CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Dispelling the Crocodile Myth

STORY FROM THE BRAZILIAN PANTANAL

Dispelling the Crocodile Myth

7/25/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

You are trekking through a tropical jungle. The heat and humidity combine to produce drops of salty sweat that sting your eyes while mosquitoes bite every piece of exposed flesh you thought you had protected. This is the lush green hell described by so many explorers. You've made it this far into the wilderness, and you're determined that nothing will make you turn back. That is until you reach a river too wide to throw a tree over and you have no choice but to wade across it. With your backpack over your head, you start walking into it. When you are chest deep, large splashes behind you attract your attention. As you turn and look back, you see nothing but troubled, murky water. Already you fear for your life, knowing that it is most likely a crocodile. If you don't, you have more nerve than most.

During our exploration of the Central American Rainforests by sea kayak, we have had to paddle and camp in places inhabited by crocodiles and alligators. Warnings from locals were common place, and for days my fear greatly affected my mental state (read: "My Fear of Crocodiles").

The next stage of our expedition through the jungles of La Moskitia in Honduras and Nicaragua would expose us to even more of these saurians. I knew I had to learn to overcome my fear of crocodiles. Taking a break from the Central America Sea Kayak Expedition, I flew to the Brazilian Pantanal in order to learn how the local people live with these creatures. In the Pantanal there are so many alligators, one can never swim without being in the same water with them. With my guide Paulo, I learned how to catch alligators, an experience that deepened my understanding and, perhaps most importantly, bolstered my confidence.

Driving 120 miles through the world's largest wetland, we crossed large cattle ranches and observed much wildlife. The nature reserve here is most famous for its variety of birds, and the first day was enough to understand why. In a few hours I saw large jabiru storks, vultures, hawks, toucans, macaws, parakeets, egrets, and even rheas, a cousin of the ostrich, which ran away with the deer as the car approached. Howler monkeys hung in trees and coatimundis, armadillos, foxes, wild pigs, and kapibaras (pig size rodents) crossed the road in front of us. I felt like I was on an African safari, the only difference being the vast herds of cows and hundreds of horses.

The atmosphere reminded me of an old Wild West movie. My guide explained that although the Pantanal is a nature reserve, all of it is cattle farming land. Rich owners hire poor farmers to keep part of their land. I was surprised to see a six year old boy riding a horse fully loaded with lassos and bags accompanying two cowboys. My guide pointed his finger to him and said, "That was me as a kid." Paulo's father was a Duruvao Indian from Hauta Foresta, a region of the Amazon. His mother was from Corumba, the main town on the border of the Pantanal. He grew up as a cowboy, his school the wild fields of the Pantanal.

He explained that in the Pantanal people know nature well, and can catch most animals by hand. The elders come from a generation that hunted alligators, armadillos, deer and wild pigs for their meat. Alligators also proved valuable for their leather. Today the only animals hunted are the wild boars for they destroy all the agriculture. Sons of hunters have become the eco-tour guides of the reserve. They catch the most unique animals for the pleasure of tourists and after a few photos release them unharmed back into the wilderness.

During my travels with Paulo I saw hundreds of alligators. They seem to live in every small pool of water, in every ditch, swamp, and river. As the Pantanal is composed entirely of this kind of landscape, they are everywhere. My guide assured me that it was safe to swim in the rivers, all the locals do it, despite the fact that all rivers contain alligators. I learned later that jacare, the Pantanal alligators, mainly feed on piranhas.

Paulo took me for a few morning and evening walks to observe the wildlife. I was fascinated by these large reptiles who seemed completely asleep on the banks of the rivers, but I was never able to come close enough for the photos I wanted to take. Each time they saw me coming they were in the water with a large splash, and quickly out of sight. Paulo informed me that they have only one highly developed sense on land, amazing vision. As a result, they are extremely sensitive to movement. I wondered how we could come close enough to ever catch any. Paulo looked at me and said with much confidence, "Don't worry, we are going to catch alligators."

One day, on our way to a new camp, we stopped our truck in front of a large pool of water. Before attempting to cross it, Paulo went to check its depth and bottom consistency. Barefoot he walked knee deep into a mixture of floating vegetation and murky water. A big splash caught my attention and Paulo was already looking for the alligator which dove into hiding. Sighting it hidden under the vegetation in a few inches of water, he moved toward it like a cat, slowly placing one foot on each side of the animal. Suddenly, he jumped forward, his hands plunging toward the floating vegetation. In a few seconds he lifted a four to five foot long alligator, holding it by its neck.

He walked toward me with a smile and asked, "Do you want to hold it?" "Yes," I answered. "But just a minute. I've run out of film, and if I don't load a new roll and immortalize this, nobody will believe me." I wrapped my hands around the neck of the alligator and held it up with pride and a little bit of anxiety. The powerful jaw was armed with razor sharp teeth. "As long as you keep a good pressure on the neck, the alligator can't open its mouth," Paulo assured me. "Because you hold it in front of you in the air, it can't whip you with its tail. There is no problem, as long as you hold it with your two hands very close to its skull, it's harmless." In spite of my guide's faith, I still worried that the alligator would jerk around and, if my grip relaxed, even only slightly, my arm might be its next lunch. My purpose, however, was to fight my fear. So I continued to hold it in my hands. After a few seconds it looked so harmless I felt ashamed of my exaggerated fear. When we released it close to the water, the alligator stayed still for a few seconds and I managed to take a couple of photos. Then it ran a few steps toward me as I was taking a close up shot of it's head. I jumped back surprised, and it changed direction to quickly disappear into the water.

