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Fear of the unknown

Jamaicans’ love-hate relationship with crocs

Published:Thursday | September 21, 2023 | 12:07 AMAsha Wilks/Gleaner Writer
A sign erected at Salt River in Clarendon, which is a habitat for crocodiles.
A sign erected at Salt River in Clarendon, which is a habitat for crocodiles.
File photo shows a crocodile that was caught at the Rae Town Fishing Village.
File photo shows a crocodile that was caught at the Rae Town Fishing Village.
In this Sunday, September 29, 2013, file photo, crocodile enthusiast Lawrence Henriques pats the tail of a seven-foot female crocodile at a sanctuary and captive rearing programme he founded in the mountain town of Cascade in northern Jamaica.
In this Sunday, September 29, 2013, file photo, crocodile enthusiast Lawrence Henriques pats the tail of a seven-foot female crocodile at a sanctuary and captive rearing programme he founded in the mountain town of Cascade in northern Jamaica.
The Jamaican Boa.
The Jamaican Boa.
Hawksbill sea turtle
Hawksbill sea turtle
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OVER THE years, Jamaicans have developed a love-hate relationship with protected animals like the American crocodile ( Crocodylus acutus).

Locals have occasionally been observed, on social media platforms or otherwise, engaging in the unlawful capture, injury, and killing of these species, both in past and current times.

Despite the immediate danger perceived by many after coming toe-to-toe with the animal, some Jamaicans have voiced displeasure in those individuals who intentionally capture, kill, or injure the species, which appears on the nation’s Coat of Arms.

“I feel just like a one a my kids ... me feel it man, me feel it,” said Sandra Linton Jones, a vendor in the Black River fish market, who expressed how saddened she was upon seeing a dead crocodile nearby the market one morning as she and other vendors reported to work.

The vendors said that the bludgeoned crocodile was found with its skull bashed in, its tail and back legs missing, and only its upper torso remaining.

When The Gleaner reported in April on a crocodile sighting in the JAG Myers Municipal Park, the fish vendors indicated that the canal was home to a crocodile that would periodically appear on land when the days became warmer.

This is so as crocodiles lack sweat glands and seek land to cool down as they bask with their jaws open to release heat.

The locals reported that approximately three months after The Gleaner visited, a crocodile was killed.

They added that they had not seen a crocodile emerge from the canal since and that this further convinced them that it is the same crocodile that was killed.

They said that ultimately, staff members from J. Charles Swaby’s Black River Safari showed up, took the carcass, and buried it.

Linton Jones stated that she was not frightened by crocodiles because she was familiar with their existence and would frequently see one while going about her daily business.

She, however, stated that she was opposed to individuals inflicting violence on the animal, adding that she and other vendors would often admire the crocodile when it came out of hiding.

They would take advantage of the opportunity to show individuals visiting the parish what a crocodile looked like in the flesh, she said, adding that they were always fascinated by the animal and would capture videos and photographs of it in amazement.

“It sad man, it very sad, and ma tell you say it bring a crowd here just like a one crime scene,” she said of the crocodile’s death.

JOYOUS OCCASION

For Patsy Forbes, another fish vendor, it was a joy to see when the crocodile would “visit” the vendors daily. She said that the locals knew to be very quiet and to stay far from the animal for safety purposes when he would emerge.

“A mussi ‘bout four (cement) block dem tek and lick him. Block, board, see all rock deh deh so,” she said, recalling the dreadful sight of the dead crocodile.

She continued that the animal had a rope tied around its neck, indicating that it had been captured and brought to land before it was put to death.

Fisherman Noel Wint, from the community of Slipe in St Elizabeth, said that although he had never had an encounter with the animal, he was very fearful of their existence and hoped to never cross paths with one while venturing out to the river.

He said that near the Salt Spring bridge and in the Black River, there were frequent sightings of the animal.

Another fisherman in the area said that some people were accustomed to the animal and would never hurt it as they grew up seeing the crocodile very often.

“Me see one man with all a little young one wah day,” he said, adding that the fisherman had only brought the crocodile on land to show others in the community and soon after, released it back into the water.

“Yeah, man, me ‘fraid a dem ’cause me know dem will destroy people, so me nuh really go near them,” he said.

Conservation biologist Joseph ‘Joey’ Brown told The Gleaner recently that there was a general misconception within society that the American crocodiles were “ferocious man eaters”.

However, Brown argued that in contrast to the species of crocodiles typically depicted in films and on television shows, the ones found in Jamaica were far smaller and less aggressive. The ones in Jamaica, he said, are shy and wanted nothing to do with human interactions.

