A Keeper's Tale, Part 3 of 5: Crocodiles and Caimans

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

I should probably say a few things about crocodiles in Mexico. We have four species of crocodilians. One of them is most familiar for Americans-- the American alligator. Officially, gators have been extinct in Mexico since the nineteenth century. However, a few of them are seen and even photographed every now and then in the country’s northernmost rivers and lakes.

In the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas lives a more common, but still seldom encountered relative to the alligator. It is the spectacled caiman, which can grow up to three meters long and is notoriously able to change color- although its ability to do so is very limited compared to that of say, a chameleon.

Caimans are usually considered to be harmless to people under normal circumstances; they rarely grow large enough to devour an adult human. However, they have quick reflexes and their teeth are sharper than a crocodile’s; they are, as all wild predators, better left alone.

In the southeastern states lives the Mexican crocodile, also known as Morelet’s crocodile. Once on the verge of extinction due to hunting, it is now a protected species, and its population is on the rise. Recently, a swimmer was attacked by one near a popular touristic destination. However, most attacks by these crocs are territorial, or triggered by a female’s maternal instinct. Indeed, Morelet’s crocs are ferociously protective of their nests and young.

I learned this during a trip to a crocodile breeding center in Colima. The area was natural American croc habitat; there was a lake where you could see the larger crocodiles -- the males -- patrolling for potential intruders.

There were also Morelet’s crocodiles, but since they weren´t native to the area, they were kept in enclosures to keep them apart.

I noticed that one of the female Morelet’s had a nest, and got an idea for a little experiment. You see, one of my secret talents is mimicking animal calls. I am particularly proud of my American alligator mating call -- which I certainly do not intend to use in gator country. Although some people have praised my mockingbird-like talents, truth is I appreciate critiques by animals even more. I took it as a compliment when I managed to frighten the zoo’s chital deer by mimicking their tiger alarm, or when I caused a male leopard to go ballistic after mimicking the big cat’s territorial call. Because the leopard had seemed ready to leap out of its enclosure that time, I had promised myself to stop mimicking animal calls in front of the real things.

But that day in the crocodile breeding center I simply couldn´t resist. Seeing that the mother crocodile was basking besides its nest, I started imitating the chirping call of a baby crocodile.

The female’s reaction was explosive. I don´t know what went through her mind; maybe that her babies were about to be born, and that the human standing beside her enclosure had to be frightened away immediately. Or maybe she assumed that I had abducted one of her babies, seeing as the sound came from outside the enclosure. I also considered the possibility that she might have recognized my call as a fake, and was angered at my vocal incompetence to the point of charging the fence, slamming her heavy armored head against it  and letting out a very loud warning hiss.

I didn´t bother her further after that. I was lucky there was a fence between her jaws and me!

The fourth and largest crocodile species in Mexico is the American crocodile. In Spanish, it is often called the “cocodrilo de río”, meaning “river crocodile”, whereas the Morelet’s crocodile is called “cocodrilo de pantano”, “swamp crocodile”. However, these names can lead to confusion as both species can be found in either rivers or swamps. In fact, the American crocodile is not very picky about where it lives. It has been seen even in the sea, and recently a man was attacked by one while repairing his yatch in the Pacific coast. This is why it is also known as the “American saltwater crocodile”.

When Steve Irwin visited Mexico, he expressed his surprise at the docility of American crocodiles. But although they may seem mellow when compared to their infamous Australian relatives, American crocs are not to be underestimated. In the US, where crocodiles are extremely rare, attacks on humans were unknown until very recently. In Mexico, it is a very different story. American crocodiles are numerous and widespread -- protected by the law, they have recovered after decades of ruthless extermination. Attacks on humans, many of them fatal, have been recorded along both coasts of the country. Usually the victims are drunken men who ignore warning signs and go for a swim in crocodile-infested rivers. Sometimes, it is playing children who get snatched. Livestock, including horses and cattle, are also taken.

American crocodiles are responsible for most predatory attacks on humans in the country. Compared to them, American black bears, jaguars and cougars seem rather shy.

Although the eight-meter long individuals reported by a famous zoologist from Chiapas seem to be a thing of the past, large males measuring over five meters are still found regularly. The same breeding center where I provoked the female Morelet’s used to be home to a six and a half-meter long American crocodile, said by the gamekeepers to be possibly over a hundred years old.

Unfortunately, this giant was murdered when it wandered away from the lake and into the woods, where it was found by hunters.

The breeding center kept the giant crocodile’s skull as a reminder of the huge size attained by these reptiles, provided they are given the opportunity to grow up in peace.

It was this largest, most aggressive species we’d be working with at the park. But before we were allowed into the croc enclosure, we had to start with other, less dangerous reptiles.

Top photo: Morelet's Crocodile/Hodari Nundu
Other photos: American Crocodile/Hodari Nundu



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