PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Ernesto “Lolong” Coñate was distraught when he and his team of crocodile hunters came back to their base that day empty-handed.
It had been three days of failed attempts to catch a problem croc in the interiors of Agusan marsh in Agusan del Sur province. They had been returning to the marsh every morning to check the traps after setting them up the night before. And each time, they discovered all of their traps were cut loose and destroyed.
“Nakakapitong kable na tayo. Nakakahiya na (We’ve already set up seven traps. This is embarrassing),” he told his teammates.
It was just one of those moments that endeared Lolong to colleagues. Before he died late last month because of hypertension, the soft-spoken Coñate was the go-to guy at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC) located in this city, home to the government’s main crocodile conservation program.
The animal handler passed away a local legend—for setting up the trap that ultimately snagged what is now believed to be the world’s biggest crocodile on record to be captured in the wild.
Coñate, 49, was no longer around to see the monster catch, but his colleagues paid him a fitting tribute by naming the 6.4-meter (21-ft) croc “Lolong.”
A veteran crocodile hunter, Coñate was the center’s main man whenever it was called to respond to distress calls involving problem reptiles in the wild.
Last month, he and a coworker at PWRCC received orders from their head office in Manila to go to the sleepy town of Bunawan in Agusan del Sur, to capture a menacing crocodile. The request for assistance came from the town mayor, Edwin Elorde.
At the time, all they knew was that they were after a big predator that had reportedly killed a schoolgirl, a fisherman and a grown carabao.
On the night of August 28, Lolong and his team of local guides started working on a new trap not much different from the ones he used in previous missions, except for the thicker cable leading to the mechanism that catches the croc by its upper jaw.
After speaking to his wife and sons on his cell phone, he excused himself from the rest of the group, who were then relaxing and, over a few drinks, discussing how they could finally pin down their elusive quarry.
That night proved to be Coñate’s last. Complaining of severe dizziness apparently due to hypertension, he was rushed to the town’s hospital but he failed to make it.
He left behind a wife and five grownup children—and over 20 years in government service as a crocodile handler.
“He told us he was ashamed to face the mayor because they still hadn’t caught the crocodile after seven attempts and after all the support they had been getting,” Coñate’s son and namesake Ernesto Jr. told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Filipino.
Coñate never knew that his “last trap” would catch a big one for the books. Prior to his feat, the biggest captured croc on record was only 5.5 meters.
Bunawan officials later announced plans to formally report “Lolong (the croc)” to the Guinness Book of World Records, hoping to turn it into an ecotourism draw for the town.
A town official said in a radio interview in Puerto Princesa on Wednesday that the Bunawan municipal council had passed a resolution commending Coñate.
But such posthumous accolades may hardly comfort Coñate’s buddy, William Tabenas, who moves about in crutches and has stopped working at the PWRCC to undergo rehabilitation for a broken leg.
Tabenas was injured after a 12-foot crocodile that he and Coñate earlier caught in Rio Tuba, Bataraza town in Palawan, broke his right leg as they were trying to restrain it.
“We’re trained to do it but sometimes when you are tired, like in that particular occasion, you tend to lower your guard,” Tabenas told the Inquirer.
He recalled that while he was trying to bind the crocodile’s mouth with rope, the animal snapped its head toward him and the jerking motion sent him flying. He landed 3 meters away from the animal.
“I missed that trip to Bunawan with Ernesto. We were supposed to be there together but because of my injury I was sidelined,” he said in Filipino.
Crocodile attacks in the Philippines are actually rare, according to experts, even in Palawan which is considered host to the last few remaining crocodile habitats in the country.
“For the past 11 years since we began implementing the Wildlife Conservation Act, there were only three cases of attacks that I can remember,” said Alex Marcaida, an official of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Agency (PCSD).
Marcaida said crocodile attacks were usually traceable to habitat disturbance. In the southern Palawan town of Rizal, for example, authorities linked a crocodile attack to the destruction of a mangrove forest by the illegal tanbark trade.
Crocodiles, according to experts, are naturally not aggressive toward humans and are only likely to attack if they feel their territory is being invaded.
“They don’t go out of their shelters to hunt human beings for food,” said Dr. Glen Rebong, director of the PWRCC.
“There have been no cases of attacks in areas where habitats have not been disturbed or (invaded) by communities. Only crocodile sightings, but no human attacks have been recorded,” Marcaida added.
In Manila, environment officials said the capture of “Lolong” in the Agusan marsh last week underscored the importance of preserving the wetland while addressing “human-wildlife conflicts.”
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) will meet with Bunawan Mayor Elorde to assess the remaining crocodile population in the marsh.
“Our conservation efforts should not end with the capture of ‘Lolong.’ While its capture comes as a big relief to the residents, some of whom may have experienced crocodile attacks in the past, we also have to take a look at the situation on how we could harmonize or promote the coexistence of the people and the crocodiles and other wildlife in the Agusan marsh,” he said.
On the plan to turn Lolong into a tourist attraction, Lim said PAWB will also meet with local officials to come up with the best artificial habitat for the reptile.
Two more crocodiles have been spotted in the marsh, which is also home to a variety of wildlife species, according to PAWB chief Mundita Lim. With a report from Kristine L. Alave