Encounters with Crocodilians

Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir on his experiences with intimidating amphibians

Encounters with Crocodilians
The first time I saw a crocodile I must have been eight or nine years old. It was at one of those touristy crocodile farms in Thailand where the handlers parade the beasts around a tank and then proceed to do various tricks such as sticking their heads into the gaping jaws of those poor, imprisoned creatures. Nonetheless for a child this was quite a spectacle and as a dinosaur enthusiast seeing these ancient reptiles gave me a sense of hope that dinosaurs still existed! I wasn’t far off the mark: crocodilians have been around for hundreds of millions of years and indeed did live alongside the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic and have continued to be top predators right up to the present day. Since seeing the captive Siamese crocodiles in Thailand, I have had encounters with five other species of crocodilians, thankfully all of the rest have been free roaming majestic leviathans, which inspire both a sense of majestic awe and a deep primal fear!

As an angler I spend a substantial amount of time next to the water and my love of the tropics and subtropics means that my chosen destinations are often prime crocodilian habitats. During my days at the University of Miami I would often fish around the canals in South Miami and Coral Gables. One hot and muggy day in August, shortly after I had first arrived, I was fishing for snook and barracuda in the main canal which links Lake Osceola, on the UM campus, to the sea when a real Southern Man in his fifties came to ask how the fishing was. This guy was a typical rural Southerner from an old movie, wearing a white short sleeved shirt tucked into khaki slacks and side parted hair slicked back with pomade. In his Southern drawl he asked, “Have ya seen the gator swim by?” I said I hadn’t and he told me that it must be farther up the canal by now.  After catching a couple of more barracudas I headed back up along the canal to the lake and saw it. It was not an alligator but a rare American Crocodile. There is a colony of these crocodiles in Lake Osceola and because of them the alligators usually stay away. As Florida is the only US State to have crocodiles the Southern Man, who was probably from Alabama or Mississippi, had confused them for the native crocodilians of his land. Coming to the subject of the American Alligator, there are plenty of them around in South Florida. Almost every pond in the greater Miami area has one lurking around, but nowhere have I seen more alligators than in The Everglades. The Everglades, just West of Miami-Dade County is a huge wetland wilderness area and it seems to have more alligators than fish. Once while fishing there I noticed a juvenile alligator, not more than three feet long, about the size of a monitor lizard, taking interest in me. He slowly started coming closer and closer. Despite his diminutive size he had fairly formidable teeth so when he was close enough that I could see the emerald and amber shine of his eyes I decided to play it safe and walk back up to the car. I wanted to spend the rest of the day fishing, not running to the emergency room to have a shredded leg stitched up!


The gharial is also an entirely fish eating species and is no threat to people. The smaller mugger, though, is dangerous

Fast forward to my Asiatic Angling Adventures days. It was in the Terai jungles of Bardiya National Park, in Western Nepal, that I first saw our native South Asian Crocodilians, the Mugger Crocodile and the majestic Gharial. My buddy Arun Rana and I had stopped at the Babai bridge, on the main East-West Highway, to see the mahseer collected in the small barrage below the bridge, The next morning we would be driving up into the hills to where the Babai river enters Bardiya National Park and then rafting down, camping along the shores for the next four days. Along the banks of the pool were fat muggers lying around after eating their fill of mahseer. The mugger is a very distinctive looking crocodile, as its rounded snout makes it look very much like the American alligator, but what really captivated me were the gharials. These huge, grey, aquatic dragons are mythical looking! With their elongated toothy snouts and their long streamlined bodies they are the most distinctive of the crocodilians. The gharial is also an entirely fish eating species and is no threat to people. The smaller mugger, though, is dangerous and has been known to attack and eat humans. A couple of days later I was taking a bath in the river and had just lathered up when Arun and our wilderness guide Lal Bahadur Thapa came to the shore and told me there was a mugger swimming behind me. I thought Arun was just joking but then he pointed to a grim looking Lal Bahadur and said, “look at him does he look like he’s joking?” I anxiously rinsed off and got out of the pool.

Now we go down to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka. This island, too, has plenty of crocodiles. The mugger is to be found in almost every inland waterway, although the muggers here are smaller than the ones in Nepal, probably as a result of the evolutionary principle known as island dwarfism, where populations of a species which find themselves stuck on islands tend to become smaller than the parent populations on the mainland. Nonetheless the Sri Lankan muggers are very aggressive and are constantly blamed for attacks on humans. The Sinhala word for crocodile, kimbula, is one which is associated with both this dreaded creature as well as with a kind of elongated sugary bun often sold in rural areas and a favorite of village kids, the kimbula bun. Another reason why the muggers of Sri Lanka appear small may be because they share their habitat with the largest reptile on the planet, the Indo-Pacific Saltwater Crocodile. If there be a dinosaur upon the earth today, then the saltwater crocodile is it. This intimidating behemoth of the deep with its huge size, up to twenty feet long and over a thousand kgs, armoured ridged skin and huge massive teeth like daggers looks like Godzilla’s younger brother! The first time I saw one was while trolling in Bolgoda Lagoon, just South of Colombo, with my friend Yakoob bin Ahamed. Seeing that prehistoric reptile lounging on the surface of the water while the warm equatorial rain bounced off its scaly back, is a vision that remains firmly implanted in ones psyche.

Indo-Pacific Saltwater Crocodile

After seeing six species of crocs it is odd that the only one which I was actually scared of was the baby alligator in The Everglades who wanted to have a taste of Pakistani fisherman! Otherwise my response at seeing these creatures is more of awe, almost reverence. Our prehistoric ancestors along the banks of primal rivers lived alongside crocodilians and learned to respect them and give them their space because if they did not they would face retribution in their powerful jaws! Crocodilians truly are the last of the dinosaurs.

The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk