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When granddad is a croc

"The Boy and the Crocodile: The Legend of East Timor," illustrated by children from Familia Hope Orphanage East Timor (Cover image courtesy of Familia Hope).

On daily morning or evening strolls along the waterfront of Dili during a recent visit, I walked with a new wariness, particularly when passing clumps of mangroves. But gradually, I acquired a revised awareness of my vision of the natural world.

Timor-Leste is being invaded, this time by saltwater crocodiles, which can grow over six meters in length. They bask on the sparsely settled south coast. They lurk around river mouths and mangrove swamps on the more populated north coast. They grab pigs and goats, but attacks on humans are reported more frequently: 45 in the seven years up to April 2014, of which 37 were fatal, and some on beaches where tourists are being enticed to go snorkeling.

Crocodiles are coming on shore even in the capital city. "I have seen them two or three times in Dili," says Niall Almond, a researcher with NGO La'o Hamutuk. "Something needs to be done. They're man-eaters and they're huge."

One local joke, my friend Rosa Carrascalao told me, is that Australia has been sending over its surplus crocodiles to disrupt Timor-Leste's fledgling tourism industry -- a potential competitor. Certainly a fatal attack on a foreign tourist would be immensely damaging.

You might think there's a simple solution to the "croc invasion." Tiny Timor-Leste, which boasts the world's fastest-growing population -- heading from 1.3 million now toward 3 million midcentury and already suffering shortages of both food and jobs -- should welcome a source of fine leather for handicrafts, as well as protein.

But there's a cultural problem, one that made me look more critically at my own country, Australia, which regularly culls problem animals.

In Timor, there's a problem with killing, let alone eating, crocodiles. As another friend, Arsenio Ramos Horta, put it: "You don't eat your grandfather."

In the Timorese creation myth, the long island with its spine of mountains is the remains of a benevolent crocodile befriended by a young boy. The old croc's dying wish was that the boy and his descendants settle on its body. Crocodiles are good creatures in this view, embodying the spirit of ancestors.

Brandon Sideleau, a crocodile expert with California State University Channel Islands, recounted how he asked villagers in the Indonesian-half of Timor island what should be done about crocodiles. "The 100% response was that they wanted the crocodiles left alone," he told me, noting that on nearby Wetar island, "people have actually been murdered for killing crocodiles in response to attacks."

One man's 'monster'

Blaming the victim takes on a new dimension in Timor. "When a crocodile kills somebody, it's often seen as an act of god, an act of punishment," said Karen Edyvane, a marine scientist with Charles Darwin University in Darwin. "The person deserved it, or their family had done something that was socially unacceptable."

People feed crocodiles. Edyvane saw one southern coastal village, located mostly in a mangrove tidal area, where children bathed and played close to crocodiles, "calling them like pet dogs." In Dili, billboards feature friendly cartoon crocodiles. Timor-Leste's two-battalion army has crocodiles as its live mascots on parade.

Australia's approach -- ruthless culls by wildlife authorities when the kangaroo population gets out of hand -- would be a no-no here. Rangers capture and relocate crocodiles spotted within 50km of Darwin. But when the protected species gets to threatening numbers, culling is the main option. When a croc does turn man-eater, the vengeful hunt is like "Moby Dick" or "Jaws."

Advisers sent over by Australia's wildlife authorities found Timorese local leaders aghast at videos showing the crocodile cull. Some chefes du suco, or district heads, have protested at the whole idea of crocodile "management." Amid this cultural veneration, Sideleau, Edyvane and co-researcher Adam Britton suggest in a new paper that Timor-Leste should do more research on the crocodile population and its habits, then educate people on how to live safely alongside the creatures, with relocation of troublesome animals far away or into captivity as a last resort.

The problem with moving saltwater crocodiles, Sideleau said, is that "even if it's hundreds of kilometers they'll come right back," though attaching a magnet to them can help. "About 75% of the time the crocodiles will stay put because it kind of scrambles their homing instinct," he said.

All this certainly gets a visitor thinking. In Darwin, tourists are attracted by widespread fear and loathing of crocodiles. Can Timor-Leste, with its deep crocodile veneration, successfully take the opposite approach?

Hamish McDonald is a Sydney-based author and Asia commentator, and a former regional editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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