Reptiles don’t get a lot of love, but Timor-Leste bucks the trend.
Also known as East Timor, it’s lush with rivers, rugged mountains, hot springs and coral reefs. It lies next door to Australia and Indonesia, and includes a few islands as well as the Ambeno region on the north-west coast.
It finally became a sovereign nation in 2002, but the story of how it declared independence from Portugal and ended up under Indonesian rule for three decades is way, way beyond the scope of this usually light-hearted blog.
Let’s just say that if your government adds a goddamn assault rifle to your coat of arms as a reminder of the struggle, it took more than a good turnout at the polling station.
But here’s something that is within scope: in some parts, they worship the saltwater crocodile. But why?
If you look at a map of Timor-Leste and say “well it looks a bit like a crocodile”, you’re not too wide of the mark.
In Timorese legend, the island was born from a crocodile called Lafaek Diak, who sacrificed himself to give a small boy a home. The lumps and bumps of his body became the mountains, and in some parts of Timor-Leste today, crocodiles are known as Avo Lafaek, or “grandfather crocodile”, in the Tetum language.
This ties in with a belief system called lulik, which (very!) roughly translates as “sacred”, and encompasses the cosmos, ancestral spirits, a divine creator, and the “dos” and “don’ts” of living in harmony with nature.
Therefore killing a croc isn’t only illegal and generally taboo, but in some areas, hanging around one isn’t unusual. In fact it comes with the territory when 70% of the population is rural and fishing is one of the main sources of income.
Swimmer Edha Belo, who competed at the Tokyo Olympics, had to train at least some of the time in croc-infested waters, and the paramilitary police even have crocodiles as mascots. As in, actual saltwater crocodiles that sleep in pens next to their barracks. Aminu (“bodyguard”), Sparro (“sword”) and Rama (“beret”) have divisions named after them too.
While I can’t say I’d curl up in an armchair with one, I can appreciate the respect they inspire. And who wouldn’t want a kick-ass grandparent?
For instance, the saltwater crocodile can “surf” on sea currents over long distances, and when it roars, its sides can reverberate so much it splashes water all over the place. It has the strongest bite in the animal kingdom, and even in murky water it can grab prey, thanks to the fancy pressure sensors around its muzzle. If caught, unless it’s very lucky, said prey has no choice but to roll with it, literally, until death.
I’m making it sound like a cold-blooded killing machine, but according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, crocodile attacks on humans aren’t common enough to officially class it as a “man-eater”. Sometimes it’s more to do with defending territory than an easy meal, which is odd considering how often it’s seen lying pretty much on top of other crocodiles.
Deciding who gets the best sunny spots or hiding place can be done without a horrendous blood bath (usually), so theories abound about a more complex hierarchy, as well as communication by smell or chemical signals. The oily gloop from its jaw and, er, back entrance, must be doing something, after all.
As with most creatures though, the biggest ones tend to call the shots, and the largest saltwater croc ever recorded was a 6 metre-/20 foot-monster from the Philippines called Lolong.
He was named after the crocodile hunter whose (humane) trap finally caught him, but said hunter tragically died of a heart attack before he could learn about his awesome legacy.
Lolong himself went to crocodile heaven in 2013, so the largest living saltwater croc is now Cassius, who clocks in at just under 5.5 metres/18 feet and lives in Australia. Australian crocs, however, aren’t held in high regard by some Timorese, and are considered “troublemakers”. Why the reptile racism?
In the last few decades there has been a rise in croc attacks in Timor-Leste. According to Brackhane et al., crocodiles rack up ten times as many deaths as malaria. This has both baffled and upset many a community, because as Demetrio Carvalho, the state secretary of the environment puts it, “our grandparents don’t kill us”. So one local theory is that these are interlopers from across the pond.
For something that likes saltwater and surfing, the distance from northern Australia – about 450km/250 miles – isn’t an impossible stretch. So researchers Yusuke Fukuda and Sam Banks decided to find out if Australian crocs were indeed stirring up trouble in Timor-Leste.
Pinpointing an area with the most notorious crocs, they collected DNA samples with a biopsy pole, i.e. a three and a half-metre rod with a needle stuck on the end. With the help of local firefighter and “crocodile whisperer” Vitorino De Araujo, who at one point waded into the water at night to jab a croc, they gathered 18 of them. They then ran the results against a database of Australian crocs, which is a thing that apparently exists.
The first round of tests showed no evidence of reptile tourism though: none of said crocs were from Australia. But this was just a small group, and more tests over a wider area will give a clearer idea of what’s happening. They’re not likely to run out of subjects either – since it became a protected species after independence, and in Australia in the 1970s, the saltwater croc’s numbers have boomed.
Another complication is that reporting a croc attack can be nearly as taboo as killing one. In some regions of Timor-Leste, “messenger crocodiles” (rather than “grandfather”) help enforce the laws of nature, so if one of them attacks you, you obviously did something to upset the natural order.
