Crocodile meat a tough sell due to native traditions, taboos — wildlife officer

Crocodile eye. - file pic. // Photo: Pixabay

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KUCHING, August 30: Long-held tradition and taboos among the natives regarding eating crocodile meat has been identified as one of the main factors that hinder the harvesting of crocodiles in the wild, revealed Sarawak Forestry Department’s wildlife officer Engkamat Lading.

He said even though about 50 licences had been issued since last year, only a few had met the target.

The licences need to be renewed every six months, but many licence holders could not give the department sufficient statistics of their catch and kills to justify renewing their licences, Engkamat told DayakDaily today.

He noted that most people were not keen to buy crocodile meat in the market.

“I believe the taboo surrounding the consumption of crocodile meat among the natives definitely play a part in the low catch and kills among the licence holders,” he said.

Engkamat revealed there were applications for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permits to export live hatchlings and yearlings as well as meat and skins of estuarine crocodiles.

“But we have to vet these applications properly before we can approve their licences,” he said, adding that currently there were only two holders of such permits in the state, one of which is the owner of Jong’s Crocodile Farm in Siburan.

Engkamat added that there were harvest quotas for each river basin and certain number of ‘harvest tags’ would be given to the licensees.

He warned that those who hunt the reptiles in the wild would have to do it at their own risk as the department would not be liable for any untoward incidence, especially when it relates to firearms.

Engkramat stressed that the practice of issuing licences for the controlled hunting of these reptiles in the wild would minimise conflicts between humans and beasts. The licences, he assured, were issued based on the standard operating procedure (SOP) of the department.

“Those who were issued licences were briefed on our SOP. This is to prevent misuse and overharvesting. And we have to observe certain quotas for various sizes of crocodiles, either for sale as meat or live ones for crocodile farms,” he said.

Engramat disclosed that among the top 55 rivers with high crocodile population are Batang Lupar, Batang Saribas, Batang Samarahan and Sungai Santubong as well as their respective tributaries.

Since crocodiles have been downgraded from CITES’ Appendix I to Appendix II since 2016, it has created a lot of interest on how best to manage crocodiles due to many cases of human-crocodile conflicts caused by increasing population in the wild.

Sarawak’s over one decade of struggles to address the increasing number of crocodile attacks on humans paid off when CITES agreed to downlist wild crocodiles in Sarawak from Appendix I to Appendix II.

The downlisting of crocodiles from Appendix I to Appendix II means that Sarawak is the only state in the country and in this part of the region that can now export crocodile meat and skins overseas.

Prior to this, Sarawak has its own Wildlife Protection Act 1990 to protect the animal from going extinct, but under Appendix I, Sarawak was not allowed to sell the meat and skins overseas.

And as a signatory of CITES, the state, therefore, has to seek its approval in order to downgrade the status. There are 197 countries who are members of CITES. The historic event was achieved in Johannesburg, South Africa, on October 3, 2016.

File picture of crocodile

Meanwhile, Sarawak Forestry Corporation’s (SFC) deputy general manager (Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation Division) Oswald Braken Tisen said among the Bidayuhs, there is a folktale about an agreement made between the community and the crocodiles. The folktale has it that crocodiles will not attack anyone from the community if they utter certain magical sentences such as “Aku sungkuh Tayung Ngaring (I am the grandchild of grandmother Ngaring) in Serian dialect and “Taang sumukmu ni dodang bubus” (Your grandmother owe (us) one leaking basket) in Singai dialect.

However, he said, scientifically speaking, the conflict between humans and these dangerous beasts could be minimised if humans could avoid from infringing into the habitats of this ferocious creature.

On the other hand, when there is a distress call for his Swift Wildlife Action Team (SWAT), it is usually deployed to contain wildlife threats involving man-eating crocodiles.

“As per our SOP, we will normally deploy our best team to carry out the operation to search and destroy. And because we are dealing with the remnants of the dinosaurs, we have to outsmart them in their own habitat. Therein lies the challenge and danger that we have to face in carrying out our duties,” said Braken.

Unlike the shamans and bomoh, Braken said the SWAT members operated based on scientific research and knowledge of the local environment and the habitat of the crocodiles well.

“When there is any operation, we have to study the local crocodiles’ habitat and their environment. It has been through experiences and analysis that we have been able to track and capture crocodiles that have been reported to be harmful to the local community. But it is always very difficult to get the culprits,” he admitted.

Braken pointed out that crocs tend to be attracted to rivers that are littered with rubbish and animal parts.

“In the many cases that we have gone through, plastic bags are found in their stomach. That suggest they are also scavengers, and at worst, they will attack when they are hungry,” he warned. — DayakDaily