On 3 January, it was reported that a diver at the Dehiwala beach was snatched away by a crocodile. The diver’s body, which was discovered that morning, has been placed at the Colombo South Teaching Hospital.
This crocodile attack is the first reported incident since an incident in 2017 where a British journalist was attacked by a crocodile at Elephant Rock, near Arugam Bay. The body was discovered in a lagoon by a Sri Lanka Navy search team.
Crocodile attacks are fairly rare in Sri Lanka, with very few reported incidents of attacks or killings. However, as both human and crocodilian populations expand, they increasingly encroach on each others’ territories, which has brought morbidity and mortality to both populations.
In reviewing the human-crocodile conflict taking place during the five year period between 2010 to 2015, it is recorded that 51 of the 150 attacks reported were fatal. The popular belief is that salt water crocodiles are the more aggressive of the two species of crocs on the island, while the mugger is believed to be less aggressive. However, research has found that both were responsible for attacking humans.
The mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris or ‘crocodile of the marsh’) is mainly found in freshwater tanks, and the saltwater crocodile (Crocodiles porosus or estuarine crocodile) prefers estuaries and lagoon habitats.
Where to meet a croc
Anslem Lawrence de Silva, widely recognised as the father of modern herpetology in Sri Lanka, shared with us his insight on crocodile attacks in the island. De Silva is often contacted by the authorities whenever there is a crocodile-related incident on the island, and as such he was informed of the most recent case at the Dehiwala beach.
He shared that to his knowledge there is speculation whether this recent incident was a croc attack to begin with, as there apparently were no bite marks on the body. However, as the matter is still ongoing this is yet to be determined.
Regarding the propensity for crocodile encounters in Sri Lanka, he shared that the usual attack sites for both groups of crocs are either in shallow water or close proximity to croc-infested water, where victims may be attacked during bathing, washing clothes, swimming, collecting grass in marshy lands, and playing in the water.
Research also notes an interesting observation that emerged from the accounts of crocodile attack victims and witnesses, which was that it appeared that the animals had observed people engaged in water-based activity, like bathing and washing clothes, over a period of time before the attack. This implies that at least in the case of some attacks, they were not the result of a casual encounter with potential prey, but the culmination of a hunt at a spot where prey was known to gather.
Hunting the reptile for meat or for skin made them an endangered species. It has been observed that in some parts of the island, reptiles were poisoned after their attacks on humans. Climate change is also an important factor as temperature decides the gender of the siblings. Reducing crocodile land due to encroachment by humans, sand mining and destruction of mangroves made reptiles attack humans as well as humans loitering in the land areas where the reptiles search for food. In this review, we examined the features of crocodilians that contribute to explaining their evolutionary success, as well as the potential hazard they pose to humans. It is only by understanding reptiles’ capabilities and respecting their right to live that we could possibly mitigate the potential threat to life and limb of humans.
De Silva shared that crocodiles, especially male ones, would migrate from their usual canals to others around the island in search of females to mate with. He said that they would often travel along the sea route, as travelling through the city is hazardous to them. He noted that this is a seasonal occurrence and that it is likely to happen towards the latter part of the year. On such instances too, you are likely to encounter a croc on the beach.
When it comes to dealing with crocs at risk of coming into contact with humans, de Silva referred to a particular saltwater croc he has encountered in his field work at the Wellawatte Canal, noting that the crocodile in question is a particularly large one. While the animal in its habitat is of no harm as long as we leave it alone, we inquired what would happen if this animal was to start its migration in search of a mate and encounter a human.
De Silva said that as a solution, relocation is possible, sharing that just two years ago he conducted an intensive workshop where he brought down a wrangler from abroad, complete with all the necessary apparatus, and carried out a programme for the Wildlife Department to train them to better handle these animals.
Why do crocs attack?
Crocodiles are ambush predators, waiting for fish or land animals to come close, then rushing out to attack. They have acute senses, an evolutionary advantage that makes them successful predators. The eyes, ears, and nostrils are located on top of the head, allowing the crocodile to lie low in the water, almost totally submerged and hidden from prey. Crocodiles have very good night vision, and are mostly nocturnal hunters. The human-crocodile conflict is simply a matter of encroaching hunting grounds and living space.
Studies have revealed that using the river for daily needs such as drinking, bathing, washing clothes and fishing, population rise, sand mining, unauthorised buildings along the river bank, scrub jungles, slow flowing of river are the major causes of the human-crocodile conflict.
According to de Silva, the “Kimbulkotuwa” or Crocodile Excluding Enclosure is a main method used to mitigate the human-crocodile conflict. There are recommendations for further mitigation, like introducing alternative long-term water sources such as government water supply to households, bathing tanks, a dug well etc. Locals will be able to adopt a lifestyle without using the river if an alternative water source is given.
Research also provides that there is a lack of general knowledge amongst the people about crocodiles such as their ecology, habitat and microhabitat selection, temporal activity behaviour, availability of prey base in the ecosystem, feeding behaviour, hunting strategies, mating behaviour and breeding seasons.
De Silva also confirmed that this lack of knowledge can be considered as a main reason for the human-crocodile conflict. Therefore, awareness programmes targeting the public, schools, and tourists (local and international) should be conducted, where the ecological importance of crocodiles must also be highlighted.
How to survive a crocodile attack
We’ve all heard stories about how people can survive crocodile attacks, and you’ve all likely heard about running in a zigzag motion so as to avoid it, and other equally ridiculous tales. However, according to de Silva, it is unlikely that a crocodile will attack you on land.
It will almost always be in shallow waters, and the only surefire way to survive an attack is to not get attacked in the first place. Simply don’t swim around in water that is known to be crocodile infested.
However, if you are unfortunate enough to encounter one in the water and it does try to attack you, there are a few things you can do. One, according to de Silva, is that you can punch it in the eye or its snout with force. In an occasion where the croc has clamped down on you, and you are conscious enough to think straight when a giant prehistoric creature is about to chew you up, it is advised that you try and get your fingers or something else into the crocodile’s eyes, which are sensitive organs, and it might release you.
He also said that if the eyes are unreachable, the next best thing is to strike its belly, which can be very effective and is known as tonic immobilisation.
De Silva shared that crocs would often eat a smaller animal or a baby by swallowing them whole, but in the case of adult humans crocodiles would eat you limb by limb. This is why there are many crocodile attack survivors who have managed to escape with their lives but with a missing limb.
So if you are unfortunate enough to encounter a croc in the wild you can try this out, but your survival is never guaranteed. Therefore, the best advice we could give is to ask that you not try and test nature, and fate.