“They look like dinosaurs!” I shouted to my brother as we gaped for the first time at live crocodiles.
This was Manila Zoo in the 1990s and to pint-sized kids – 15-foot crocodiles seemed ancient, gigantic and utterly invincible.
Two decades later I found myself beside the world’s largest captive crocodile, venerable Lolong, in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur.
As a team from the DOST measured him, I realized that crocodiles actually lived way before many of the dinosaurs – evolving in the Mesozoic epoch to stalk juvenile Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex and others foolish enough to get waylaid by the water’s edge.
Hailing from a family which actually outlived T-Rex, the recent demise of Lolong comes as a shock to both crocodile enthusiasts and conservationists.
“Lolong projected the unimaginable magnificence of Estuarine Crocodiles. It is ironic that the largest-known representative of this family that survived the mass extinction of dinosaurs has died after barely two years in the ‘care’ of humans. We must learn about how to be much less presumptuous about what we know, and about what we do not,” said WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan.
Crocodiles of old
Long ago, crocodiles were common around the Philippines.
In Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, Ibarra saved Elias from a rogue beast by the banks of the Pasig River. In 1823, a 27-foot crocodile was shot and killed in Laguna de Bai.
Rizal and many from his era wrote of scaly beasts strong and vicious enough to overturn boats with their tails.
Today most of the giants are gone, wild crocodiles surviving only in scattered groups across the archipelago.
There are two types of crocodiles in the Philippines – and no alligators (crocodiles have V-shaped snouts while alligators sport U-shaped ones):
“They are the largest crocodiles on Earth,” explained former DENR Secretary Dr Angel Alcala while we inspected Lolong in Agusan del Sur.
“Some live up to a century and can swim from island to island. Just imagine running into one underwater!” he added.
While not on the brink of extinction globally, saltwater crocodiles are critically-endangered in the Philippines.
Lolong’s 2011 capture has been retold time and again. For 3 weeks, trackers deployed traps up and down the chocolate-hued creeks of Nueva Era, near the Agusan Marsh.
Four steel cable traps snapped. The fifth and last one snagged something. The battle of hoists and grunts began – and when trappers shouted “Nakuha na!” (“We got him!”) some 80 people surged forth to haul the giant onto a makeshift cart.
Christened Lolong after one of the crocodile hunters who died of a heart attack before the capture, the 20.2-foot male crocodile was interred at the Bunawan Eco-Park and Crocodile Rescue Center in Agusan del Sur, a facility which planned to highlight the indigenous fauna of Agusan Marsh and someday breed crocodiles for release.
His pen – designed to hold "nuisance" creatures such as man-eaters – was fairly sufficient, but nowhere near the 15,000 hectares of his home marsh.
Caught in the jaws of extinction
The crocodiles of Rizal’s time have since passed onto legend, as today both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles are threatened with extinction.
“Wild numbers have taken a nosedive because of hunting, habitat pressure and human conflict,” said Dr Glenn Rebong of the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center.
The problem, of course, is that humans are encroaching into crocodile habitats.
We walked over to Magsagangsang Creek in Agusan del Sur to look for wild crocodiles and interview locals.
Similar to riverside communities in Laos and Cambodia, many houses near the marsh are built on stilts – some as high as 20 feet up. In those parts, people take crocodile attacks seriously.
We didn’t see any crocodiles, but talked with locals who saw an alleged 25-footer in 2011.
To protect the populace, who fish for carp and cichlids through narrow channels aboard flimsy, dugout canoes, the local government saw fit to capture and "rescue" crocodiles large enough to be deadly to people. In the end, humans won out – never fully realizing how crocodiles actually enrich aquatic ecosystems.
“Each crocodile recycles nutrients. Defecation fertilizes river or lake ecosystems. When people take crocodiles out, they significantly erode ecosystem processes. Where there are crocodiles, there will always be fish,” explained Alcala.
Having survived numerous mass extinctions, Lolong and his kin now face their greatest challenge – how to thrive in a world between humans and their own ancient ways of living.
We can only hope that so long as responsible rescue and conservation efforts are emplaced, crocodiles can display the type of resilience that has made them outlive the dinosaurs. - Rappler.com
Gregg Yann is Communications and Media Manager of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines). He was planning to publish this article in the summer but decided to post it now after Lolong's tragic death.