"Don't Feed the Crocs!"

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 49            December 13, 2001

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This declaration issued last Saturday by crocodile specialist Dr. Frank J. Mazzotti echoed the message the San Pedro Sun has sent out for the past year regarding the feeding of these dangerous creatures. Dr. Mazzotti, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida, visited with residents of San Pedro Town in an effort to educate them in the proper management of these aquatic predators.Dr. Mazzotti came to Belize to provide advice on the conservation and management of crocodiles at the invitation of the Belize Forestry Department as a result of the recent incidents of crocodile attacks in the country.

    Attending the morning meeting held at the San Pedro Town Hall were Forestry Officers Nigeli Sosa and Marcelo Windsor and approximately 15 members of the community consisting mainly of San Pedro's tourism industry workers. Dr. Mazzotti spoke for nearly two hours on the current and pending crocodile problem in San Pedro.

    Dr. Mazzotti informed the gathering of the following facts. Two species of crocodiles reside in Belize, the American and Morelet's, and both are endangered species. He estimated only about 1000 American (salt water) crocodiles remain in the country and all live offshore around the cayes. American crocodiles are shy and in most circumstances are not aggressive towards humans. He stated, in Florida, 100% of all attacks on people have been traced back to feeding. The two exceptions to their natural shyness is when a female is nesting around March and when a male is patrolling his territory from approximately January through March. Major threats to the animals include habitat loss and degradation as well as interaction with humans.

    A management plan for SP was proposed to address the community problem of co-existence with crocodiles since it is usually human behavior which dictates crocodile aggression. The plan will include an initial survey to establish the numbers of crocodiles on the caye. This will be carried out with a team from Florida and local volunteers, utilizing "eye shine counts" to record sightings at night using flash lights. Dr. Mazzotti hopes to return in March so this can be started. Management plans also require establishing goals and objectives, but much data must be collected first. This includes mapping the crocodiles' habitat, tracking its migratory patterns, and observing its reproduction and nesting habits before implementation can be initiated.

    Most importantly, a thorough education program focusing on primary schools will be initiated. Elito Arceo explained the importance of this aspect of the plan, stating children are more apt to bring home information to their families, so everyone learns and benefits. There would also be training for tour guides. One suggestion was to fence a large area, up to 100 acres, where problem crocodiles could be moved, initially. This could be used as a tourist attraction with guides giving night tours. The education program would then heavily discourage feeding the remaining crocodiles. Dr. Mazzotti emphasized the fact that crocodiles which are fed are much more aggressive than those that are not fed. He reminded those gathered of the intentional feeding which is to be stopped or even made illegal. Dr. Mazzotti explained that non-intentional feeding occurs by piling garbage next to lagoon waters and further insisted this waste needs to be managed by burning or burying it. It was noted the Town Council does a good job of burning and raking the town dump and therefore no crocodiles seem to be attracted to the area. Also discussed were specific cases of crocodiles raiding fish traps and the number of dogs assumed eaten by these predators.

    Dr. Mazzotti described an example of moving a "problem croc" in Florida from the East coast to the Gulf coast. The crocodile was marked for identification by removing tail "scutes." Dr. Mazzotti surprised the crowd when he stated this crocodile returned to its former home only months later by swimming all the way around the Panhandle of Florida. He explained crocs will travel over 150 miles to return to their previous territory, so removing problem crocs is also a challenge.

   Following the meeting, Dr. Mazzotti and his colleagues including local veterinarian Dr. Bronwen Eastwood took time to visit El Pescador Resort on the north end of Ambergris Caye where a particular problem with dogs being taken by crocodiles has occurred. Two crocodiles, a ten-foot and another five-foot predator live on the edge of the resort's property. The resort owners have lost two dogs so far, one of them a 100-pound black labrador. The owner's other labrador "Kiara" has been injured twice, once severely, by the larger crocodile. Dr. Mazzotti recommended the owners move their trash location which is the major attraction for these crocs. He explained that is why these crocodiles are even locating in the area which is much too small an area for a normal habitat. Dr. Mazzotti, who observed the larger crocodile, also advised barricades or fences be erected and the timely burning and raking of the trash in the new location. He commented that these combined efforts should prevent any further attacks. Dr. Mazzotti explained that once the trash is not a lure, the crocs will eventually return to the lagoon waters at the back of the island away from the resort. Mrs. Ali Flota, an owner of the resort, was quite appreciative of the visit and stated "Dr. Mazzotti was extremely informative and I learned a lot about how to make our environment less attractive to these predators while still maintaining a balanced habitat."

    For the American crocodile, habitat loss caused by the development of nesting beaches and adjacent nursery habitat for resorts or fish camps is the greatest threat to this species. Identification and protection of key nesting areas are essential for the continued survival of this species in Belize.

Living with Crocodiles

    Human-crocodile interactions rarely result in attacks. There are a few simple precautions that people can take to reduce potential conflicts. The following is a list of everyday safety tips used around the world to reduce potential conflicts with crocodiles.

1. DO use signs to advise people of the presence of known crocodiles. Use signs to advise people on how to behave safely when around crocodiles.

2. DO NOT feed crocodiles either incidentally (disposal of offal from slaughterhouses, fishing operations, or restaurants) or deliberately. Crocodiles quickly learn where food is and to associate humans with food. This makes crocodiles lose their natural shyness around humans and they can become quite bold in their efforts to be fed. Crocodiles cannot tell where a handout ends and hand begins.

3. DO secure your pets from crocodiles. More dogs are attacked than people. Do not let them swim where large crocodiles are present. If a crocodile has successfully taken a pet they may return again. Pets in areas of crocodile activity may have to be kept in fenced-in areas.

4. DO not harass, molest, or attempt to capture crocodiles. Do not attempt to catch small animals as large, protective adults may be nearby. Do not keep crocodiles as pets. They readily become dependent on humans. Captive crocodiles may be more aggressive than wild crocodiles.

5. DO swim during daylight hours and with a friend. Be aware of your surroundings. Do not swim when large crocodiles are present. Do not swim in areas where crocodiles are fed. Use common sense.

6. DO enjoy observing and photographing crocodiles from a safe distance. Take advantage of crocodiles as a natural history attraction for eco-tourism operations.

    Residents and visitors alike should realize that crocodiles are an important part of Belize's natural history heritage, and that these prehistoric reptiles play an important role in the ecology of Belize's wetlands. An understanding of these facts and a broader knowledge of crocodile behavior will ensure that humans and crocodiles can continue their long-term co-existence.



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