Wheeling and dealing with the crocodiles

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FOR three solid days the participants were subjected to a sub-Arctic condition in a hotel by the Sarawak River, listening to lectures on the merits and the demerits of the crocodiles found in all the major rivers and tributaries of the state.

We were told that the largest living reptiles after dinosaurs (extinct) are the next tourist attraction, that their skin for fashion leather is in great demand overseas, and that their meat (tastes like chicken, my guess) is popular in Hong Kong and China.

FIND A HAPPY MEDIUM: Jennifer Walkowich, a researcher from St Alligator Farm Zoological Park Florida in the United States reacts to a giant poster of a crocodile displayed at the recent International Crocodile Conference. — File photo

The participants were also informed that since the Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998 was enforced, our crocodile population (exact figure unavailable) has increased by six or seven times, so much so that they have become a vermin and menace to humans. Both the homo sapiens and crocodiles compete for food from the same sources, the humans going for fish and prawns for sale and family meals, while the crocodiles requiring these for afternoon snacks before basking on the riverbanks for a bit of a suntan.

Lately, both have not been able to co-exist peacefully as legend and myth would have us believe. While it is the Man who has better respect for the Beast by avoiding confrontation, it is the other party who has been showing its power and clout. This year alone, we have lost three precious human lives for one innocent baby crocs. We cannot afford to lose any more of our number, but the crocodilian community can. If only the wildlife authorities would allow them to be culled, they can make themselves useful to society by contributing to the economy of the state.

Win-win formula

The conference aimed to find ways and means whereby the human-crocodile conflict could be minimised. The Frankensteins of the rivers are that species, the Crocodylus porosus or buaya katak. Not that the other species, the Tomistoma schleglii (buaya jujulong), are non-man eating; they are, if given half the chance. But they are not as numerous as the porosus. Hence the need to cull the latter, not to eliminate them altogether, for very good reasons.

Wait for the reasons.

Both to observe detente cordiale

To make our rivers safe again, the conference hammered out a formula of ‘live and let live’. It is only human for the humans to ask for a fair deal. Apart from farming or ranching, the crocodile industry must also bring economic returns to the people who live by the rivers. There are only two private ranchers in operation, one in Kuching and the other in Miri, and as they have been doing well, let them carry on. But do something for those who live amongst the wildlife.

To make that win-win scheme work there is the necessity for a government policy followed by a competent management of the relationship between the humans and the crocodiles so that they may coexist as peacefully as possible for a long time.

The presence of a number of experts in crocodile management at the conference was most reassuring in this respect. These scientists from the IUCN-SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, mainly from Australia, were a great help during the workshop, giving tips on how to present a good argument in favour of down listing of our porosus from its present unassailable position in Appendix I of the Cites to Appendix II where it should belong.

Those who missed the Conference may like to know what kind of a beast ‘Cites’ is. It is a convention which has bound us hand and foot since we signed on the dotted line in 1990s. It is an international agreement  gaimed at ensuring that international markets (demand) for wild plants or animals, or products made from them, does NOT result in the wild populations of those plant and animal species going extinct in the country of origin (i.e. usually the country of export)”.

This agreement is still good in so far as it is incumbent upon us to protect all the other flora and fauna with which we have no quarrel. We only want to wriggle out of the metaphorical jaws of the Cites in respect of the saltwater or estuarine crocodiles which have been walloping our fishermen and farmers for reasons best known to themselves.

After many hours of deliberations, the experts, both local and overseas, came up with a statement, loud and clear: under strict control, by all means, cull the excess population of the porosus and, for good measure, sell the skin and the meat in the open market, with the proviso that the communities who live by the rivers being important stakeholders shall equitably benefit from the deals. Without this necessary safeguard, those members of the communities will get a raw deal (putih mata or abu dua ‘sudu’).

Towards this end, the state government should initiate the creation of a statutory body or a cooperative to ensure a fair distribution of benefits from the trade in skin and meat or other crocodilian products.

With the necessary modifications or consequential amendment to the existing legislation, the law can still be used to regulate the management of the crocodile – human conflict.

Having got the green light from the state government as regards policy direction, the real job now is in the hands of the team headed by their chief Wilfred S Landong to present arguments for the de-listing backed by scientific data and other cogent arguments. Let’s wish them every success they deserve and if they succeed we riverine Sarawakians will have a lot to thank them for. My hunch is that they will succeed, given their expertise and competence. And enthusiasm.

The process of de-listing will take sometime to materialise; a lot of lobbying has yet to be done especially among the European Union countries which command 26 votes out of 176. I was told they would normally vote en block. But with the support from countries in this region – Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines and those Indo Chinese countries plus Australia and Japan – we will be able to place the porosus where they should be. I talked to the participants from Bangladesh and France to get some hint as to their leaning and they grinned positively.

The local mass media, print or electronic, will continue to play their role in disseminating information if supplied with the correct data. The local NGOs especially the environmentalists and the human rights activists with their worldwide network will be useful if they are taken on board as well.

Where’s the ball?

The ball is now in the court of the state government and then it will be at that of the federal government.

In this particular campaign for de-listing our representatives in the Foreign Office would be a great asset. Our foreign minister is from Sabah and his deputy from Sarawak; they should be able to handle the European Union diplomats to convince the EU signatories to Cites to vote for Malaysia. Meanwhile, let us tell our people here to be extra careful while bathing or fishing in the rivers. Cross our fingers for their safety always.

PS: I think it is not too late to wish our Hindu readers a very Happy Deepavali.