THERE is an uneasy co-existence bordering on a love-hate relationship between crocodiles and the people, especially the Ibans, that stems from the belief that the reptile is the reincarnation of their mythical hero.
According to Iban legend, a powerful warrior named Bujang Senang from Saribas was born anew in the body of a crocodile after he died in battle some 200 years ago.
It is said when buried in the bank of the Saribas River, he transformed into a huge white crocodile that, according to native folklore, still rules the river basin today.
Bujang Senang had vowed to seek revenge on his enemies and their descendants in his reptilian form. Some people still believe that accounted for the periodic crocodile attacks in the Saribas area.
Generally, those living by crocodile-infested rivers believe there is some kind of truce between crocodiles and humans that keeps them from harming each other. Alas, this truce has been broken from time to time by both sides although the poor croc usually got a bad press when it attacked people while humans killing crocodiles hardly made a ripple in the news.
International Crocodile Covention
Bujang Senang is a relatively recent legend since crocodiles have been in existence for 60 million years. So the reptiles have been around well before Bujang Senang, the warrior, was born but the crocodylidae species may not be around for long if nothing is done to conserve them.
An effort towards this end is the International Crocodile Convention (ICC) to be held in Sarawak on Oct 19 and 20 when experts from East Asia (Australasian countries and Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) will share information on crocodile conservation and human-crocodile conflicts.
The ICC will also assess conservation made by Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei and consider any proposal to downlist salt water crocodiles from Appendix I to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species for wild fauna and flora (CITES).
Animals listed in Appendix I are totally protected from hunting as they are considered in danger of becoming extinct while Appendix II listing allows for quota-controlled hunting and trading of the animals so listed.
The ICC will come up with recommendations on crocodile distribution, habitats and risks on humans for East Asia- Australasian region with special focus on Borneo. It also will provide a avenue for capacity-building by Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) staff on crocodile conservation, research and human–crocodile conflict management, and enhance conservation and research programmes with renowned institutions worldwide.
The main speakers are crocodile technical experts in East Asia- Australasia region, CSG and the International Union for Conservation of Nature — Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC).
The ICC is organised and sponsored by the SFC in collaboration with the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
There are three different species of the crocodylidae family — alligator which has a broad snout, salt water or estuarine crocodile (crocodylus porosus) which has a shorter blunt snout with teeth of the lower jaw protruding, especially in the bigger crocodile, and false gharial (tomistoma schlegelii), known as the Malayan gharial, false gavial, or tomistoma which is a freshwater species with a very thin and elongated snout.
In Sarawak, there are two crocodile species — false gharial or buaya jujulong or baya kenyulong as they Ibans call it, and estuarine salt water crocodile, locally known as buaya katak.
False gharial is harmless and resembles ikan kenyulong, hence its local name. It lives in fresh water river and peat swamp forests.
Estuarine crocodile (buaya katak) is the most feared species, commonly found in tidal affected rivers.
According to SFC Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation general manager Wilfred Landong, the distribution of crocodiles in Sarawak is “almost everywhere.” They can be found in the upper parts of some rivers, especially the brackish waters, and in peat swamp habitats of Sungai Sadong, Sungai Ensengai, Sungai Klauh, Sungai Seterap and Sungai Kakus.
He said in Kalimantan, Indonesia, crocodiles are found in similar habitats while in peninsular Malaysia, they are found mainly around Tasik Bera.
However, he pointed out that there were fewer crocodile issues to deal with in peninsular Malaysia compared to Sarawak.
Landong also revealed salt water crocodiles are also distributed in all parts of the world in habitats similar to Borneo’s. The reptiles occur in the continent, the Indian Ocean and all the islands of Indonesian Sumatra and Australia.
According to him, the crocodile is a “very adventurous creature” and in their survey, they found some as far as 100km from the coast.
“One aspect of salt water crocodile behaviour we need to understand is that it’s the most territorial of crocodilian species. Its ‘homing ability’ extends up to 60km and even 100km — which means it moves around a lot,” he said.
Landong recalled that when he travelled to Lanjak Entimau National Park, the villagers told him they saw baby crocodiles basking on the bank right up to the upper reaches of the Katibas River.
He also shared what had been discovered in a study in Australia on crocodile management.
“They moved the crocodiles by helicopter from one location to another — about 400km apart — and some months later, found the crocs had returned to their original habitats.
“That speaks a lot for the intelligence as well as the homing abilities of the crocodiles,” he said.
“One of the things the Australians found out was that the method of relocation had not been successful in that instance. Based on the study, any suggestion by our people for SFC to relocate the reptiles would probably get the same results as the crocodiles will return to their original habitats.”
Sizes and reproduction
In terms of body length, a mature female, usually around 10 years old, can reach 2.3m or seven feet while a mature male, usually 16 years old, can reach 3.4m or 10 feet.
Crocodiles are very dominant and territorial animals and a reproductive pair can defend between one to 10km of their riverbank territory.
Crocodiles usually mate in the dry season. The female can lay between 30 to 90 eggs (53 on average). Copulation usually occurs just before the rainy season. The incubation period is usually a month.
Landong said crocodiles ate virtually anything — mud crabs and vertebrates like turtles, snakes, shore and wading birds, buffaloes and domestic livestocks, wild boars, monkeys) and occasionally humans. Baby crocodilians subsisted on insects, crustaceans and small fish, he added.
The largest crocodile ever caught and killed in Sarawak was 5.9m long and estimated to be over 100 years old. And killing of the killer crocodile named Bujang Senang in Batang Lupar also ended the legend of that particular reptile in the area.
On Sept 6 this year, a crocodile, measuring 6.1m (about 20 feet) long and weighting 1,075kg, was caught and killed in the Philippines. It was probably the biggest to be snared in recent times.