IMAGINE surviving the great extinction and coming out as the ultimate survivors until this present day.
It comes as no surprise that crocodiles are often referred to as the living fossils.
These living fossils have outlived the dinosaurs by some 66 million years – they have even survived two ice ages.
Out of all the states in Malaysia, Sarawak is prominent for its crocodiles roaming across its rivers.
According to Associate Professor Dr Ruhana Hassan, the most common species of crocodiles found in the state is the crocodylus porosus or saltwater crocodile.
The senior lecturer attached to Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) has been studying crocodiles of Sarawak for over 12 years.
Her work on crocodiles has been recognised internationally by IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group and World Congress Herpetology in which she is a scientific member and international committee member respectively.
Ruhana has supervised several post undergraduate studies students including Sarawak Forestry Cooperation (SFC) wildlife officer Dr Mohd Izwan Zulaini Abdul Ghani.
Mohd Izwan has been studying crocodiles for 10 years owing to how in his younger days, seeing crocodiles was very common for him as his village is located at the mouth of Sungai Sadong.
The 33-year-old is very curious about crocodiles, he concurred with the fact that these living fossils are indeed intelligent and adaptive beings.
GENETICS OF CROCODILES
Although biodiversity is her area of expertise, curiosity prompted Ruhana to explore and conduct studies on crocodiles in Sarawak approximately 12 years ago.
Considering crocodiles can be found in almost every river throughout the state, she was interested to know whether these crocodiles share the same genetic components or in other words, are they related.
“I read that crocodiles can move from one river to another, they can swim up to 800km and colonise themselves in another island – I found this really interesting.
“It made me wonder if the crocodiles in Sarawak’s rivers are of the same species and whether they share genetics components or not,” she said.
Ruhana’s studies found that crocodiles throughout Sarawak are related in some ways as they share the same genetic pools.
The findings of her studies agreed with an earlier theory stating that crocodiles move from one place to another.
“As such, it is okay to do some management on crocodiles’ population because they are interrelated – this means the species is not exclusive to certain rivers only,” she said.
Another species that can be found in Sarawak is tomistoma schlegelii or false gharial.
This species has a longer snout – there is almost no report of the species attacking humans as it is a fish eater.
“It is not their behaviour (to attack humans), so we can say that their behaviour is softer compared to saltwater crocodiles.
“They are secretive, so they usually hide themselves and it is harder to spot them,” she said.
CROCODILES AND THE ECOSYSTEM
Every organism plays important roles in the ecosystem and the crocodiles are no exception.
Ruhana said crocodiles are controlling the health of the ecosystem whereby they will eat animals that are sick.
“For example, if a sick monkey is going to the water and it moves slowly – the crocodile will prey on it.
“They are controlling the ecosystem by eliminating the ones that are sick to prevent the spread of diseases.
“It is an important role because there must be somebody who controls the population of every single animal,” she explained.
Ruhana pointed out that when there is an overpopulation of unwanted or sick animals, there will be a zoonosis.
If there were no crocodiles, she said the diseases could be transferred to other animals rendering an imbalance ecosystem and a high number of sick animals.
“Crocodiles are important in regulating the ecosystem to ensure it is balance and healthy.
“Losing the apex predator in the food pyramid chain will affect other animals at the bottom,” she said.
RESOURCES, NOT PEST
Ruhana said the local community should view crocodiles as resources instead of pest as they could be a source of revenue.
While crocodile-based tourism has its market, there are many things to be taken into consideration especially in ensuring that it is sustainable.
“I support the idea of crocodile-based tourism, but it must be a part of a nature-based tourism.
“It must also be sustainable because we do not want the local community to bear the consequences in the long run,” she said.
Ruhana lauded the state government and SFC for doing very well in the management and conservation of wildlife in Sarawak.
She said she looks forward to future collaboration and research, adding that she hopes to see more young people getting involved in crocodile entrepreneurship and research projects.
“This is one of Sarawak’s many resources, it is something to be proud of and being taken control.
“I would like to encourage the young people to take part in crocodile-based research projects because we need to train as many Sarawakians as possible to manage this valuable resource,” she added.
