I was in Dumaguete last month when I decided to pay a visit to the Silliman University’s Marine Laboratory where several freshwater crocodiles were being kept and studied. The lab sat in a humid mangrove swamp. The heat and smell reminded me of an adventure I had with Discovery Channel a few years back: Close your eyes and imagine the steaming marshes of Agusan as we search for…
“…Crocodiles,” warns our sweating, bolo-clutching guide, Edgar Yucot as we hump through cobra-infested trails towards Magsagangsang Creek in Bunawan, Agusan Del Sur. “They might be hiding in the reeds.” It is a scorcher of a day and we are on the lookout for far more than cobras.
For the Philippines, Eastern Mindanao is crocodile central. In these chocolate-hued swamps and streams two years back, one hundred brave men hauled a crocodile from the depths and into history. Named Lolong to honor a croc trapper who fell from a heart attack right before the capture, the 20.2-foot beast went on to become the Guinness World title holder for the world’s longest crocodile before captivity killed him in February of 2013.
Led by Yucot, our eight-strong squad l;eft the quiet riverside town of Nueva Era an hour back – and without a single croc sighting, our impatience is rising.
“For generations, we believed the spirits of our ancestors lived within the largest of crocodiles,” he says while halting to unhook a 1.5-liter water bottle jury-rigged to his back. “Many crocodiles inhabit the marsh, each differentiated by color. Black crocodiles like Lolong are the fiercest.
Green, yellow and red ones are middle spirits, while white ones are a portent of luck.”
Taking a swig, he abruptly points to a clump of hyacinth and bamboo lodged dead-center in the channel. “That’s where I saw a baby crocodile this morning.” We sit and squint for ten minutes, but see nothing but wind caressing water.
Since 2011, Yucot has dedicated himself to tracking and bagging an alleged 25-footer photographed in Magsagangsang Creek that year. So goes the tale from a Nueva Era resident: “Jabar Abdul usually tethered his carabao near the river. We heard splashing one night and came out to investigate. What we saw was incredible – the carabao was being eaten by a crocodile, much larger than any we’ve ever seen!”
Nicknamed Lalang, the beast is the new Moby Dick of Yucot and the other crocodile hunters of Agusan Marsh. Across the country, hunters are scouring swamps for their armored quarry.
In the mangrove mazes of Rizal in Palawan, crocodile hunters are on the prowl for a beast said to be larger than Lolong. An enclosure patterned after that of Lolong’s has already been built near Puerto Princesa.
Long, long ago, crocodiles were common in the Philippines. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere described how Crisostomo Ibarra saved Elias from a rogue beast by the banks of the Pasig River. On display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in America is the preserved skull of an enormous 27-foot saltwater crocodile shot and killed near the town of Jalajala, Laguna de Bay in 1823. Today most of the giants have forever slipped beneath the murk – extirpated for space, hide, and pride.
The Philippines hosts two crocodile species. The Philippine or Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), critically-endangered and found in Mindanao and Isabela, grows to nine feet and sports sharp grooves down its nape. Only about 250 remain in the wild.
The larger Estuarine or Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) has a smooth neck. Once widespread throughout Asia and Northern Australia, it has been pushed to extinction in several countries – including Vietnam, Laos, and possibly Cambodia. “Salties are the largest reptiles on Earth,” explains former DENR Secretary and reptile-expert Dr. Angel Alcala. “Some grow longer than 25 feet and live up to a century.” Around 1000 of them lurk in the mangroves and coasts of the country, the hubs being Palawan and Mindanao.
In Human Hands
Today, both Philippine crocodile species are threatened with extirpation. Quips Dr. Alcala, “Wild numbers have taken a nosedive because of hunting, habitat pressure, and human conflict.”
Crocodile farms might be a viable conservation option. In 1986, the Philippine government set up the Crocodile Farming Institute (CFI) in Irawan, Palawan, to explore the viability of commercial rearing and propagation. Now converted into a tourist draw and renamed the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), the breeding complex hosts thousands of crocs – including giants like Surigao, an 18-foot Saltie.
To fast-track development, CFI selected six candidate farms for pilot testing in 1999. Today as many as 8000 crocodiles – mostly Salties – are kept in various farms across Luzon and Mindanao. Classified as farm-raised, the offspring is sold for hide and meat. Already, delicacies like crocodile sisig and teriyaki are gracing menus across the country.
Numerous questions are posed by crocodile conservationists. Are farmed crocodiles to be treated no differently than livestock? Do breeding programs truly intend to release offspring back to the wild? How will we release them if they have no homes to return to?
The main problem, of course, is that humans are encroaching into crocodile habitats. To protect local residents who fish for dalag, gurami, tilapia, and tasty fist-sized snails called kambuway aboard flimsy dugout canoes, the local government of Agusan del Sur saw fit to capture and “rescue” crocodiles large enough to be deadly to people. In the end, humans won out, leaving the fate of these ancient creatures squarely in human hands.
“People call us crocodile hunters, but we are really here to protect them,” reasons Yucot as we head back to Nueva Era, our chances of seeing crocs evaporating with the rising midday heat. “The people of the marsh have always revered crocodiles, but recent attacks on people and livestock have pushed many to fear them. Those that get too big must now be removed for their own good – or else they Americamight be killed from fear and anger. Believe it or not, the best way to keep them safe is to capture them.”
I wipe the sweat off my brow and nod, taking a last glance at Magsagangsang Creek and its mysterious residents. As we leave the humid swamp, I can only wonder: will their fate be better than Lolong’s?
*An earlier version of this article was originally published by Positively Filipino Magazine. This updated article has been reprinted with permission from the author.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s August 2017 issue.