Crocodiles are among the oldest species on earth and, with alligators and caimans, are the only living descendants of the large reptilian archosaurs or ‘Ruling Lizards’ which also included the dinosaurs. The ancestors of the crocodile appeared 200 million years ago; the largest, the Sarcosuchus, measured 12 metres and lived 100 million years ago.
Crocodiles are large, semi-aquatic reptiles with strong bodies and powerful jaws. The Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is a species of the subfamily Crocodylinae native to Sub-Saharan Africa and the Nile basin. Averaging five metres in length and weighing 300 to 400 kilogrammes, it is the second largest reptile in the world—the saltwater crocodile of India being the largest—and is a very aggressive predator.
The Nile Crocodile appeared in Egypt in prehistoric times and was very common during the dynasties of ancient Egypt. The species formerly inhabited the Nile from Upper Egypt to the Delta and the Mediterranean coast, but, having been hunted throughout history, was finally eradicated from Lower Egypt after the building of the Aswan Dam. They can now be found only in and south of Lake Nasser, where they can grow to enormous size.
Because of the reptile’s power and ferociousness it was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as Sobek, a deity associated with power, fertility and military prowess. Many mummified crocodiles testify to Sobek’s importance in ancient Egypt; the crocodile god was mainly invoked for protection against the dangers of the Nile. The cult of Sobek is known from the Old Kingdom (2700 – 2055BC) onwards to the Ptolemaic era (320 – 30BC), with the main cult centre during the Middle Kingdom being in Fayoum, and later in Kom Ombo.
Attacks on humans
The Nile Crocodile feeds on fish and any creature unfortunate enough to cross its path, including humans. Crocodile attacks account for almost 200 to 300 deaths a year in Africa, but almost no such deaths have been reported in Egypt in modern times.
In 1993 a passenger ferry caught fire and sank in crocodile-infested waters in Lake Nasser two miles south of the temples of Abu Simbel, 300 of the 800 passengers died. But this was a singular accident; fishermen who fish in the lake know how to keep strictly in safe waters.
The Nile Crocodile is an agile hunter that waits silently underwater for any animal approaching the water to drink; the attack is sudden and the crocodile’s bite is so strong that few escape its grip. Large prey are immersed in water until they drown.
In the 1940s and 1950s crocodiles were hunted in large numbers for their skin which was on high demand in the fashion industry. This almost wiped out Egypt’s crocodile population. The construction of the High Dam in Aswan in the 1960s was a blessing for crocodiles. The dam’s reservoir, Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world, gave the few remaining crocodiles a suitable habitat. The re-emergence of the Nile crocodile in Egypt was also due to Egypt’s adoption of international treaties for environment and wildlife protection such as the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment of 1972, and the drafting of local environment laws concerning protected areas and the prohibition of hunting of wild animals, such as law 102 of 1983 and law 4 of 1994.
Growth in numbers
Nile crocodiles soon multiplied in large numbers. Fishermen operating in Lake Nasser claim there are now some 40,000 of them and that they represent a threat to the fish population of the lake. Fishermen are calling for the environment laws to be amended to allow for the hunting and trade of crocodiles. Illegal hunting is, unfortunately, widespread.
Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, which are coordinating efforts with the General Authority for Fish Resources Development, say the ministry has asked the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries to survey Lake Nasser and estimate the size of the crocodile population to determine an annual hunting quota in cooperation with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. The ministry has also demanded of the Ministry of Environment that licensed crocodile hunting operations be allowed.
Egypt is signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). According to the convention, endangered species are listed in Appendix I; therefore, their hunting and trade are completely prohibited. The Nile crocodile had been listed in this category for many years, but with the numbers of the species on the rise, and at the request of local fishermen, in 2008 the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency demanded that crocodiles be moved to Appendix II and that their status be changed to lower risk/least concern, suggesting they are no longer facing extinction.
Officials of the Southern Protected Areas Administration in Aswan have expressed surprise at the Agriculture Ministry statements which they say contradict Egyptian environment laws prohibiting the hunting of crocodiles, and CITES which allows the trade of crocodiles raised only in ranches, not in the wild.
