Travel the World Safely by Being Croc-wise

Do you like to travel? Are you fully equipped with the knowledge to keep both you and your family safe while you adventure through new areas? How does the tiny nation of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor sound? Former Portuguese colony, Timor-Leste is located northwest of Australia in the Timor sea. It is a rather special vacation destination as it is ringed by coral reefs and teeming with marine life.

There are 23 living crocodilian species recognized and they’re found in over 90 countries in the world and surrounding islands. Almost all people will travel to at least one of these 90 countries in their lifetime, so being informed about crocodiles should be important to everyone.

Almost 37% of the Timor-Leste population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 USD per day, 50% of the population is illiterate and the population is currently facing lots of problems with development, economic and political issues. Among these, environmental issues regarding crocodiles is becoming more and more alarming as people keep disappearing.

The people of Timor-Leste have a crocodile problem with more than one person a month being attacked by a saltwater crocodile in a country of 1.3 million people with more than half of the attacks resulting in death. The majority of the attacks (82.5%) occur while people are fishing, according to researchers, with bathing (7.5%) and water collecting (4.2%) being the next most dangerous activities. Locals are blaming migrants… “specifically, migrant crocodiles from Australia, which they say have swum the 700km journey to Timor-Leste and now fill the river systems and surround the island.” This current topic brings to light the issue as to whether crocodiles or humans are to blame for the attacks.

The people of East Timor have worshipped crocodiles for centuries, believing that crocodiles are lulik, meaning ‘sacred’ and that crocodiles are their ancestors. The country’s origin myth is about the crocodile, Lafaek Diak, who sacrificed itself out of friendship for the human boy to become the child’s home — the island of Timor. Locals do not believe that native crocodiles are behind the increase in attacks, rather than migrant crocodiles who are considered to play in a different manner to the local “grandfathers.” The Timorese are convinced that crocodiles will only attack  eat only bad people. It is not uncommon for families to not report when crocodile eats someone as they feel ashamed. Due to this fact, it’s impossible to estimate how many people are eaten by crocodiles every year in Timor Leste.

Simon Pooley, from the Imperial College London, studies the history and challenges of crocodile conservation efforts. He studied the patterns of crocodiles and when attacks occur based on water temperature, seasons, rainfall and more. He discovered that “most attacks took place while people were swimming; boys were attacked most often. This makes sense as smaller prey is easier to kill. The mortality rate for children is much higher than for adults. Men that were attacked were often fishing, while women were crossing rivers or doing domestic chores”. The of crocodile attacks are in or around bodies of water where crocodiles are known to be, yet people still swim and bathe in the waters. Researchers have found that nearly 83% of those attacked in East Timor in the past 11 years were subsistence fishing, using small canoes or wading in the water. The Timorese bathe and swim in these waters knowingly about the dangers around them. From the crocodile point of view, the humans are invading their home and they are just protecting themselves from what they see as potential dangers.

Australian researchers collected DNA samples from the crocodile population in Timor-Leste to see if their theory was true and discovered that even though their theory that the crocodiles could be from Australia “there is no reason to think Australian crocodiles might be more aggressive than Timorese ones.” Timor-Leste is blaming Australia for their attacks, yet in Australia, there are roughly seven attacks a year, with only 25% of them resulting in death… a lot less severe statistic than in Timor-Leste. The risk of being attacked by a crocodile in Australia is part of everyday life of those who live in crocodile populated areas. The Timorese aren’t as well informed about crocodile-safety compared to those in Australia as many people in the village use the water to bathe.

The saltwater crocodile populations exploded after poaching was banned in Australia in the 1970s. Due to this, crocodiles seem to have moved to areas that they were originally considered unsuitable for or classed as too remote. East Timor is approximately 280 miles from the animals’ regular travel range in northern Australia. If there are Australian crocodiles included in the Timorese population, this will be the longest proven migration of the animal in history. This is a long, yet achievable journey for an animal that can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh more than 2000 pounds. However with that being said, other doctors who have also researched crocodiles in Timor-Leste are skeptical that these are Australian crocodiles as they prefer to migrate via the shortest possible route and could also be coming from West Papua or Indonesia. Proof of Australian crocodiles in Timor-Leste would confirm that the Australian efforts to conserve crocodiles are having impacts on the regional population. After being on the brink of extinction 50 years ago, the Australian saltwater crocodile has returned to healthy levels and possibly moving to other areas as some crocodiles can live for 80 years. With a booming population, claiming territory can become an issue for crocodiles, so this could be the reason why Australian crocodiles are migrating north.

As mentioned before, there’s substantially less crocodile attacks in Australia compared to East Timor. With that being said, there are still attacks in Australia, just not as many. These attacks also tend to happen to those who are carelessly in and around bodies of water. There was an instance 8 months ago where a group of about seven women and children were fishing and collecting mussels in waist-deep water in a billabong when splashing was heard. The group noticed the woman had disappeared, leaving the bucket she was using. Her body and the crocodile were found less than one kilometer from the scene. This situation is similar to those which happen in East Timor and also could have been prevented with more knowledge.

I personally believe that it is the humans who put themselves in danger for an attack, especially if it is a known fact that crocodiles are in the area. Being born in northern Queensland, I learn’t at a young age what to do and what not to do in an area where crocodiles could potentially be. Northern Queensland is known as a crocodile country which is where you expect that crocodiles are in all waterways — even if there is no warning sign.

Australian children, including myself, grew up watching and learning from Steve Irwin before he passed away when I was 8 years old. He was a famous wildlife expert from his TV series The Crocodile Hunter which I remember watching on television each morning before I went to school. I was fortunate enough to live in the same town as his wildlife park, Australia Zoo, which gave me the opportunity to watch Steve and other trained crocodile hunters on a regular basis. I was educated (with lots of help from Steve) what to and what not to do when in an area where crocodiles could potentially be, and it should be up to all humans, in this case the Timorese, to know about the dangers around them.

One Comment to “Travel the World Safely by Being Croc-wise”

  1. I whole-heatedly agree with you! Animals in their natural habitat are never to blame when they feel threatened and injure or kill someone that is in their territory. Education is key for this issue, as you said. It’s sad that the Timorese feel too ashamed to report attacks out of fear of putting a bad name on that person and their family. I hope something can be done to better educate the people of Timor-Leste so they can safely continue living their way of life.

    I’m glad the population levels of crocodiles is increasing to healthy levels again, but we as people in their natural habitat need to be more cautious, and not blame animals for protecting themselves when they feel threatened.

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