Why understanding the crocs is important

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WITH some 30 national parks and nature reserves, it is not surprising that Sarawak is home to numerous extraordinary floras, fauna, and wildlife.

From endangered Orang Utans, proboscis monkeys, rare Irrawaddy dolphins and sea turtles to towering cliffs, mangrove swamps, ancient rainforests, and a vast cave system which is home to millions of bats, Sarawak nurtures some of Earth’s most precious biodiversity.

These treasures blessed by Mother Nature are protected and under the purview of Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC).

The custodian of national parks and wildlife in Sarawak is a statutory body formed under the Sarawak Forestry Corporation Ordinance 1995.

Besides managing totally protected areas (TPAs) to conserve the state’s biodiversity, SFC is entrusted with the task of protecting the wildlife of Sarawak, especially totally protected and protected species.

According to SFC chief executive officer Zolkipli Mohamad Aton, the. corporation is very similar to the Welfare Department as it takes care of the wildlife’s welfare and wellbeing.

When it comes to human-wildlife conflict, he said the matter is often being portrayed as sensational by the media.

From 2011 until June 2022, a total of 131 cases of crocodile attacks on people were recorded in which 73 were fatal and 58 involved injuries.

Conservation and management  

The first management plan for crocodiles in Sarawak was introduced in 2016 and it was used as a guidance to manage crocodiles until 2020.

Zolkipli said it is crucial to create a win-win situation whereby crocodiles and its habitat can be conserved and protected without compromising the safety of local communities.

He said SFC is developing a new comprehensive 10-year management plan from 2021 to 2030 with focus on three main goals, namely:

  • to continue conserving and protecting estuarine crocodiles and their habitats, particularly identifying and establishing crocodile sanctuaries;
  • to ensure the safety of local communities first and enhancing co-existence between human and crocodiles; and
  • to develop mechanisms for sustainable utilisation of crocodiles.
Zolkipli Mohamad Aton

“Crocodile Removal Zones (CRZs) were also established in several areas to mitigate conflict between human and crocodiles.

“For instance, if any crocodiles emerged in the waters from the Kuching Waterfront up to Satok Bridge and Tun Salahuddin Bridge area, they will be removed from the area,” he explained.

Back in the 1980s, crocodiles were on the brink of extinction due to over exploitation but through conservation efforts their numbers have increased over the years.

Based on the last statewide survey conducted by SFC from 2012 to 2014, it was estimated that the population of crocodiles in Sarawak is around 13,500 – of course, the number is higher now.

“Conservation of crocodiles is important as they play a major role in maintaining nature’s balance in the riverine ecosystem.

“As a top predator, they regulate the populations of other animals and detritus in the river whereby they prevent overcrowding as well as degradation of the ecosystem,” he said.

Looking at crocodiles’ previous status as an endangered species, Zolkipli stressed it is important that crocodiles are managed sustainably to avoid history repeating itself.

While conservation and protection of crocodiles is important, he said the safety of local communities come first and it is a top priority.

Swift wildlife action team

SFC established its Swift Wildlife Action Team (SWAT) as part of the efforts and initiatives to handle issues related to human-crocodile conflicts, including crocodiles.

From the initial four well trained staff, the team has expanded to 28 personnel who are stationed in regional offices.

Zolkipli said SWAT members are disciplined, dedicated, and fearless, adding that when dealing with wildlife like crocodiles, one cannot simply work alone.

SFC’s SWAT team in action during operations.

The team are given special training, including wildlife handling, wilderness first aids, use of firearms, planning and conducting surveys among others.

“The team is also equipped with suitable equipment like firearms, hooks and cage traps, ketch poles, and drones,” he said.

He disclosed that SFC is planning to further equip the team with advanced equipment.

“We are also planning to send the team to undergo training with experts from Australia, United States, India, South Africa, and ASEAN,” he added.

Harvesting of crocodiles

With the increase in the crocodile population, Sarawak was successful in down-listing of crocodulus porosus from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I to Appendix II in CITES Conference of Parties (CoP17) back in 2016.

The change in policy permitted harvesting of wild crocodiles for trade.

Zolkipli said this was among the achievements in the first management plan for crocodiles in Sarawak.

Zolkipli Mohamad Aton

“SFC encourages the local communities to be involved and participate in the crocodile related industry or activities such as ecotourism, farming, and ranching.

“These activities will benefit the local communities by generating income and creating new jobs,” he said.

