Two Crocodile Dundees find a wild world in South Africa

The reeds ripple. There is a throaty, menacing, hiss.

“Steady,” says Alison Leslie cheerfully. “She’s just trying to scare us.”

Yeah, right. And you know what? It’s working.

Here I am, raiding a nest of Nile crocodile eggs, heavily armed with a small stick, and mom, 3 meters away, is not just feeling maternal, she’s feeling protective. And given that females largely abandon hunting in order to guard their nests, she’s probably feeling pretty hungry, too.

Nile crocodiles are the biggest in Africa. Starting life at only a few centimeters, they then grow and grow and grow. Indeed they keep growing for as much as 90 years and if their teeth didn’t then all fall out, they’d keep on doing it. Fossil records show African crocodiles so large that they routinely ate dinosaurs. Huge ones.

Another evil hiss from the reeds.

“How big’s mom?” I wonder, as a heron floats effortlessly overhead, but for obvious reasons doesn’t land. Is she 3 meters? 4? 5? 6? If she’s 6, she’ll weigh around 1,000 kg. That won’t stop her, however, from attaining a lunging speed of 90 kph. Thank God I’ve got Dave, a rather plump American volunteer beside me. Dave’s stick’s even feebler than mine and the guy looks like good eating.

“Just another minute,” says Leslie, humming to herself as she takes the nest-site temperature, then starts counting pale leathery eggs.

Nile crocodiles have brains not much bigger than a peanut. This hasn’t stopped them outlasting the dinosaurs and swimming into the 21st century virtually unchanged in physical form.

By contrast my brain is huge. So why, I wonder, am I actually paying good money to be here in the St. Lucia Wetlands National Park in Kwazulu Natal, Republic of South Africa, annoying a carnivore that weighs three times more than Konishiki?

The only two animals a large crocodile has to fear are human beings (poaching for body parts to be used in black magic is a local problem) and hippos (which have been known to bite crocs in half in defense of their calves).

There are several reasons really for our presence. One, it’s a change from the Yamanote Line commute. Two, we Nature Travel columnists have to earn a crust. Three . . . oh Lord! Those rippling reeds are getting nearer . . .

Where was I? Yes, right, reason three: It’s all in the name of scientific advancement and wildlife conservation.

We are paying volunteers on an Earthwatch Institute program. Earthwatch is a nongovernmental organization that teams laypeople with scientific researchers. The cash and effort that volunteers put in helps the projects physically and financially. Projects range from excavating Napoleonic forts on Mauritius or conducting child-nutrition research in Estonia to studying gopher tortoises in Florida, whale sharks in Baja or gathering data on butterflies in Vietnam.

But back to the nest raid. And mom.

Nile crocs are the stuff of legend. The ancient Egyptians worshipped them, even mummified them at the temple of Kom Ombo. They’re as tough as old boots. Two were recorded waddling over 1,000 km during a drought in Botswana. They spent months in a cave (where one was killed by a leopard), but the survivor made it through to fresh water.

Here in St. Lucia, though, local extinction is a real threat. Weirdly, the potential exterminator is a small perennial bush: the paraffin plant. Millions of years and no problems. Then suddenly a small bush arrives from South America, probably on a container ship.

The paraffin plant is highly inflammable and seizes every opportunity to ignite, thereby destroying surrounding vegetation and giving its fire-proof seeds a head start over other botanical competition. This suicidal strategy works well. It is proliferating. The other problem with the paraffin plant (also known as Triffid weed) is that it gives shade.

A crocodile’s sex is determined by egg temperature, and as the shady paraffin plant spreads, nest temperatures fall by 5-6 degrees and the sex ratios get severely disrupted — three females being born for every male.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

That’s why we are here guarding Leslie with our sticks while she wields her thermometer and charts, gathering data to support a proposed paraffin-plant eradication program.

We are also helping Leslie conduct general research into Nile croc ecology. Yesterday we baited a noose trap with ripe cow hide. This morning we helped sedate a captured croc, tranquilize it, haul it out of the water (again waving our sticks in case its buddies were about) and stomach-pump it before release.

Leslie then took the acidic sludge off to her lab to find out what constitutes the Nile crocs’ natural diet. With a pH of 2, the crocs’ digestive juices are capable of getting through bone and iron fish hooks. Fur they can’t handle. Like cats, they expel “hair balls.”

Leslie is building up a database of feeding habits. Tomorrow, assuming mom doesn’t kill us, we’ll assist Leslie in clipping tail scoots (those crocodilian tail ridges) from a recently hatched clutch in her lab. It’s like ringing birds. The youngsters will be released, scoot-clip patterns will help identify individuals, and their progress will be monitored.

When we’re not doing all that, we’ll be exploring Greater St. Lucia Wetlands National Park itself. This World Heritage Site consists of a 60-km-long estuary, separated from the Indian Ocean for most of its length by the highest forested dunes in the world. It also boasts Lake Baya, the largest freshwater lake in southern Africa.

Accommodation, either in St. Lucia Village’s various hotels or in National Parks Board campsites, is agreeable.

Hippos routinely wander down St. Lucia’s main street at night. Bird life is superabundant and wildlife species from cheetahs to bush babies can be seen (or in the latter case heard — wailing their heads off just above your room).

The fishing’s great, too.

And from what we’ve seen of the place so far, you might land a whopper.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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