: Georgina Lockwood

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