Some economists see the crocodiles in Lake Nasser as a potential export resource and say environment laws should be amended to allow for trade in ranch-raised crocodiles. Crocodile ranches and farms exist in many Asian and African countries to meet the demands of the luxury goods sector. Despite the global economic downturn, the profits of crocodile skin tanning industries in Singapore have increased by 20 per cent. The union of crocodile ranches in Zimbabwe has announced an increase in crocodile exports to Europe where the skin is used for leather goods, the meat is eaten in fancy restaurants and the fat is used in the cosmetics industry.
Nile crocodiles are also an important factor in attracting tourists eager to see crocodiles in the lake.
Khaled al-Hassani, Deputy to the Agriculture Minister, says there is coordination between the ministries of agriculture, irrigation, and environment to control the increase in the number of crocodiles in Lake Nasser. The rapid increase in the number, Dr Hassani adds, poses a threat to the lake’s fish resources and the balance of its ecosystem. Another alarming issue is the increase in the size of the crocodiles, which indicates an increase in their daily consumption of fish to as much as 30 to 40kg. Dr Hassani says it is important to begin implementing programmes to reduce crocodile breeding.
Abul-Haggag Nasr, Director of the Protected Areas Administration in Aswan, says the number of crocodiles cited in the media is highly exaggerated. He estimates the number of crocodiles in Lake Nasser at no more than 12,000, almost a quarter of which are of large size. Dr Nasr denies that crocodiles could be the reason for the decrease of the lake’s fish production, and suggests that officials of the General Authority for Fish Resources Development should investigate the matter more thoroughly to find the real reason for the depletion of the fish resources in the lake.
As for possible ways to benefit economically from crocodiles, Dr Nasr says that there is currently a project to establish crocodile ranches once the Egyptian environment law is amended to allow it. The skin of a single crocodile, he says, can fetch USD4,000 and a crocodile lays about 50 eggs a year. The protected Areas Administration meanwhile is doing its best, in cooperation with the water police, to prevent poachers from hunting crocodiles and smuggling them into Sudan. If poachers are caught, the crocodiles are confiscated and sent to zoos.
Now that the Nile Crocodile is listed in Appendix II of CITES, crocodile ranches may be set up to take hatchlings from wildlife and raise them in a special environment for commercial purposes. An annual quota of 750 crocodile skins raised in ranches is allowed for trade. It remains for the Egyptian environment law to be amended to allow for this.
The CITES office in Egypt established in 2009 the Egyptian Crocodile Management Unit, whose chief aim was to implement a crocodile monitoring programme in the lake. This paragraph from cites.org describes why it is difficult to determine the exact number of crocodiles in the lake.
“Surveys of the Lake Nasser crocodile population were begun in July 2008. Over the period July 2008 – 2009 we surveyed approximately 11 per cent of the shoreline covering 15 different regions of the Lake. Through a modified double observer survey model, we were able to estimate that the detectable crocodile population was between 3,047 – 3,500 individuals (Shirley et al. in prep.). This number is absolutely lower than the total population size owing to the well-known fact of crocodile submersion bias. Submersion bias in crocodile surveys effectively creates two crocodile populations at any given locality: the detectable population (i.e., those on the surface) and the undetectable population (i.e., those submerged). Relatively few studies have estimated the submergence rate of crocodilians; however, those that have estimate that at any given time 0 per cent – over 50 per cent of the population may be emerged at any given time (Woodward and Marion 1979; Hutton et al. 1989; Pacheco 1996a,b; Bugbee 2008). Using these values as a rough guide, we confidently estimate the size of the crocodile population in Lake Nasser to be 6,094 – 30,470 (assuming 10 – 50 per cent detectability). This estimate is obviously quite broad and its refinement is currently a major goal through a newly initiated radio telemetry project (i.e. to estimate detectability) and through continued survey and monitoring efforts.”
4 January 2016