Moving a problem croc to another area can also raise a few eyebrows, because Mother Nature might take exception to that. It doesn’t always work either, because thanks to their handy homing senses, relocated crocs have been rediscovered in the same area months or even years later.
The saltwater crocodile isn’t worshipped all over, however. In urban areas they’re given an equal amount of fear and respect, and on the other end of the scale, some coastal communities hunt them for food.
Regardless, anyone hoping to solve the problem would need to tread carefully between the risk to human life and cultural understanding. But if they’ve spent any time around crocodiles, they’ve already had some practice.
Saltwater Crocodile Fact File
Latin: Crocodylus porosus.
Crocodylus comes from the Greek for “pebble worm” (krokodeilos), and the porosus part means “full of callosities”, i.e. the bumpy snout (porosis is Greek for callosity, and the Latin for “full of”, osus, was whacked on the end).
What? The clue’s in the name, but it’s also the largest living reptile in the world. Other monikers are “estuarine crocodile” or “saltie”.
First recorded? Back in 1801 by Johann Gottlob Schneider, a philologist and naturalist, not to be confused with the organist of the same name. Unfortunately his work on the croc is entirely in Latin, and I could only understand so much through the screams of Google Translate.
Where? South-East Asia and northern Australia.
How big? Males are larger than females, reaching up to 6 metres / 20 feet, with the largest female recorded at 4 metres / 13 feet.
Diet? Pretty much anything it can catch and wrestle with its massively powerful jaws. That includes you.
Social behaviour? You’ll often see a “bask” of crocs on land or a “float” in the water, but the saltwater croc likes its personal space. It communicates through sound, body language and scent, so there may be a complex croc soap opera we aren’t privy to. It nests between October and June, with Mum burying and guarding her 50-or so eggs, but before you picture an army of crocs, only about 25% of them will hatch, due to their temperature swaying 3C/37F the wrong way, flooding, or because someone was firing blanks.
Endangered? Nope, the saltwater crocodile is considered “Least Concern” by the IUCN’s Red List. In fact its numbers have boomed in Australia and South East Asia since it became a protected species in some areas.
Featured image: Photo by David Clode, via Unsplash.
Note: “National animal” can be a pretty woolly concept, so the closest I got to an “official” list was scraped together by Hammerschlag and Gallagher from verified documents, and Minahan’s Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Abbott, Matthew. 2019. “The revered crocodiles of this nation have suddenly started killing people“. The New York Times.
Anda, Redempto D. 2011. “‘Lolong’, the crocodile hunter“. Inquirer.net.
Beatson, Cecile. 2020. “Estuarine crocodile“. Australia Museum.
Brackhane, Sebastian, and Webb, Grahame. 2018. “When conservation becomes dangerous: Human-crocodile conflict in Timor-Leste”. Journal of Wildlife Management 82(2-3):DOI:10.1002/jwmg.21497
Brackhane, Sebastian, et al. 2019. “Crocodile management in Timor-Leste: Drawing upon traditional ecological knowledge and cultural beliefs“. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 24(4):314-331.
Britton, Adam. No date. “Crocodylus porosus“. Crocodilian.com.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “East Timor“. Britannica.com.
Guiness World Records. No date. “Largest crocodile in captivity (living)”.
Guiness World Records. No date. “Largest crocodile in captivity ever“.
“Killer crocodiles: Why are more humans being attacked in East Timor?” 2019. France24.
“The legend of crocodiles in Timor-Leste“. No date. Dive Timor Lorosae.
Naish, Darren. 2012. “The saltwater crocodile, and all that it implies (crocodiles part III)“. Scientific American.
Paunovic, Vincent. 2018. “Crocodiles: the deadly totems of Timor-Leste“. Radio New Zealand.
“Prime Minister officially launches the new stamp models for Timor-Leste“. 2010. Government of Timor-Leste.
Ross, James P. No date. “Crocodile“. Britannica.com.
“Saltwater crocodile“. No date. Oceana.org.
Sanchez, Hortensio. 2019. “Killer crocodiles: Why are more humans being attacked in East Timor?” Phys.org.
Thomas, Joseph. 2010. “The universal dictionary of biography and mythology“. Cosimo.
“Timor-Leste swimmer braves crocodile waters to qualify for Tokyo 2020“. 2021. Olympic Council of Asia.
Webb, Graham J. W. et al. 2010. “Saltwater Crocodile Crocodylus porosus“. Pp. 99-113 in Crocodiles. Status Survey and
Conservation Action Plan. Third Edition, ed. by S.C. Manolis and C. Stevenson. Crocodile Specialist Group: Darwin.
“World’s largest captive crocodile Lolong dies in Philippines“. 2013. BBC News.