WHAT’S INSIDE A CROCODILE’S MOUTH?
Ruhana disclosed that she requested for grant to carry out a project to study what is inside a crocodile’s mouth – this of course was met with mixed responses.
She is eager to investigate what makes crocodiles so susceptible and powerful to all diseases that affect other animals.
“I find it very intriguing – the crocodiles are eating all of the sick animals so what is inside their mouth?
“If you look at old testaments and books, there is a story of if someone has asthma and they put their hands inside the mouth of the crocodile then wash it, their asthma will be cured.
“I do not know how scientifically true this is, but I am interested to find out and look forward to study as well as understand it,” she said.
She has yet to be successful in getting funding to pursue this study, but she remains optimistic.
BEHAVIOURS OF CROCODILES
Mohd Izwan stated that it was crucial to learn and understand about the behaviours of crocodiles in order to protect oneself.
Reflecting on his own experience, he said crocodiles generally avoid humans unless under certain circumstances.
“For example, if they feel that a human is a threat, and they want to defend or protect their territory then they will attack.
“During mating or nesting season, they become a bit more aggressive especially female crocodiles because of their maternal instinct to protect their eggs or hatchlings,” he said.
He said crocodiles are actually vulnerable on land and feel safer in water, so if humans were to approach them when they are on land – they will feel threatened and act aggressive.
Biologists working with crocodiles mutually agreed that they do not simply attack without reasons.
“Crocodiles do not know what human’s intentions are. Naturally female crocodiles that are nesting would assume people want to take her eggs or disturb her hatchlings hence she will attack.
“This applies to when people go out to fish, cast their net or any other river activities,” he said.
As apex predators – animals which are at the top of the food chain – crocodiles often prey on small animals.
Commenting on crocodile attack cases such as the ones involving small children playing by the river, he said from the crocodiles’ point of view they must have looked like a small animal such as a monkey.
While such incidents are very unfortunate and he sympathises with victims’ family members, he emphasised that crocodiles do not simply attack unless they are threatened.
“Perhaps at that time the crocodiles were hungry and from their view it is a small animal, that is why they attacked.
“As the superior beings, humans must take precautionary measures especially when encountering areas that are crocodile infested,” he said.
FROM APPENDIX I TO II
In some parts of the world, crocodiles are considered as endangered species.
However, Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia permitted to harvest saltwater crocodiles due to the increase in the species’ population and reports of attacks over the years.
Previously, crocodiles were protected under the Sarawak Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.
A policy change to down-list and allow the harvesting of saltwater crocodiles in the state was made by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) during a meeting in Johannesburg back in 2016.
Mohd Izwan explained that when crocodiles were included in the Appendix I, harvesting of the species was strictly prohibited.
Following being down-listed to Appendix II, crocodiles in Sarawak rivers can be harvested and traded with a quota imposed.
Since 2017, the hunting, killing, trading, and exporting of crocodiles are permitted in 10 rivers namely Sungai Sadong, Sungai Tuang, Batang Kerian, Sungai Seblak, Sungai Linga, Sungai Sebuyau, Batang Lupar, Batang Saribas, Batang Baram and Sungai Bekong.
“At one point, the crocodiles’ populations in Sarawak had gone down so it became a protected species – that’s when the number rose and it became an issue,” he said.
Mohd Izwan said the human crocodile conflict involves both sides and as long as crocodiles live in a healthy habitat, they will not encroach or come near human settlements.
“As humans, we have the gift of mind and rationality to think. Looking at the crocodile attack cases, I believe most could have been avoided if precautionary measures were taken.
“We understand we cannot force people not to go out in the river, but they must take proper measures to protect themselves and remember that crocodiles can inflict injuries or even kill,” he said.
He also advised local community residing by the river to avoid activities that would attract crocodiles such as throwing rubbish into the river and letting their small pets run loose.
“If we can create a win-win situation for both sides, it can balance the whole human crocodile conflict.
“I always mention to those who I encounter that SFC is managing the human crocodile conflict through the effective management of both sides,” he added.
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