IIt All Begins with Crocodiles

My smallest crocodile is golden and only 13 millimeters long. It is actually a pin on the head of a Zairean fetish, holding together a piece of real leopard skin with a synthetic ancillary. I was in Zaïre, today the Congo, in 1981/82. I had passed the diplomatic examination of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs the year before. My father who was a career diplomat and, at that time Ambassador of Switzerland to Tunisia, asked me, “Are you sure?”, my brother said, “You’re crazy”, but I still became a diplomat and Kinshasa was my first posting abroad. After serving in eighteen and living in five different African countries for all together over twenty years, my brilliant career as a Swiss diplomat ended in Somalia, in 2016. From all these years in Africa, I have a sizeable crocodile collection spread all over the house I live in, in Nairobi. I have long lost the count of all my crocodiles and a visiting friend once promised me that before leaving he would give me the exact total number. At departure he confessed that he had also given up, always finding another crocodile missing in his count. Like the green plastic one with a magnet in its belly on the refrigerator door or the two that make the handles of our cheese board or the paperknife in the chaos on my desk. As evidence that crocodiles have to do with our human head, I also have a crocodile fetish with two heads and a crocodile headrest in my collection. By my own definition, they are all Nile crocodiles.

The mighty river Nile flows from its two sources in Uganda and Ethiopia all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Egypt. Although the Nile crocodile obviously has its name from that river, it never confined itself to the Nile alone. It rather had, and largely still has, its habitat in all the rivers, lakes, swamps and waterholes of Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. There are even Nile crocodile colonies on the Indian Ocean islands of exotic Zanzibar, massive Madagascar and the far-out Comoros. Both in West Africa, the Caiman are of the same family and the Desert crocodiles are a cousin. Both are smaller, more docile and have a softer skin – which makes for better shoes and handbags. The other cousin, the Alligator, has emigrated to America.

The Nile crocodile is very aggressive, and it can reach a length of up to six meters. As such, it is Africa’s and the world’s largest predator. Until a few years ago in many African regions, the death toll by crocodiles would be higher than by traffic accidents. To the times of ancient Egypt, there was a saying that only a true lover swims across the Nile to meet his love on the other side. Today crocodiles are extinct on the lower Nile and the risk for lovers there is crossing the highway.

From 1990 to 1993, I was in Kenya. I had to close the Swiss development program because, as we saw it, the deep-rooted corruption in that country undid all our efforts. Of course, the stay there gave a big boost to my crocodile collection and my interest in the cold-blooded reptiles grew. It all goes back to the Jurassic period, some 200 to 150 million years ago. At that time, the dinosaurs reigned supreme. The crocodiles had preceded them but over the years, the dinosaurs somehow overtook them and, the crocodiles being smaller, terrestrial, and vegetarian, they became their easy prey. Fed up with being fed by vicious dinosaurs, the crocodiles took to the water and started chasing fish for food. For their long-term survival, this proved to be a clever move. It is believed that they survived the impact of a massive comet on our planet, some 65 million years ago, because they lived in the water. A lasting winter which followed the crash killed off much of the terrestrial flora and fauna – and with them the crocodile’s nemesis, the dinosaurs. And for the crocodiles, the protein intake from fish had another beneficiary effect. Over the following millions of years, the Nile crocodile became the frightful predator it is today, chasing anything that moves, in the water and around it. And since we are there, this includes us humans. The Nile crocodile is more than a deadly predator, it’s a surviving dinosaur, a monster.

Humans are not only afraid of monsters, they are also mesmerized by them. Monsters awaken in us a primal impulsion of telling tales and fabulating about them. I had been concentrating on the Nile crocodiles around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya and missed the 1993 film ‘Jurassic Park’ in the cinema. But with regard to the dinosaurs, the cousin of the Nile crocodiles, this film proves the point. Basically, it’s about humans being introduced back to the Jurassic period, being chased around by dinosaurs and fighting back with more or less success. A game of survival for humans living, make believe, two hundred million years ago. Fight or flee. By 2001, the film had two sequels and in 2015 it restarted as ‘Jurassic World’.

