“They look like dinosaurs!” I screamed, gaping at live crocodiles for the first time with my brother, Jaypee. This was Manila Zoo in the 1990s and to pint-sized kids, 14-foot crocodiles seemed giant, ancient and utterly invincible.
Two decades later, I found myself beside the world’s largest captive crocodile, old Lolong, in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur. As a team from the Department of Science and Technology measured him, I realized that crocodiles actually lived way before many dinosaurs—evolving in the Mesozoic epoch to stalk juvenile triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex and others foolish enough to get waylaid by the water’s edge.
Last Sunday’s demise of Lolong came as a shock to both crocodile enthusiasts and conservationists, including to us, hailing as we do from a family that actually weathered the worst mass extinction earth could possibly dish out.
Long ago, crocodiles were common in the Philippines. In Dr. Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” Crisostomo Ibarra saved Elias from a rogue beast by the banks of the Pasig River. In 1823, a 27-foot crocodile was shot near the town of Jalajala in Laguna de Bay. Rizal and many of his era told of animals vicious enough to overturn boats with a flick of a tail.
Today, most of the giants are gone, wild crocodiles surviving only in scattered groups throughout the archipelago.
There are two types of crocodiles in the Philippines—and no alligators (crocodiles have V-shaped snouts while alligators sport U-shaped ones). The Philippine or freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), critically endangered and found only in Mindanao and Isabela, has sharp grooves down its nape. The larger estuarine or saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) has a smooth neck.
Lolong is a saltwater crocodile, so named because of his ability to excrete salt through his tongue.
“These are the largest crocodiles on earth,” explained former Environment Secretary Dr. Angel Alcala while we inspected Lolong in Agusan del Sur. “Some live up to a century and can swim from island to island. Just imagine running into one underwater!”
While not on the brink of extinction globally, saltwater crocodiles are critically endangered in the Philippines, having been hunted for meat, hide and pride for centuries.
Lolong’s Sept. 3, 2011, capture has been retold time and again. For three weeks, trackers deployed traps up and down the chocolate-hued creeks of Nueva Era, near Agusan Marsh. Four steel cable traps snapped. The fifth and last one snagged something solid.
The battle of hoists and grunts began—and when trappers shouted, “Nakuha na!” (“We got him!”), some 80 people surged forth to haul the giant onto a makeshift cart.
Christened Lolong after one of the crocodile hunters who died of a heart attack before the capture, the 20-foot male crocodile was interred at the Bunawan Eco-Park and Crocodile Rescue Center in Agusan del Sur, a facility designed to highlight the indigenous fauna of Agusan Marsh and someday breed crocodiles for release.
His pen—designed to hold “nuisance” creatures such as man-eaters—was fairly sufficient, but nowhere near the 15,000 hectares of his home marsh.
The crocodiles of Rizal’s time have since passed onto legend. Today, both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles are threatened with extirpation. Said Dr. Glenn Rebong of the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center: “Wild numbers have taken a nosedive because of hunting, habitat pressure and human-wildlife conflict.”
The problem of course, is that humans are encroaching into crocodile habitats. We walked over to the town of Nueva Era in Agusan del Sur to look for wild crocodiles and interview locals.
Similar to riverside communities in Laos and Cambodia, many houses near the marsh are built on stilts—some as high as 20 feet up. In these parts, people take crocodile attacks seriously.
“For generations, we believed that the spirits of our ancestors lived within the largest of crocodiles,” said local crocodile hunter Edgar Yucot as we humped through cobra-infested trails towards Magsagangsang Creek, where Lolong was caught. “Many crocodiles inhabit the marsh—each differentiated by color. Black crocodiles like Lolong are the fiercest. Green, yellow and red ones are middle spirits, while white ones are portents of luck.”
He stopped and abruptly pointed toward a clump of bamboo lodged at the center of a channel. “That’s where I saw a baby crocodile this morning.”
We squinted and waited but saw no movement, the blistering midday sun driving the creatures into the densest thickets.
Returning to Nueva Era, we talked with locals who saw an alleged 25-footer in 2011. “Jabar Abdul’s carabao (water buffalo) was tethered near the river. Locals heard splashing and came out to investigate. What they saw was incredible—the carabao was being eaten by a crocodile, much larger than any we’ve ever seen!” translated Yucot as a middle-aged woman excitedly recalled the tale.
Nicknamed Lalang, it is the new Moby Dick of crocodile hunters.
To protect the populace who fish for carp and tilapia through narrow channels aboard flimsy, dugout canoes, the local government saw fit to capture and “rescue” crocodiles like Lolong and Lalang, which are large enough to be deadly to people. In the end, humans won out—never fully realizing how crocodiles actually enrich aquatic ecosystems.
“Each crocodile recycles nutrients. Defecation fertilizes river or lake ecosystems. When people take crocodiles out, they significantly erode ecosystem processes. Where there are crocodiles, there will always be fish,” explained Alcala.
Having survived 200 million years of change, Lolong’s still-living kin now face their greatest challenge—how to tread that thin line between a world ruled by humans and their own ancient ways of living.
We can only hope that so long as responsible rescue and conservation efforts are in place, crocodiles can display the same tenacity and resilience that have allowed them to outlive T. Rex.
(Editor’s Note: Gregg Yan is the communications and media manager of World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF-Philippines] / Earth Hour Philippines)