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HISTORY CORNER: CROCODILE

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| February 21, 2021 1:00 AM

In January 1945 near the end of World War II, the British Indian Army was driving the Japanese out from Burma. On Ramree Island in the Indian Ocean, 225 miles northwest of Rangoon (now Yangon), the Japanese faced a more terrifying enemy than the Allied forces — giant crocodiles.

British Indian Army Lieutenant-General Jack F.R. Jacob recounted in his book, "Odyssey in Peace and War," “Over a thousand soldiers of the Japanese garrison retreated into the crocodile-infested mangrove swamps.

“We went in with boats and interpreters using loudhailers asking them to come out. Not a single one did. Saltwater crocodiles, some of them well over 20 feet in length frequented these waters. It is not difficult to imagine what happened to the Japanese who took refuge in the mangroves.”

Naturalist Bruce Wright who was there wrote, “That night…was the most horrible that any member of (our) motor launch crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch-black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth.

“At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left.... Of about one thousand Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about twenty were found alive.”

About 500 may have escaped to the mainland.

Some call the account an exaggeration, claiming that the eco-system in those swamps couldn’t support that many crocodiles.

But though saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) commonly search for food in coastal and inland waterways and wetlands, they also feed in the open sea — including in waters around Myanmar where marine life is abundant.

Guinness Book of World Records calls the terrifying event at Ramree Island “the worst crocodile disaster in the world… with the greatest number of fatalities in a crocodile attack.”

There are 23 crocodilian species in the world. They include the Big Four: crocodile, alligator, cayman and gharial.

Less than half of all those attack humans. Crocodiles less than 8 feet long are usually not considered a serious danger — but can cause serious bites. It’s estimated that about 1,000 people are killed by crocodilians each year.

By far, the most dangerous of the crocodile family are the saltwater crocodile and the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) — both being predatory, and most of their attacks fatal.

In Africa, the Nile crocodile can plunge into a herd of wildebeests crossing a river and pull down a 400-pounder for lunch.

And in the Philippines, the goliathan saltwater crocodile likewise will pounce on the heavyset water buffalo or pet dog drinking carelessly at the river’s edge.

Most other crocodile species can sometimes be equally dangerous when protecting their territory or defending a nest or their young.

Perhaps least known of the big crocodilians is the gharial — a strange looking reptile that likes staying in the water more than any of its toothy cousins. It’s easy to identify because of its bulbous snout.

Historically native to India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, the only gharial left today are in zoos, Nepal and northern India.

Gharials spend almost all their time in the water, leaving only occasionally to bask in the sun on the land.

“Crocodiles do not necessarily set out to hunt humans,” a BBC report says. “They are clearly ferocious hunters, but they are opportunistic predators.

“If you go splashing through a muddy river near the croc and it's hungry, it will come over and grab you.

“Any animal that moves is fair game. They will even venture onto land to find prey. If that warm-blooded mammal happens to be a human, they will not discriminate.”

Crocodiles have been on Earth a long time. Scientists say 112 to 133 million years ago — since the Early Cretaceous Period, from the late Hauterivian to the early Albian Age in what is now Africa and South America.

(Some say 250 million years.)

Like so many of the animals in those prehistoric times, the crocodiles were gigantic compared to today’s descendants. Largest was the Sarcosuchus imperator — 40 long, weighing five tons, with an unusually long snout about 75 percent of the head’s length.

A Smithsonian article by Theresa Machemer suggests that crocodiles migrated from Australia to Africa and then South America. It’s plausible that saltwater crocs could do it because their tongue possesses a saltwater gland that tells the body when to get rid of excess sodium and chloride ions accumulated from drinking saltwater.

Australian ecologist Hamish Campbell from the University of Queensland says crocodiles “can survive for long periods in saltwater without eating or drinking, so by only traveling when surface currents are favorable, they would be able to move long distances by sea.”

Monkeys have been known to ride the prevailing ocean currents across the Atlantic to South America on vegetation islands. Presumably, it would have been easier for crocodiles who could feed on marine life along the way.

On the big island of Mindanao in the Philippines, 12-year-old Rowena Romano and several others were riding in a small outrigger canoe on Lake Mihaba located in the 37,000-acre Agusan marshland. They were headed for her “floating school” at the “floating village” on the lake.

Suddenly, a giant crocodile attacked the boat and capsized it, then immediately the beast snapped its powerful jaws onto Rowena’s head and dragged her underwater.

They found her headless body two days later.

Villagers in the Bunawan area were terrified. Two years later — in 2011 — a local fisherman went missing while fishing in a crocodile-infested marsh by the lake, and everyone remembered the giant crocodile.

The government in Bunawan that has jurisdiction over the area ordered a search for the killer crocodile and contacted veteran crocodile hunters from the Palawan Crocodile and Wildlife Reservation Center, including Ernesto “Lolong” Goloran Cañete who led the hunt.

Sadly, he died of a heart attack just before they found the killer crocodile that they named “Lolong,” in his memory.

For three weeks the search team and about 100 locals scoured the swamps. Then they found the giant croc wallowing in a creek. Twice, the restraining ropes broke before they were finally able to haul it ashore and load it onto a flatbed truck.

Charitably, some locals urged that Lolong be released back in the wilds, but Bunawan mayor Edwin “Cox” Elorde and others rejected the suggestion because the monster reptile would continue to present a lethal threat.