However, response from the local communities to participate in harvesting of crocodiles has not been encouraging so far.

He pointed out that the lack of response and reluctance from the local communities may stem from taboos and folklores.

“For example, the Iban community in general will not hunt crocodiles while the Malay community do not eat crocodile meat.

“I understand that some of the Chinese and Bidayuh communities do consume crocodile meat,” he said.

Apart from conducting a study on the reluctance among the local communities, he said SFC will also look into what could be done with the crocodiles.

Permits and licences

SFC issues permits and licences for hunting crocodiles based on certain criteria.

Said Zolkipli: “We will look at the population of crocodiles at the respective locations and there will be a quota given.

“For instance, a hunter can hunt three crocodiles per year in the area he’s permitted and there are size requirements.

SFC’s SWAT team in action during operations.

“If the crocodile is considered small, it cannot be hunted.”

He explained that there is a quota imposed by CITIES on the number of crocodiles that can be harvested in a year.

As such, SFC has to coordinate accordingly on the areas and number of crocodiles that hunters can hunt.

“The application is usually submitted by a group of people applying to hunt in the same river.

“We cannot give permit to everyone, so we have to divide because crocodiles are not found just in one river,” he said.

SFC regularly monitors the population of crocodiles, especially in high density rivers.

The data collected from this will be used to plan operations and quota allowed for licensed harvesting activities.

“Another survey was conducted on 22 major river basins in Sarawak from 2021 to 2022.

“The survey found that there has been an increase in the crocodile population, especially in the areas surrounding Batang Samarahan, Sungai Suai, Sungai Sibuti, and Sungai Niah.”

Sustainable utilisation of crocodiles

Zolkipli stated that SFC wants to create a crocodile industry which focuses on sustainable utilisation of crocodiles.

He pointed out that the fashion industry with designer labels such as Hermes use crocodile leather for high value handbags.

As such, there is a market and demand for crocodile skins that can be explored as well as ventured into.

“Crocodiles involved in such industry are well-looked after in farms. We cannot use crocodiles from the wild because their skin often has imperfections resulting from fights with other crocodiles or animals.

Zolkipli Mohamad Aton

“When the quality of the skin goes down, the value would go down,” he said.

He said collection of crocodile eggs could be one of the ways to open up the industry as it is safer than hunting crocodiles itself.

In order to safely collect crocodile eggs, it is important to understand the timing and nature of crocodiles, like when they will move on land, as they cannot stay for a long time and will return to the water.

“When the crocodile leaves its nest for the water, it’s the time to collect the eggs.

“Once the eggs become hatchlings, farmers would take good care of them to protect their skin,” he said.

Another potential sector that could utilise crocodiles is the pharmaceutical industry as crocodile blood has been used in traditional medicine in many Asian countries to treat diseases such as asthma and allergies, among others.

Education and awareness programme

SFC through its awareness campaign called 3M Buaya (Mengenal, Memahami dan Memulihara) has been educating the local communities about crocodiles.

The campaign, which involves various agencies, receives encouraging responses from the local communities of different age groups and backgrounds.

Zolkipli said the campaign has been expanded to various locations throughout Sarawak, including in longhouses, schools and plantation areas.

He expressed hope that the campaign will be able to educate the local communities so that the number of attacks will be reduced and there is a shift in the people’s mindset.

“We also have other activities in place as well as utilising mass and social media through the distribution of posters and leaflets,” he said.

At the same time, Zolkipli reminded the local communities, especially those who are residing near the rivers, to be mindful.

Stating that activities such as throwing away rubbish into the rivers have high potential of attracting crocodiles to the area, he said the local communities must dispose of their rubbish responsibly.

“Rivers polluted with rubbish are very likely to attract crocodiles – to them, it is free food – they will not be able to differentiate whether the water splashes are from rubbish being thrown or children playing in the water.

“Even though we are looking after wildlife, safety of our local communities is of utmost importance to us.

“If there is a signage warning about crocodiles in the rivers, please take it seriously,” he said.

He also advised local communities who depend on the rivers for their livelihood to understand the behaviours of crocodiles.

“Knowing and understanding the behaviours of crocodiles will help tremendously in reducing the number of attacks.

“These creatures love prawns and lobsters, so areas that are bountiful with this will have crocodiles roaming around,” he explained.

He urged the local communities to be very careful and be aware of their surroundings when going fishing.

SFC’s 3M Buaya Poster.

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