The Man-Eaters of Borneo

Crocodile tales are always popular among Malaysian children. When I was younger, I was toldcountless stories about the "Mouse deer and the crocodile" , how the mouse deer tricks the crocodile each time it is about to be eaten. But it wasn' t the mouse deer that interested me, it was the crocodile.

Although I was living in a land where crocodiles were onceaplenty, I never saw one until I visited a crocodile farm in the town of Sandakan, on the eastern part of the island of Borneo. The sign at the entrance to the farm was hardly welcoming. It said" ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" . It made me feel like I was Indiana Jones,embarking on an exciting and dangerous adventure. I couldn' t wait tocatch a glimpse of the man-eating reptile.

Risky business

The farm seemed a risky place to visit. The ponds where the crocodiles lay sunbathing were all well fenced in, but I didn' t think the thin metal wire was strong enough to protect spectators from their heavy jaws. Yet, no matter how dangerous it was, every day the farm attractedthrongs of visitors.

The crocodile farm is just one of many attractions in this small but busy town. It was established when the Sabah government decided to make the crocodile a protectedspecies in 1982. The family-run business had its first successfulhatching of aclutch of crocodile eggs taken from the Kinabatangan River, which itself isinfested with the creatures, in 1984. Now, the farm isself-sustaining with over 2,000 crocodiles at any one time. Aside from earning from the steady flow of daily visitors, their main income comes from the export of crocodile skin and the sale of its meat.

The crocodilesreared at the farm belong to the species Crocodylus Porosus. Locally, they are called" buaya" , which simply means crocodile. They are also found in other parts of the world, namely Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The buaya is the largest of all crocodile species, with males growing up to seven metres long and females up tp five metres. Its diet consists of a huge variety of other animals - turtles,goannas, snakes, birds, buffalo, wild boar, monkeys and occasionally, humans. While many crocodilian species are wrongly believed to be man-eaters, the buaya is an exception, injuring or killing quite a number of people each year. Newspapers in Borneo regularly have such headlines:" Killer crocodile strikes again".

Rampant hunting

In the past, the state of Sabah was home to a great number of buaya. It was almost normal to hear of someone being attacked by a crocodile on a riverbank. Over the years, the number of buaya in the wild have dropped due torampant hunting andhabitat destruction resulting from human development. Now, only some rivers host these man-eaters, among them the Kinabatangan River and the Tuaran River. Normally, they are found inbrackish water around coastal areas and in rivers. However, they can also be found in freshwater rivers, billabongs and swamps.

Female buayas start breeding when they are about ten to twelve years old, laying up to sixty eggs during the monsoon season. They stay with them to protect them againstpredators like the monitor lizard. They build their nests into amound from a mixture of plant matter and mud to avoid eggs being lost if the river floods. At the end of the incubation period, which lasts ninety days, thehatchlings emerge, making a characteristicchirping sound. Their mother then carries the baby buayas to the water in her mouth. Once in the water, the hatchlings can still become victims of turtles or iguanas as well as adult males crocodiles who kill and eat them.

Silent but deadly

At the farm, younger buayas are separated from older ones.Juveniles of about a metre long liesprawled around the pond, seemingly unaware of what' s happening around them. However, they can show great strength and speed when required. The adult buayas are equally inactive, enjoying the heat of the sun andoblivious to the crowds of people staring at them. As a matter of fact, these creatures look more likelogs than live animals. This, I was told, allows them to get close to a victim in order to attack.

"We have a big one ... he' s here somewhere," called out a Timorese man working at the farm. That comment brought a chill to my bones. Looking at theserene water, I saw nothing resembling a buaya. There was not even a flicker on its surface to indicate any creature moving underneath it. Thus goes the Malay saying " Air yang tenang jangan disangka tiada buaya" - Don' t think there are no crocodiles in calm water.

Jenne Lajiun-Hejnowska