Egypt’s crocodile hunters jump the gun

Aswan–Illegal crocodile hunting has spiked in recent months following press reports that led people to believe the animal had been taken off Egypt’s protected species list.

“We’ve seen a lot [of evidence] of illegal hunting for crocodiles lately, especially large ones,” said Ashraf Salem, an environmental researcher at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA). “Adult crocodiles are killed for their skin, while hatchlings are caught and sold to Arabs and foreigners.”

Egypt’s crocodile population was driven to the brink of extinction in the 1950s by hunting and habitat loss. The construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s gave the animal a chance to recover, and its population has grown steadily behind the dam, where it is relatively undisturbed by human activities.

Salem, who was instrumental in scientific surveys of Egypt’s crocodile population, estimates that there are currently about 3,000 crocodiles in Lake Nasser, some up to five meters in length. The presence of large crocodiles and absence of police surveillance has made the vast, remote reservoir an attractive target for poachers.

Crocodile skins and products are big ticket items on the international market, and many of the 7,000 fishermen on the lake are believed to be involved in the illegal trade. Up to 400 crocodiles are killed for their skins each year, and another 3,000 hatchlings are smuggled out of the country, according to EEAA estimates. Early in the decade the government tabled plans to raise crocodiles on ranches for their skins and meat–-part of its own scheme to exploit the economic value of Lake Nasser’s growing crocodile population.

Last March, Egypt successfully petitioned to transfer the Nile crocodile from Appendix I to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The new designation removed the main legal hurdle to crocodile ranching, but created widespread confusion over the protected status of the animal.

“When they wrote in the newspapers that they will transfer from Appendix I to II, everyone imagined it became legal to hunt crocodiles, but this was not correct,” said Salem. “If they read carefully they would have seen that this [amendment] does not affect domestic laws protecting crocodiles.”

Egyptian environmental laws forbid killing and capturing crocodiles as well as transporting or trading the animals or their eggs. Pending new legislation, hunting or trade of crocodiles remains prohibited. This hasn’t stopped local fishermen and game hunters from killing crocodiles in Lake Nasser. EEAA officials report a recent surge in poaching activity, particularly of larger crocodiles.

“During our surveys, we found a lot of dead crocodiles without their skins–-all of them over three meters in length,” Salem said. Fishermen who spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm said that they believe the government has legalized the killing of large crocodiles that “pose a significant threat” to humans. They cite the reluctance of authorities to prosecute fishermen who shoot the animals as evidence that hunting is condoned.

“You’re allowed to shoot any crocodile over four meters,” said Mounir Ibrahim, a local tilapia fisherman. He maintains he has never had reason to kill a crocodile, but says his colleagues often skin crocodiles that get entangled in their nets in order to supplement their meager incomes. “One skin is worth more than all my catch,” he adds.

Some fishermen and tour leaders reportedly moonlight as guides for visiting hunting parties. One local guide agreed to provide guns and camping equipment for a three-day crocodile hunting safari–-provided the group could produce a permit to hunt crocodiles on Lake Nasser. While the EEAA is adamant that such permits do not exist, the guide claimed local security officials routinely issue them “for a fee.”

Staff at The African Angler, an Australian outfit that leads guided fishing safaris to Lake Nasser, say they have received a number of requests for crocodile hunting expeditions, but the firm’s focus remains firmly on high-end fishing safaris. “Trophy hunters are willing to pay a lot of money to hunt crocodiles,” said Youssef Mohamed, the company's safari operations manager. “In some African countries they pay over $1,000 per crocodile.”

Mohamed, who has spent much of his life on Lake Nasser, is ambivalent toward the reptile that shares the lake with the prized 50-kilogram Nile perch that is his firm’s bread and butter. He disputes claims that crocodiles are responsible for the lake’s declining fish catch, attributing this instead to fluctuating water levels and fishery mismanagement.

Mahmoud Hasseb, EEAA’s director of South Area Protectorates, accuses people of vilifying crocodiles to serve their own economic agenda. He dismisses “highly exaggerated” estimates of the crocodile population and the portrayal of the animal as a ruthless man-eater, as thinly-veiled pretexts to legalize lucrative crocodile hunting and ranching.

“The presence of crocodiles in Lake Nasser is very important for the balance of the lake’s ecosystem,” he says. “They are not dangerous animals; they only attack if they feel threatened or people go near their nest.” There have been less than 10 documented cases of crocodile attacks on humans since the creation of Lake Nasser more than 40 years ago.

Many of these cases involved poachers attempting to collect crocodile eggs or hatchlings. A real problem, argues Mohamed, is that crocodiles often damage fishermen’s nets. “Crocodiles see fish caught in the nets and they go to eat the fish, but get caught in the net and destroy it,” says Mohamed. “Nets cost money, so this is a big problem for fishermen.” He points out that if a fisherman receives compensation for a net damaged by a crocodile he might have neutral feelings toward the animal.

But if crocodiles are taking a bite out of his salary, he would be more inclined to kill the crocodile and sell its skin to offset his losses. While destitute fishermen are the most visible players in the illegal crocodile skin trade, smuggling operations are believed to be controlled by just two or three shadowy kingpins. One local official suggested that if security agencies were more committed to arresting and prosecuting these individuals, the smuggling networks would collapse and the trade would dry up.

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