At Marin Humane all animal lives are precious but – as far as I know – the shelter has never helped crocodiles find new homes and doting guardians. The nearest creatures we have had to crocodiles are Bearded Dragons and Iguanas, both considerably smaller and a whole lot more sociable. If the shelter bigwigs ever decide to take in crocs or their gator cousins as part of an expanded mission they will not find me among the volunteers ready to help. My reason for this attitude is that I have already done my duty when it comes to the welfare of crocodiles and I have no wish to repeat it.
My venture into the crocodile world took place some years ago on a steamy semi-tropical night in the tiny South-East Africa country of Swaziland that is jammed between South Africa and Mozambique. Some people have never heard of it but Swaziland is as close to a bygone romantic image of Africa as you can find today. It’s the sort of place where King Solomon might have had his mines. It is small but diverse with its sweat-soaked forests and verdant grasslands and its wildlife straight out of a PBS TV documentary. Mambas slither in its undergrowth and ground hornbills swoop down from hollows in its Mopane trees.
It is also one of the last of the absolute monarchies on our planet. These days young political activists are trying to make the monarchy a bit less absolute – but when I was there, the king was the boss. Numero Uno. And that was that. Recently, the country renamed itself the Kingdom of Eswatini but nearly everyone still calls it Swaziland, including the locals.
I was there as a news reporter to cover the country’s joyful independence from Britain which had run it for many years as a protectorate back in the colonial era. The Swazis had demanded independence and now here it was finally with much pride and jubilation. It was the start of a new era, everyone said, adding that the next thing was to bring foreign currency into the impoverished little country.
It was all very exciting but the celebrations, the kids waving flags, and the endless speechifying began to pall after a few days. Orations tended to sound like the ones you heard yesterday. Even the guy I hired as a siSwati language interpreter was starting to fall asleep at what should have been rousing patriotic moments. Some of my news colleagues were doing their bit for the economy by selflessly pumping money into the cash registers in the pubs of Mbabane, the capital. My news reports were getting shorter and shorter and placed deeper and deeper inside the eight newspapers I served.
So when I heard that King Sobhuza II was anxious to get going on a new wildlife reserve close to the Mozambique border in the north and wanted to know everything about the animals there, my portable Olivetti started to quiver a little. A story! The place the old king had in mind for a game reserve to bring in much-needed tourist money was called Hlane. It means “wilderness” and is pronounced “Shlahne”.
That region of the kingdom has lions, giraffes, buffalos, rhino, hippos, warthogs, impala, incredible bird life and many other wonderful African creatures. I heard that there was a plan to check on the size of the crocodile population – so I tracked the croc-counters down and asked if I could join them and write about it. Yes, they said, come join us.
I did some research. I learned that Swaziland’s are of the Nile crocodile species found throughout Africa and that their behavior leaves a lot to be desired. They are among the world’s most dangerous creatures, causing at least 300 human deaths a year – and probably a whole lot more because many deaths go unreported. A villager in some remote spot disappears on a riverbank and that’s the end of the story. Nobody knows what happened. Children especially are vulnerable since they have less-developed survival instincts and even a smallish crocodile can drag them under water easily.
I read that they grew to about 10 ft to 16 ft in length. That’s a bit smaller than their Australian saltwater cousins but they are just as mean, lurking about for hours on end with only their eyes peeking out of the water and ready to take on anything that looks like a meal – except maybe a three-ton hippo but certainly a hippo calf if its big mama is not nearby. These are beasts not to be trifled with – and I began to fantasize about the spread my intrepid story would get on the feature pages.
We set off at dawn’s early light in an old wheezing Land Rover, passing through Swaziland’s shimmering green hinterland, fording rivers and kicking up clouds of orange dust into a cloudless sky. It felt like being in a movie.
I was trained in the traditional school of journalism which holds that a reporter stays outside the story and must not be part of it. Other people do things, and the reporter’s job is to describe what they do. But in Africa this is not always the case. Thus, when I traveled once to Lesotho, another little Southern Africa country, to describe how volunteers from the American Peace Corps were building a small school for kids in a remote area, I found myself up in the rafters working on the roof. I sometimes wonder if the Basotho youngsters had to endure leaking at their desks on cold, rainy days under the section where I wielded my hammer.
So I was not surprised to find myself a participating member of the Swazi team. I had become a crocodile-counter. The technique is simple. Shine a flashlight along the water surface at night and their eyes will shine a rather scary red. Count them. I wasn’t actually told this but it seemed obvious that if you divided the number of red dots by two you would get a reliable population statistic.
By the time we arrived at a large stretch of water at dusk to begin our quest, the skies had clouded over with tropical suddenness. As we rowed from the bank in a small fiber-glass dinghy, lightning crashed down to the water surface in the distance, creating a wild and terrible scene in silver and black, like something from a B-rated horror flick. There was not a crocodile eye to be seen – red or any other color. I began to think these reptiles were a lot smarter than we suspected. They are staying under water to avoid the approaching lightning and thunder. And maybe to avoid us.
I had long before learned that two things scared me most. The first was being in hostile water without knowing what else was under the surface. The second was being out-of-doors in a Southern Africa thunderstorm, the violence and loudness of which is hard to describe. I was about to learn that I would be experiencing these two terrors together.
Trying to sound casual about it, I mentioned to my companions that there appeared to be no crocs around. Yes, the leader replied, they are not here now. But he had a Plan-B. We would take the dinghy ashore and look on land for the critters. As we approached the shore, the team members started clambering into the waist-deep water and dragging the boat along.
You too, I was informed. You must get into the water or the boat will be too heavy and could be holed on the bank. Excuse me, I said. You want me to get into murky water at night where man-eating crocodiles are known to congregate and kill things? You seriously want me to do that? Yes, he said, come now.
As I plodded alongside the boat, I stood on something hard and sort of warty. I leapt as far as one can leap when one is up to one’s pockets in black water. I hoped that if I had stood on a crocodile, it too felt terror and took off in another direction. However, the shore was reached without any tragedy taking place and our boat was on dry land, safe and sound. I was delighted that I still had both my legs which I have retained to this day.
We saw no crocodiles that night but my companions were not at all disappointed. They were also studying the duck population and found some exciting varieties. It was a good night for them.
Back at the office in Johannesburg, my editor looked up from his desk and said – so you didn’t count any crocodiles? No, I replied, though I believe I stood on one. But, he observed, it didn’t bite you. No, it didn’t bite me, I agreed. Doesn’t sound like much of a story, he said going back to his pile of papers.