On the jetty, looking upstream along the mangrove creek, everything seems very serene and placid. The tide is coming in and the water levels in the estuarine creeks are slowly rising. A wild boar has come to the edge of the water to root around and cake itself in mud. Suddenly, the water erupts and half a ton of scales and muscle lunges out at the startled mammal. The boar beats a hasty retreat, having escaped an attack by the undisputed apex predator in the waters of the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans.
The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the largest reptile in the world. With males growing to over six metres, adults of the species have nothing to fear in their natural world. Although they share their habitat with some truly formidable predators like tigers and bull sharks, once these titans of the animal kingdom reach adulthood, they are pretty much indestructible. Females rarely reach four metres, but that is still a mighty beast!
Salties, as they are commonly called, are possibly, the most contradictory of all animals. Despite having one of the strongest bite forces in the world, females will help their young out of their eggs by, ever so gently, cracking the shell between their teeth. It is level of tenderness that one doesn’t expect from a three-metre-long crocodile.
When the young are hatching or just ready to hatch, they start calling with a muffled squeaky grunt — that’s as good a description of this unique call that I can manage. The female will then climb on to the nest and begin excavating the mound she built with earth and vegetation. Once she reaches the eggs, she will actually lift them up in her giant jaws and gently crack the eggshells that haven’t broken open yet. She then proceeds to carry the young in her mouth to the water. Here, she will guard them for many months.
Even though she will take on any threat that comes their way for as long as ten months after they hatch, these young crocodiles have their fair share of trials and dangers. Born at a mere 30 centimetres in length, they can even be eaten by many fish that share their brackish and saltwater habitats. Birds of prey, monitor lizards, snakes, cats, and other predators can all deftly capture and eat a hatchling without its mother even noticing. But, with a steady supply of insects, small animals, fish, and crustaceans these little crocodiles grow rapidly and with each passing month, fewer animals can take them on.
During the early stages of their lives, they prefer well-vegetated tidal creeks with plenty of cover and numerous places to hide. Once they are adults, they swim out to larger, more expansive areas and even open water between islands, unhindered by the vastness of the open ocean. In fact, this is exactly how the species has managed to stretch its range from the eastern coast of India, through Southeast Asia and all the way to northern Australia. No other crocodile species has anywhere near such an extensive distribution.
This expansive distribution has served the species well through its history. However, in the age of human dominance, being so vastly distributed has worked against it. Human relationship with salties is anything but friendly. It is steeped in fear and conflict. Throughout its distribution, the saltwater crocodile has become an intrinsic part of the lives of the people that share its habitat.
Some cultures have deified the crocodile while others have vilified it. Whatever platform it is given, the saltwater crocodile is feared throughout its range. In Papua New Guinea, the native peoples have learned to live with these giant predators. Aside from being truly careful about being near a salty habitat, they carve intricate and beautiful depictions of crocodiles on their dugout canoes, homes, and surroundings in the hope that they will placate their most feared neighbour.
In East Timor, locals believe that their island was formed on the dead body of the “Grandfather Crocodile” and consequently, the saltwater crocodile is revered there. India, however, doesn’t seem to have any reverence for the salty, unlike its freshwater counterpart the mugger (Crocodylus palustris), that is credited with being the divine vehicle of various goddesses and features in a positive light throughout our ancient literature.
Unfortunately for the salty, the phrase “man-eater” is used whenever a crocodile attacks a human for food. To put things in context, crocodiles aren’t selective about their diet and will take any prey they can spot, catch, and overcome. Humans are ill-equipped to function in tidal creeks and rivers and fall prey to crocodiles with fair regularity. Having said that, the total number of saltwater crocodile attacks annually is around 30 worldwide. About 50 per cent of these are believed to be fatal. A study compared this to Nile crocodile attacks, which are believed to reach as high a number as 700 per year of which almost 65 per cent are fatal.
Saltwater crocodiles get a lot of bad press because of the locations they exist in. They are found in some developed countries, where attacks are talked about a lot, especially in tourist spots. Consequently, any mishap makes news. This, combined with the monstrous size achieved by the species makes it a hard animal to live with. But, the saltwater crocodile is perhaps no more dangerous than a drive on a highway, unsheathed electric wires, or many adventure-based tourist activities. Statistically, it’s probably safer. It might just be time to revisit our stigmas about large predators and accept that they are an intricate and valuable link in the system that keeps our planet liveable.