Crocodile Dundee in Zimbabwe! Carrie Hampton bumped in to Zimbabwe's version of Crocodile Dundee on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. She tagged along with the handsome hero for a few days and had some rather close encounters with very large crocodiles. Read on.
By Carrie Hampton
During the first two weeks of October every year small groups of men spill silently out of ski-boats moored in thick reeds and scramble up crocodile-infested sandbanks. They walk along the shores of Lake Kariba in north-western Zimbabwe, prodding the soft soil frequently with metre-long metal spikes.
Worn Leather Hat Adorned With Animal Claws
In the lead is a man who could have stepped from the pages of a Wilbur Smith novel: Darryl Edwards is tall, dark, handsome and exceptionally smart. His well-developed five o'clock shadow is shaded by a worn leather hat adorned with animal claws.
He is a man of no unnecessary words or smiles who, behind his undisclosing face, holds a deep understanding of nature and a Masters degree in Animal Science. His rugged colleague, Garry Sutton, would look quite at ease in a Camel safari advertisement. Unaware of their hero-like appeal they exchange glances and walk in opposite directions.
Out of the heart of Africa, these two mysterious men are real-life Crocodile Dundees. They are hired by a Harare crocodile farm to collect as many eggs during the short laying season as possible, and are actively encouraged by the National Parks Board.
Finding a Croc's Nest is not that Easy
Nile crocodiles inhabit Lake Kariba in their thousands and are breeding too successfully and pose a real threat to village life on the banks of this enormous lake. Accompanied by a National Parks Board officer, we cruised along a designated 65km concession of Kariba shore during the brief laying season at the beginning of October, looking for nests.
The nests proved extremely hard to find as the eggs are laid about half a metre under the surface in a pit which the female crocodile fastidiously covers with sand. She conceals it further with gravel, leaves or dry grass so that even a seasoned crocodile egg-hunting expert finds them hard to spot.
Spoor indicating a nest, such as the drag mark of a heavy tail from the water's edge or a test hole that the female has previously dug to check the suitability of her site, are often the only indications of a nest. Sam Chiningo is a long-standing egg collector and needs no such obvious clues.
He possesses an uncanny instinct, which enables him to find more nests than any of his colleagues. A sprinkling of sand on a rock may be the only sign he needs to locate the hidden eggs. The rest of the crew prod deeply into the soft sand at every suitable spot while Sam strides towards an unlikely patch in the bushes.
When the long metal spike cracks open a fragile egg, grains of sand stick to the metal tip as it is pulled back through the sand. This telltale sign is followed by furious digging, using the method a dog would to look for its lost bone. The carefully hidden nest reveals 30 to 60 cylindrical, cocoon-like, white eggs with a fine, plastic-like, granular surface, not much bigger than a double yoked chicken's egg.
Occasionally a nest will have already been vandalised by local fishermen, who would rather see less crocs in the lake, or has been raided by monitor lizards (leguaans), or baboons which crave such delicacies. Unlike these messy intruders, the egg-collecting crew always leaves the nest exactly as it finds it, to minimise disturbance.
Incubation Temperature Determines Sex
The eggs are incredibly sensitive. If an egg is turned upside down it will die. The top of each one is therefore gently marked with pencil as it is lifted from the nest. They are carefully packed in polystyrene boxes and transported to the farm's incubators to sit cosily for up to 90 days before hatching.
The extreme sensitivity of the eggs is such that the incubation temperature actually determines the sex of the crocodile. This bizarre freak of nature produces 80% males at a constant 33°C and 80% females at 32°C.
To ensure the stability of the wild population, crocodile farms are obliged to return 2% of the hatchlings to Lake Kariba at six months old at an average length of 75cm. These crocodiles are bigger than their naturally hatched counterparts - 95% of which never make it to that age - and have a much better chance of survival.
Crocodiles the size of small islands can be seen cruising the shallows of Lake Kariba or basking in the sun on rocks. The males are extremely territorial and fight to the death, defending their patch against lone adult males looking to stake their claim. Fortunately the females and juvenile males are allowed to pass freely through the territory. Not so for the unfortunate hatchlings which make a tasty meal.
A renowned crocodile known as 'the Submarine', whose unchallenged domain lies at the western end of the lake near Mlibizi, regularly sneaks up and takes cows grazing unsuspectingly on the riverbank. Losing a cow is nothing to losing a family member and Kariba crocodiles have become dangerously partial to local villagers and wading fishermen. Local newspapers report missing persons on a far too regular basis.
Lake Kariba is a fascinating and beautiful place but paddling is ill advised. If you happen to be boating or fishing on the lake in October and see a couple of guys walking where no sensible person should walk, or wading where only a madman would dip his big toe, you will know our Crocodile Dundee's are back.
If they offer you a boat ride or a stroll along the banks, be aware that this adventure could seriously damage your health.
Copyright © Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited