The most feared and hated beast in the world is its largest reptile, the crocodile, which kills more human beings than do lions, tigers, leopards and snakes put together. Each year Africa alone loses an estimated 1 000 victims, mostly women and children.
The crocodile’s domain includes central and southern Africa, the warmer parts of Asia, tropical Pacific islands and northern Australia. He also inhabits the warmer parts of the Americas but is there far outnumbered by his cousins, the alligators. The difference between crocodiles and alligators are many and technical. The most obvious one is that, with jaws closed, the alligator’s teeth are invisible, while in the crocodile the long fourth tooth on each side of the lower jaw fits visibly into a notch on the outside of the upper jaw. This gives the crocodile a deceptive ‘grin’.
Except for a few tiny, chameleon-like lizards, the crocodile is the only reptile with a true voice. He can emit a loud, eerie roar, like distant thunder or the roll of a big drum. His dental arrangement is marvellous: if he loses a tooth, another one quickly grows in its place, and this goes on all his life. He will eat almost anything. His digestive juices are so strong in hydrochloric acid that they have dissolved in a few months, iron spearheads and 6-inch (15.2 cm) steel hooks that have been swallowed. Even so, he does not seem to need much food. In captivity, crocodiles thrive on less than a pound of meat a day.
The crocodile has two deadly weapons – terrible jaws and a terrible tail. A murderous sideways blow of the tail can knock down and break the legs of the largest deer. But the crocodile’s classic attack is to drift in unseen in the murky shallows and then, without a sound, to submerge entirely and make a final swift lunge to seize its prey in vice-like jaws.
The crocodile is one of the few animals in the world, which deliberately and regularly attack human beings. In places where crocodiles are considered sacred and are fed, or in lakes that swarm with fish, they hardly ever attack. But wherever the crocodile’s natural prey has been largely depleted, it soon acquires a taste for human flesh. Most victims are women who are bathing, washing clothes or drawing water, and children who splash in the shallows. Many Africans are careless because they rely on some witch doctor’s charm to protect them.
In Tanganyika some years ago, a tribal chief told an Englishman that crocodiles had, in one month, taken five women as they drew water. The Englishman suggested that the women should use large tins tied to long bamboo poles to draw water. The chief shrugged and said, “Tins like that are hard to find and very valuable”