Monsters also incite humans to create myths about them and award them divinity. Monsters and gods are relatives. The ancient Egyptians revered the Nile crocodile as divine. They built temples for them, kept them in their shrines, adorned their ankles with golden bracelets and fed them delicatessen. Once dead, they were mummified and given sacred tombs. God Sobek was invoked for protection from the dangers of the river Nile and was expected to attend humans like the crocodiles bring to safety their young – in their snouts or on their backs. He was represented as a Nile crocodile, sometimes as human with a crocodile head. Apart from that, Sobek had power, military prowess and great fertility. A real god.

Any worthy collection comes with books on its objects. Some of my crocodile books have poetic titles, such as ‘Eyelids of Morning’, they feature beautiful pictures and recount elusive tales and epic myths around the Nile crocodile. Others concentrate on scientific facts and figures. And, yes, there will be contradictions between the two narratives. For instance, one of my crocodile books relates that the female crocodile was capable of developing embryos from an unfertilized egg cell, that is without fertilization by a male. This rare natural phenomenon is called parthenogenesis, virgin birth, or asexual reproduction. No sex. Does not sound like much fun but this is serious business, it’s about procreation and survival of the species. And it could explain the crocodile’s long-lasting success at survival. The Nile crocodile has been around for hundreds of millions of years, it has lived through the winters of the ice ages and it has, so far, survived the stress of climate change and sharing Africa’s diminishing waters with a billion humans. It has outlived the dinosaurs to become itself the largest predator on earth. – No, say my scientific crocodile books, not true, it’s only a myth. Other reptiles, like some rare snakes and lizards, some fish and, even more rarely, birds have the capacity of parthenogenesis, but not the Nile crocodile. I was very disappointed.

Still reading in my crocodile books and learning from the Nile crocodile, I found that there is another, more biological side to humans’ fascination with the crocodile. We humans share the first, oldest and deepest part of our brain with them. It is the cerebral base of our brain and called the ‘reptilian brain’. It controls the vital bodily functions and movement, including physical communication through ritual displays like, for us today, the head nod, handshake or curtesy bow. The reptilian brain functions by aggression, dominance and territoriality. It makes us a little bit primitive and compulsive, but it is very reliable. Instinct. Its ‘fight-or-flee reflex’ is an aid for survival. Its ‘killer instinct’ keeps our politics, sports, business and touting for love going. The crocodile in our head tells us that in order to survive, we must satisfy our basic needs, defend our territory and get rid of the competitor. There is also a ‘reward center’ in the reptilian brain which urges us to repeat what makes us feel good. Like eat, drink, have sex and smoke. When we can, we tend to do these things detached from emotional and rational cause and consequence. We overdo them – and get addicted. This crocodile behavior of humans goes back millions of years and remains in us today, even when we take to mindfulness and yoga.

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  • This is a fine story about crocs, Dominik; many thanks! From your story I learned a lot. I had to cross a crocodile-laden river, the Tekezze tributary to the Nile twice, the first-time wading in 1974 and again swimming in 1993. This was driving my pulse to more than 180 beats. It was a life-long unforgettable experience and I do not want to repeat it. Apart from that, I agree with you that crocodiles are fascinating, but only if I can watch them from a safe position, such as a boat or a bridge.
    Looking forward to more stories…

  • Thanks for this nicely woven story on crocodiles, dear Dominik. The brain part is particularly interesting me, as I was, in 1981, fearless when for the first time I came near the Nile someway up the Murchison Falls and did not hesitate a minute to take a bath in the “holy” Nile waters while my Ugandan companion screamed and shouted to prevent me from doing so. It must have been my reptilian brain which gave me self-confidence and prevented the crocodiles from seeing me as a prey …

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