“Because the marsh is largely unspoiled, it is an ideal spot for the crocodiles’ unhampered growth,” said Rollie Sumiller, animal science expert at the Palawan Center. “They are highly territorial, and once you stray into their territory, they can attack.”

Local village chief Rudy Ayala also warned, “Now they have become dangerous and are eating our animals and attacking humans. The bigger ones must be removed because they must have developed a taste for us.”

But Mayor Elorde had other plans.

“We will take care of this crocodile,” he said, “because this will boost our tourism and we know it can help in terms of town's income and jobs to our village communities.”

An enclosure with a water pond was built for Lolong in the Bunawan Ecopark and Wildlife Reservation Center near the town. They opened the living exhibit in September 2011 — and thousands came to see him.

In the Philippines, the crocodiles have been victims of “a century of habitat depletion, dynamite fishing and hunting has left them in just a scattering of places,” according to one report.

Now they’re protected by law and violators are subject to heavy penalties — including prison time.

When Lolong died just two years later of pneumonia and cardiac arrest, aggravated by a fungal infection and stress, his remains were preserved by taxidermy and are now exhibited at the Philippine National Museum of Natural History in Manila.

In 2012, Lolong was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest crocodile at 20.24 feet long and weighing 2,370 pounds.

Of the four main crocodilians — the saltwater crocodile, alligator, cayman and gharial — only the gharial is in critical danger of extinction, with about 1,000 left on Earth, living precariously in zoos, Nepal and Northern India.

Today, in countless swamps, rivers, lakes, estuaries, wetlands and the ocean, some 200,000 of Lolong’s hungry cousins can still be found prowling the waters.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Caring for the crocs…

Watch this interesting BBC video of a man in Burundi, Africa, devoted to saving the crocodiles: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-55837971.

Baby crocodiles…

Crocodiles lay 10 to 60 eggs at a time. The hatchlings stay in their eggs for 55 to 110 days. They are 7 to 10 inches long when they are born and don't mature until they are 4 to 15 years. How long a crocodile lives depends on its species. Some only live to around 30 years, while others live up to 75 years.

— Alina Bradford, Live Science

Alligator or crocodile?

You can tell a crocodile by its V-shaped jaw, and its teeth stick up over their upper lip when the mouth is closed. Alligator jaws are U-shaped, and they have an overbite where the lower teeth fit in-between the upper teeth. Saltwater crocodiles can grow more than 20 feet long; alligators about 19 feet. Alligators and caimans have lost the ability to secrete excess salt through tongue glands and therefore prefer to live in freshwater areas. When these reptiles lose teeth, they regenerate quickly. They can go through 8,000 teeth over a lifetime. Smaller than saltwater crocs, gharials have a bulbous structure at the tip of the nose.

Prehistoric alligators…

Alligator forerunners and relatives have been around for a very long time. The largest was Deinosuchus, a 40-foot alligatoroid that lurked in coastal habitats all over North America around 70 million years ago. Damaged bones suggest that unwary dinosaurs were a regular part of the “terrible crocodile's” diet. Fortunately, modern American alligators don’t come anywhere close to measuring up.

— Riley Black, Mental Floss

Dinosaur age crocs and T-Rex…

Move over T-Rex! Scientists say that every kid’s favorite dinosaur may not have been top of the food chain in prehistoric times millions of years ago. In 2017, bones of a new giant crocodile with 6-inch teeth they’ve named “Raz” for Razanandrongobe sakalavae, were found in Madagascar that could likely out-bite and out-crunch all the big dinos, including the king of the meat-eaters — Tyrannosaurus rex.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Lolong the Philippine saltwater crocodile held the record of being the world’s largest crocodile at 20.24 feet.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Swamp on Ramree Island, Myanmar (Burma) where about 500 Japanese soldiers were killed by huge sea-going saltwater crocodiles, malarial mosquitos, venomous scorpions and Allied attacks during World War II.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Prehistoric giant crocodiles of the Age of Dinosaurs were ancestor of today’s crocodilians and twice the size of saltwater crocodiles of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The largest prehistoric crocodile was the Sarcosuchus imperator, estimated as long as 40 feet and weighing up to 8 tons.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Reconstructed skeleton of the Sarcosuchus imperator prehistoric giant crocodile of the Cretaceous Period, displayed at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Man-eating saltwater crocodile “Lolong” in Philippines shown here after being captured, is listed as the world’s biggest crocodile at 20.24 feet in the Guinness Book of World Records.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Hunter catches hunter — African leopard catches small crocodile.

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PHOTO COURTESY/CROCOSAURUS COVE

Saltwater crocodile viewing from “Cage of Death” tourist attraction in Darwin, Australia.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Giant saltwater crocodile in the shallows of the East Alligator River in Kakadu National Pak, Northern Territory, Australia, one of many dangerous crocodile-infested Aussie inland waterways.

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SHUTTERSTOCK INC.

Nile crocodile confronting a wildebeest about to cross a river in Africa.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Baby alligators

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Taxidermy exhibit of Lolong, the world’s largest saltwater crocodile, now displayed at the National Museum of Natural History in Manila.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Fully grown male gharial with bulbous nose, a rare crocodile species that eats mostly fish and can grow up to 20 feet long, almost as big as the saltwater crocodile.

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PHOTO COURTESY/TURNER FAMILY

In the life-size jaws of a saltwater crocodile replica.