He said that the ones depicted in movies are usually Nile crocodiles in Africa and salt water crocodiles in Australia and Asia which are much larger and aggressive and without a doubt, would attack people more frequently.

“There needs to be a lot more outreach to these communities that are living very closely among the crocodiles, especially with the kids and younger generation because later on, they’re gonna be the ones who will kinda decide the future for these animals,” he said.

Brown, a member of the Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), stated that crocodiles will retaliate if they feel threatened or provoked, therefore residents should not intervene by trying to capture the animal before calling authorities.

He recalled that there had been a few incidents over the years, including the July capture of a crocodile in the New Haven community, where the crocodile was found inside a canal and had not engaged with the locals, but residents decided to trap the animal out of fear.

“But if they had just let it be, then it could’ve been a much more peaceful and calm situation,” he said.

The animal had shown up on land on a few occasions prior to the day that it was captured by residents. The locals had reportedly called the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), but no one showed up, and so they took matters into their own hands.

LACK OF APPRECIATION

In response to an August 29 request for information, NEPA, on September 12, told The Gleaner in an emailed response that although a social study to measure peoples’ attitudes towards protected species had not been done, perceptions of the animal would differ from community to community.

“But in general, there seems to be a lack of appreciation beyond the perceived usefulness of the animal to an individual. Mostly, there is a general fear of reptiles, specifically as it is related to crocodiles and snakes,” the agency said.

It added that in many instances, where persons “rescue” protected species, they contact the agency, seeking monetary compensation for the animal’s recovery.

When asked, the agency did not specify whether Jamaica intended to declare any other animal species as protected or endangered.

However, the agency added that such judgements are normally taken following assessments of the conservation status of such species, whether there is a population decline, and whether the species is at risk of extinction.

NEPA has applauded the steady rise in calls, emails, and messages on social media from people who are concerned about animal welfare.

Typically, NEPA organises public-education initiatives around Environmental Signature Days to help raise awareness about the importance of protected species and their habitats. They also share information on the agency’s work to conserve and sustainably manage endangered and protected species.

Environmental Signature Days include World Wildlife Day, celebrated on March 3; International Day on Biological Diversity, celebrated on May 22; World Wetlands Day, celebrated on February 2; and World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5.

The agency says members of the public are also invited to visit its social media pages to view postings made to educate the public on protected species.

asha.wilks@gleanerjm.com

Other species that are protected by law

The Jamaican Iguana ( Cyclura collei )

Classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The island’s largest native animal, reaching a length of up to five feet.

The Yellow Snake/Jamaican Boa ( Epicrates subflavus )

The Jamaican Boa is the largest species of snake on the island, with a maximum length of over two metres.

There has been no comprehensive population study conducted on the animal, and as such, there is need for a science-based survey across Jamaica to gather data on annual trends of abundance and distribution of the species.

This is important because most of the populations are now localised and severely disjointed due to habitat fragmentation and anthropogenic impacts.

Sea Turtles: The Green Turtle ( Chelonia mydas ), Hawksbill Turtle ( Eretmochleys imbricata ), and Loggerhead Turtle ( Caretta caretta )

Sea turtles nest year-round in Jamaica

NEPA’s annual sea turtle nesting monitoring and reconfirmation surveys conducted at select beaches islandwide during the months of June to November, which are considered the peak nesting season, uncovered that there are 173 historical nesting beaches consisting of both mainland beaches and offshore cays. Of this number, 93 sites (54 per cent) were surveyed in 2022. Sixty-one (66 per cent) of these sites were documented as active nesting sites, compared with 94 sites (54 per cent) in 2021, of which 75 (80 per cent) were active.

In 2020, NEPA established a memoranda of understanding with the two community-based non-governmental organisations along the south coast for the monitoring of sea turtle nesting beaches. In 2022, monitoring along the south coast recorded 2,512 hatchlings from 47 nests in Westmoreland and 267 hatchlings from 96 nests in Manchester, compared with 2021 when there were 1,692 hatchlings from 44 nests in Westmoreland and 900 from 110 nests in Manchester.

Threats to the success of the nests vary, but the primary cause of disturbance includes threats from poachers, mongoose, and dogs (both feral and owned).

Light pollution affects nesting females and emerging hatching as they are disoriented, causing them to head inland, often to peril.

In water, deliberate harvest and incidental capture remain an issue, including “ghost gear”, i.e., discarded fishing gear that entangles and drowns turtles.

The meat and eggs of sea turtles are often seen as “good for the back” by many locals.