BUNAWAN, Agusan del Sur—This southern Philippine town plans to hold funeral rites for the world’s largest saltwater crocodile in captivity and then preserve its remains in a museum to keep tourists coming and prevent their community from slipping back into obscurity, the town’s mayor said yesterday.
The one-ton crocodile—named Lolong—was declared dead on Sunday a few hours after flipping over with a bloated stomach in a pond at an eco-tourism park in Bunawan, which had started to draw tourists, revenue and development because of the immense reptile, Mayor Edwin Cox Elorde said.
“The whole town, in fact the whole province, is mourning,” Elorde said. “My phones kept ringing because people wanted to say how affected they are.”
In a news conference, Elorde fought back tears as he recalled how the town took care of the crocodile not as a beast but like an “adopted son.”
Guinness World Records last year proclaimed Lolong the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, measuring 6.17 meters (20.24 feet). The reptile took the top spot from an Australian crocodile named Cassius that measured 5.48 meters (17.98 feet) and weighed nearly a ton.
Lolong was captured on Sept. 3, 2011.
A nylon fishing line found in Lolong’s feces could be the cause of death, according to initial findings by an animal doctor.
Dr. Alexander Collantes, of the Davao Crocodile Park, said small pieces of plastic fishing line, which could have disturbed the normal flow of the digestive system, had been found in Lolong’s waste discharges since last December.
Collantes said, however, these were just his initial findings and that further examination through necropsy would be conducted by experts from the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) to determine the actual cause of death.
He said the abnormal condition of Lolong’s digestive system started when its belly began to balloon late last month. Its vital signs deteriorated a few days before its death.
Elorde said Lolong’s death caught the town by surprise since PAWB veterinarians had regularly visited the beast’s artificial habitat at the eco-park in Consuelo village here.
60 years old
Teary-eyed, Elorde said the town did everything to save Lolong and could blame no one for its death.
Expert studies showed Lolong was about 60 years old and could have lived 20 more years based on the regular life-span of such a reptile.
Lolong had been drawing tourists daily, generating up to P20,000 of park gate receipts a day.
Asked why the local government did not heed calls by environmentalists to return Lolong to its natural habitat, Elorde said the reptile could pose a danger to residents living in the Agusan Marsh, especially during the rainy season when crocodiles can roam freely because of flooding.
He said he was with Lolong “until his last breath.”
“I was depressed because I considered Lolong a part of my life already … I really considered Lolong as my son. It was my duty to take care of Lolong,” Elorde said.
Elorde said that after Typhoon “Pablo” struck last December, Lolong’s fecal discharge turned from white to brown. But he said a check on its feces found no infectious organism.
Elorde said experts were called to look over Lolong’s condition after a bulging lump was noticed on the right side of its abdomen. The experts then advised that the water level in Lolong’s pool be lowered so it would not drown.
At 8:12 p.m. Sunday, a veterinarian declared Lolong dead.
Named an ambassador
In Manila, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje described Lolong’s death as a loss to the country’s preservation program for reptiles, of which Lolong had been described as an “ambassador.”
Paje ordered a team of veterinarians and biological experts sent to Bunawan to determine the cause of death. The team is composed of representatives from PAWB and the national museum.
“The team will help ensure that the necropsy would be carried out in a manner that would make it possible to contribute Lolong’s remains to taxidermy,” Paje said.
He said the team would work closely with Elorde and with representatives of the National Geographic Channel.
Lolong had been named ambassador of the program to educate people on the importance of crocodiles in the ecosystem.
In a radio interview, Collantes said there was a noticeable change in Lolong’s habits, particularly in its food intake, after Pablo struck.
Collantes attributed the change to the cold temperature which, he said, was far from a crocodile’s temperature comfort zone of 30 to 33 degrees Celsius. The cold could have affected Lolong’s appetite, he said.
Also, Collantes said, there was a noticeable growth on the right side of Lolong’s stomach, which could have been caused by a nylon cord—used in fish nets—that it must have ingested while it was still in the marshlands.
He said the experts were looking into two possible causes of death: extreme weather conditions or ingestion of a foreign object that was not digested.
Collantes debunked claims by an animal rights group that Lolong’s life-span had been shortened by its captivity.
“I do not think so. Pangil (Fang) is still alive and he was from the wilds,” Collantes said, referring to the 5.5-meter-long crocodile—the second-largest found in the country— which is a major attraction at the Davao Crocodile Park.
Lolong was captured in a river in Bunawan after it attacked livestock. The 2009 death of a 12-year-old girl in Lake Mihaba was blamed on Lolong.
Nathaniel Escriver, a guide at the park, could not hide his emotion when the crocodile was dying. “I could not bear to see him dead,” he said, adding he wept when their “beloved brother” died.
“Just as our town was beginning to be popular, Lolong passed away,” he said. He said the other caretakers were “very emotional and speechless” when Lolong was pronounced dead.
Lolong’s death is bound to have an impact on the town’s economy.
“Lolong’s presence was able to augment our family needs,” said Jenny Amog, 25, among the vendors who have found lucrative incomes while doing their trade near the park. “We were able to buy a motorcycle that we use to ferry passengers coming in and out of the park.”
Elorde said that in the year and four months that Lolong was a tourist attraction, the park earned at least P2 million.
Remains to be preserved
Elorde said local officials had agreed to make their town a popular tourist destination by preserving the crocodile’s remains and displaying them in a museum.
The crocodile was named Lolong, after a government environmental officer who died from a heart attack after traveling to Bunawan to help capture the beast. The crocodile was blamed for a few brutal deaths of villagers before Bunawan folk came to love it.
The giant reptile has come to symbolize the rich biodiversity of Agusan marsh, where it was captured. The vast complex of swamp forests, shallow lakes, lily-covered ponds and wetlands is home to wild ducks, herons, egrets and threatened species, like the Philippine Hawk Eagle.
Villagers plan to perform a tribal ritual, which involves butchering chicken and pigs, as funeral offerings to thank forest spirits for the fame and other blessings the crocodile has brought to the town, Elorde said. A group of Christians would separately offer prayers before the autopsy.
The crocodile’s capture in 2011 sparked celebrations in Bunawan but also raised concerns that more giant crocodiles might lurk in a marshland and creek where villagers fish.
The crocodile was captured with steel cable traps during a hunt prompted by the death of the child in 2009 and the disappearance of a fisherman. Water buffalos have also been attacked by crocodiles in the area.
Elorde said he planned to have Lolong preserved in a museum so villagers and tourists could still marvel at the sight.
“I’d like them to see the crocodile that broke a world record and put our town on the map,” he said.
Lolong belonged to the species Crocodylus porosus, or the Indo-Pacific crocodile, which experts say can live up to a century. It is critically endangered in the Philippines, where it is hunted for its hide.—With reports from Dennis Jay Santos, Inquirer Mindanao, AP and AFP