How to Wrangle a Crocodile

Crocodile photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Radek Vitoul.
Crocodile photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Radek Vitoul.

By Sara Knight
BU News Service

It was like a sudden B-horror movie infestation – on January 24th up to 15,000 crocodiles swarmed out of the confines of Rakwena Crocodile Farm and poured out into the South African Limpopo River. The scaly escapees were taking advantage of the swelling floodwaters that had forced their warden, farmer Zane Langman, to open the floodgates, disarming the bloated river’s threat to consume his family’s house. Since then the freed reptiles have been spotted up to 75 miles downriver, one bold enough to take roost on a school’s rugby field. Langman has pledged to recapture his ne’er-do-well crocs. This raises the question, how do you wrangle these crocodilian beasts?

The answer varies with the crocodiles’ size, the environment, and the skill of the wrangler. Reptile farms typically house smaller crocodiles: an ideal farm croc is small enough to easily manage but big enough for its skin and meat to generate a profit. Langman’s crocs range from one meter to one-and-a-half meters in length, safely on the small side of the crocodile spectrum. Smaller crocs are neither as strong nor threatening as their larger brethren, but they are much faster. Luckily for Langman, farm-raised reptiles tend to be less wary of humans than their wild compatriots. These friendlier (than normal) human-acclimated crocs are much easier to approach and less likely to bolt; but since they tend to associate humans with feeding-time they are still quite dangerous.

The real threat posed by these ancient beasts lies in their needle-like teeth and powerful bite. Crocodiles have the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom. John Brueggen, director of St. Augustine Alligator Farm, said a one meter croc can snap it jaws together with several hundred pounds of force. “When they bite their jaws lock and they shake their head,” crocodilian expert Adam Britton says, “if you pull your hand back their teeth will slice your flesh open like razor blades.” A small crocodile can easily rip your hand off.

To catch an escaped crocodile, you first need to find the scaly fugitive, which is rendered nearly impossible if the croc in question decides to hide. These masters of mimicry have over millions of years evolved their bumpy, lumpy, swamp-colored bodies to over disappear in muddy water. To overcome their powers of illusion Britton recommends searching for crocodiles at night with a strong spotlight, as their eyes cast a characteristically strong reflection. If the thought of hunting the rivals of dinosaurs with nothing but moonlight to guide you seems a bit too reckless, baited traps are also quite effective, Brueggen says.

For Langman’s more spontaneous-by-necessity wrangling experience, Britton recommends baited nooses. The noose is slipped over the croc’s long, flat head and then tightened, allowing the wrangler to securely guide the croc into the back of a truck. The safest way to approach an escapee croc, noose ready, is from behind Britton says. The widely-held belief that a crocodile’s tail is dangerous is only true for mammoth crocs; Britton explains that a croc’s tail is used as a counter-balance while swimming, never as a natural weapon. Langman’s diminutive variety can inflict no more than a hard slap. Other options for reclaiming delinquent crocodilians include using nets or hand-wrangling.

Quite the crocodile cowboy, Langman claims to have caught almost half of his crocodiles – though recently the local Environmental Affairs Agency clamped down on his retrieval antics. The National SPCA has also condemned Langman’s wrangling as inhumane – he has been caught shocking the unfortunate crocs with a stun gun for swifter retrieval.  And because live crocodiles do not come with letters of provenance and Rakwena Farm does not tag or brand, Langman cannot prove ownership of his reptiles – he is currently in negotiation with the Environmental Affairs Agency to work out a compromise. For now it is safe to say that Rakwena Farm’s fugitives can add a few more weeks to their Limpopo vacation.