Monday, September 27

Crocodile tears


THE culling of crocodiles in a river called Batang Kayan in Lundu was good news, for a change.

I’m not sure if this was an one-off operation mounted by the Forestry Department and the local police to specially target the suspect which had mauled a farmer a fortnight ago in the same river. Will it  be followed by similar exercises in the other rivers of the state teeming with dangerous man-eating reptiles? I hope so.

The Wild Life office decided to place traps in the river hoping to catch the culprit, or any of his friends stupid enough to take the juicy bait.  In fact, one careless croc of 13 feet long was caught during the operation. One out, more to go.

Why do I want the crocodiles to be culled?  Because I think that there are too many of them in our rivers. Admittedly, I have no statistics to back my point but please prove me wrong by citing the latest croc population census.

Both humans and crocodiles are stakeholders of the rivers. In Sarawak, the reptiles have a better deal than the humans in the sense that the crocs are protected by law ( Wild Life Ordinance 1998) and the humans are often violated of their rights. This law is fortified by the Washington Convention/ Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of which Malaysia is a signatory. According to this Convention, crocodiles in the signatory countries are an endangered species and thus must be fully protected from extinction.

In a country with many rivers, both humans and crocs are competing for fish and prawns. In the recent case in Lundu, the farmer was fishing for the family dinner while the crocodile (suspect still at large) was thinking about a juicy snack.

The man was lucky to have survived the attack and able to tell a tale, but the victims who had died in the past in other district rivers were not so fortunate. We seem to casually take their deaths for granted – like deaths on the roads.

Some myth and superstition

I have heard it said by village elders that crocodiles were once human beings. Not the other way round? They shed tears when they are sad as a result of death of a baby or loss of territorial domain to intruders. They do not kill humans for fun, we are told, doing so only for a revenge – an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.

Among the Iban, there’s a superstition that a crocodile catches you because you have not observed a certain custom relating to food called negu (touch food) when you are offered food before you leave on a journey especially by river or before driving on a busy road. Failure to observe this custom may result in a puni.  Malay friends in my hometown refer to this as Punan.

That’s why your longhouse host insists on you having food before you are on your way somewhere. Otherwise, you may likely meet with some mishap during the journey. It is wise for you to eat the food offered or at least touch it.

I have also heard about how ‘humane’ crocodiles can be. If the struggle in the water results in death to the human, such death is deemed to be the result of drowning, not of the wound or loss of blood. Big deal – the poor fellow is still dead!

The failure of the human to save himself from drowning during the fight under water cannot be blamed on the enemy. After all they are supposed to be relatives. This may sound absurd but apparently a lot of people in Sarawak, in the 21st century, still believe in the myth and superstition.

A détente

I have also heard it said that there are more deaths on the roads than deaths by the crocodiles.  So why make a fuss about a couple of deaths in the rivers – by crocodiles, no less?

The car is potentially a dangerous thing if you lose control of it (drunk while driving or driving while drunk). Nowadays, most people who can drive cannot survive for long without driving.  It’s different with the crocodiles. You can do without them in your rivers because you can see them in the farms. There they cannot do much harm unless you jump into the pond to play with your cousins.

At a seminar to which I was kindly invited, a couple of years ago, the participants were told to go to the villages and longhouses and to advise the folks there to avoid the rivers where crocodiles are said to be frequently sighted and to use the roads instead. This is one way of reducing human/ crocodile conflict of interests. In other words, humans should give way to the crocodiles, the latter being protected species while humans are not likely to get extinct any time soon. The government policy on protection of crocodiles is a splashing success, so much so that rivers and streams which had never seen one in the past are now infested with the vermin.  Somewhere in Saratok some people even feed them. I pray that it will not be the other way round in future.

Perhaps, it is high time we think  of the survival of the other species – the Homo Sapiens. As long as Sarawak’s rivers are still in existence, however polluted they may be, and people are still living along their banks, there will be humans/ crocodiles conflicts. Authorities should introduce a policy that strikes a happy medium, a win- win situation: Rakyat diutamakan, Crocodylus, kemudian.

I also heard it said that crocodiles are territorial reptiles.  Zealously will they preserve their rights to their territory against illegal immigrants. They have no qualms about teaching them a lesson that the trespassers will never forget. Their territorial rights (CR) are recognized by a man-made  law while the rights of the indigenous peoples of Malaysia to pemakai menoa as part of their NCR are being questioned by the Attorney General office. The crocs are a privileged lot indeed.

Culling in the past  

There are some good reasons why culling of the reptiles is not considered cruel. Tears would be shed by some. It was successfully done during the colonial time. An income generating occupation for the Pak Awang (the professional catchers) while it lasted.

In 1980s, some people thought that the state was losing the service of the crocs in cleaning our rivers off dead cats, so a wild life protection legislation was introduced. The young crocs of the colonial time have multiplied manifolds into mature adults and now there is a population explosion!

Skins and meat  

You can eat crocodile meat; some people who have tried it say it tastes like chicken.  You can sell the skin; fashion designers make it into ladies’ handbags and shoes. I saw these being sold in Bangkok a few months ago. The raw material comes from a crocodile farm somewhere in Thailand.

Obviously, an economic proposition for the SMEs in Sarawak, do we expect to see a financial allocation for culling in the coming State’s budget?

Hey, what about a motion to amend the ordinance to make trading in skins and meat of the crocodiles legal? For this, you have to reclassify the reptiles by moving them from one Appendix to another Appendix of the CITES. Our government will have to get approval from the other signatory countries to exempt Malaysia from the provision of the Convention applicable to crocodiles only. The other flora and fauna listed in the schedule of the Wild Life Ordinance will continue to be protected.

Take the crocodiles out of the CITES Appendix; take them out of the rivers and many people in Sarawak will be out of danger from attacks by their dangerous cousins.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]