Paulo described to me his catching technique, "Don't come to the side of the crocodile. If you do, you get bitten. Walk slowly from behind, put one leg on each side of its body and jump with your hands on its neck. Make sure you keep a good grip just behind the head where the skin is the softest. Press it against the bottom to immobilize it. As you do so, your legs need to be spread apart, and in a position higher on its torso in front of its posterior legs to avoid the powerful and sharp whipping tail. Once immobilized, if it's small enough, you quickly lift it up in front of you."

I was impressed by Paulo, who walked barefoot through the floating vegetation in the murky water full of alligators and piranhas. For him it was natural, but I couldn't forget all my preconceived ideas. It would take a few more encounters for me to lose my fear.

The technique for catching the larger alligators is different. They have so much power it isn't possible to immobilize them against the ground or the bottom of the swamp. With their tails they can lash you and escape from your grip. It would be dangerous to even try to catch them by hand. So Paulo showed me how to use a noose tied to a stick.

I asked Paulo if he ever had a problem with alligators, as he seems to always walk barefoot in the middle of swamps. He answered no, but a day later, I noticed scars on his leg. Clearly the marks were left by teeth. When I questioned him again he responded, "Once, a large alligator caught my leg, but you see, it didn't destroy it." I asked, "What did you do?" He answered, "Nothing." "What do you mean nothing?" I said incredulously. "Can't you do anything if you're being bitten by an alligator?" He explained that the best thing to do is not to move. Alligators don't have any sense of taste. They bite anything that moves in front of them, sometimes even branches. Once closed, nothing can make them open their jaws. They will only release their hold if they think they have mistakenly bitten a branch or something non-edible. If you move your leg, the flesh will be ripped apart. If you try to wrestle the alligator, the same thing will happen. It is better to stay still and take the pain until the alligator releases you than to try anything else. This is what Paulo did, and the scars of the teeth on his leg are very clean. He didn't suffer any complications from his injury. His explanation left me thinking. Not having grown up in the Pantanal I might not posses the same level of pain tolerance as Paulo. If caught, would I be able to stay still? I can only hope my question will remain unanswered.

One morning, we sighted a large alligator on the bank of a small pool of water. As usual, it dove instantly at our approach, and disappeared in the depths of the green muddy pool. Paulo said, "It's a big one, we can catch it. Stay here, I'll go get a rope." He came back with the rope and made a lasso. The alligator had stayed submerged and hidden in the aquatic vegetation. With a long stick, Paulo started to poke around in the water. The alligator seemed to have disappeared. Paulo stepped knee deep into the pool and kept poking here and there with his stick. Suddenly coming out of nowhere, a giant jaw broke the surface of the water with a fast snapping movement. The beast surfaced and showed the tip of its nose. Paulo turned his lasso in the air and threw it just next to it. On the second try, the lasso made it over the alligator's head, but still not around it yet. With the long stick, he poked the alligator who bit into the open noose of the lasso. Paulo pulled it tight and quickly moved toward the shore and said, "Take it, it's yours!" "What?" "Take it!"

I took the rope and started pulling, but as soon as the alligator touched the bottom, it gave a fight with its tail and pulled back. "Pull it strongly but slowly" said Paulo. I did and forced it out of the water. Once on firm ground,  alligators are much slower and more vulnerable. While I held the rope tight, my guide went around and wrapped a double loop around the dangerous jaw. Then he grabbed its posterior leg, lifted the gator up and said, "It's a big male, about 220 lbs. and eight and half feet long."

Tied up with the rope, it was safe to touch the alligator and take it in our arms, the only problem was lifting its weight.

I noticed some scars on its back and asked. "Fight with another Jacare?" During the driest month, many alligators share very small water pools and often fight. It surprised me to learn that mature alligators didn't count humans as their only predators. Large anacondas feed on them, but they don't always win the fight. As well, Paulo told me that jaguars can attack small adults and juveniles.

My week in the Pantanal with Paulo was enlightening. I learned much about its wildlife and particularly about alligators. I realized that they fear people much more than we fear them. Unlike their cousins in Australia or Africa, they don't prey on humans and accidents are rare and usually due to a defensive reaction during a surprise encounter. The 21hour bus ride back to Sao Paulo was filled with memories of hundreds of alligators and thousands of tropical birds. The Pantanal did me good: I am now ready to paddle the jungle rivers of La Moskitia with much more confidence. Twelve months in the jungle with the Miskitos and Pech Indians in Honduras and Nicaragua await me and my expedition partner Luke. The biggest danger won't be alligators, but mosquitoes, humans and our own minds.

Jean-Philippe and Luke are on a 3 year and 5000 mile sea kayak expedition from Mexico to Panama to document the lifestyles and cultures of the last Indigenous tribes and their marine and rainforest habitats. You can follow them online at www.caske2000.org

View the Photos:

Alligators: Alligator 1 ; Alligator 2Catching by Hand 1 ; Catching by Hand 2 ; Alligator 3 ; Catching with a lasso 1 ; Lasso 2 ; JP holding it 1 ; JP holding it 2 ; JP showing the tail ; Alligator 4 ; Alligator 5

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