On East Timor, crocodiles are sacred. So are Australian intruders to blame for rise in attacks on humans?

Matthew Abbott joins researchers for the painstaking process of collecting DNA from one of the world’s most feared animals

Wednesday 12 June 2019 12:55
After poaching was banned in Australia in the 1970s, saltwater crocodile populations exploded
After poaching was banned in Australia in the 1970s, saltwater crocodile populations exploded

The two scientists, crammed in the back of a sweltering car, have come a long way hoping to encounter what most people try to avoid: man-eating crocodiles. Yusuke Fukuda and Sam Banks, biologists from Australia, travelled to East Timor, one of the world’s least developed countries, to investigate what has become a deadly national mystery: why are so many Timorese being killed by crocodiles?

Crocodile attacks here have increased 20-fold in the past decade, numbering at least one death a month in a country of 1.2 million people. “We became concerned after many people were taken by crocodiles in East Timor,” says Fukuda, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Darwin, adding that it had taken years of bureaucratic wrangling between the researchers and the governments in both Australia and East Timor to be permitted to conduct research.

The people of East Timor, also know as Timor-Leste, have for centuries revered and even worshipped crocodiles. The country’s origin myth is about the crocodile Lafaek Diak, who out of friendship for a human boy sacrificed itself to become the child’s home: the island of Timor, with each scaly bump on its back turning into a mountain.

Timorese call crocodiles “abo”, the Tetum-language word for grandparent, and killing them is culturally taboo as well as illegal. The animals are so admired here that victims of attacks are often too ashamed to report them, which is why many believe the actual number of attacks is higher than the official statistics suggests.

The Timorese most at risk from crocodiles are those living on the banks of the countless riverways of this island, or along its coast. Using the rivers – whether to collect water, fish for food, bathe or do laundry – is a part of their daily life. Researchers have found that nearly 83 per cent of those attacked in East Timor in the past 11 years were subsistence fishing, using small canoes or wading in the water.

Many locals do not believe that native crocodiles are behind the increase in attacks; they blame migrants, or murderous “troublemakers”, who they say play by a different set of rules from those of the local “grandfathers”. Demetrio Carvalho, East Timor’s secretary of state, sums up the theory. “The people believe that these crocs are our ancestors, and ancestors don’t go attacking people,” he says. “Our grandparents don’t kill us.”

Enter the Australian researchers. After a bumpy eight-hour journey along the roads of East Timor’s northern coast, the men arrive in the isolated town of Lospalos, home to some of the biggest and most dangerous crocodiles in the country. Their goal is to test the locals’ theory by trying to determine whether the killer crocs are saltwater crocodiles from Australia, one of that country’s most feared and dangerous animals.

Lolong, believed in 2011 to have been the largest crocodile to have ever been caught, in its pen in the Philippine town of Bunawan (AFP/Getty)

After poaching was banned in Australia in the 1970s, saltwater crocodile populations exploded. The animals have recently been found in areas that were previously considered unsuitable or too remote. East Timor is about 280 miles from the animals’ regular range in northern Australia, a lengthy but manageable swim for a powerful animal that can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh more than 900kg. “After several days swimming, these crocs would be very hungry and dangerous to come across,” says Fukuda, the researcher.

To test the migration theory, Fukuda and Banks plan to collect DNA samples from a number of crocodiles. But taking a DNA sample from a crocodile is a far riskier proposition than your typical home heredity kit. For obvious reasons, swabbing the inside of a crocodile’s cheek is not an option. Instead, the scientists must penetrate a croc’s leathery hide using a needle attached to a 12-foot long aluminium rod, which is known as a biopsy pole.

To do that successfully often requires wading into the water – at night. To help find and stick the crocodiles, the researchers have enlisted the help of several locals, including Vitorino De Araujo. De Araujo, 37, works as a firefighter, but is known in town as the person to call when there has been a crocodile attack or if a member of the community has disappeared near the water. He will enter the swamp and retrieve what is left of a body. He is seen as a spiritual leader in the community with an almost supernatural relationship to the animals: a crocodile whisperer.

As the sun sets on the scientists’ first night in Lospalos, the team heads into the swamp. Through the darkness, they spot two glistening dots reflecting the light of their headlamps and floating just above the surface of the water – crocodile eyes. Based on the distance between the croc’s eyes, Banks estimates its total length: 12 feet, a big one.

De Araujo grabs the biopsy pole and takes off, bare foot, into the dark swamp. After minutes of silence, he lunges at something and lets out a shriek. He has landed his first jab. Moments later, he wades out of the water to show the group his result. The needle is bent, but contains a tiny, 3mm sample. For the next six days, the team searches for animals to test. They lance wild crocodiles, but also retrieve samples from crocs that are being held as pets, mascots or lucky charms. They end up with 17 good samples.

Fukuda plans to take the samples back to Australia for testing, but he first has to get back on Timor’s ragged coastal roads and head to Dili, the capital. He is halfway there when his driver stops for a crowd gathered by the edge of the ocean. A police officer beckons the scientist, to show him a set of items that have washed up on the beach – goggles, a spear gun and a torn pair of swimming trunks.

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They belonged to Agostinu da Cunya, a 17-year-old who went spearfishing the evening before with his brother while their father waited for them on the shore. The boy, his family said, had been attacked by a crocodile. He was never seen again.

© New York Times

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