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American Crocodile
Crocodylus acutus
Wildlife Fact File

Swim With the Crocodiles

By Jules Siegel

Originally published by London Observer Foreign News Service.

It sounds like an urban legend, but a crocodile living in a hotel zone lagoon in Cancun, Mexico, helped police make a pinch.

The two-meter crocodile attacked Spencer VanWeerd, 19, when the Spring breaker jumped into the brackish water in front of a major shopping center around 2 a.m., March 18, 2000, while attempting to elude officers responding to a stolen beer report.

Rescued by his friends, VanWeerd was bitten on his wrists, hands, neck, head and back. Police reported that he was "totally drunk." No charges were filed. He received 126 stitches and minor plastic surgery at a local hospital and arrived home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a wheelchair.

This is only known crocodile attack on a tourist in Cancun's history. Cancun's crocodiles (principally American crocodiles, Crocodylus acutus) are non-aggressive species that feed on fish and other small wildlife. Cancun biologist Marco Lazcano-Barrero estimates that no more than twenty-five adult crocodiles live in the 5,000-hectare-lagoon system, most of them in areas distant from tourist activities.

Lazcano-Barrero is executive director of Amigos de Sian Ka'an. Located about 175 kms. from Cancun in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo, 600,000 hectare-Sian Ka'an is the world's second largest biosphere, and home to North America's most important population of American crocodiles and Swamp crocodiles (C. moreletii).

Swamp Crocodile Crocodylus moreletii
Photograph from

VanWeerd was mauled in a boat channel facing a popular entertainment and shopping area. It's an unlikely spot for a casual swim as the water is covered with patches of algae and separated from the road by a fringe of mangrove and other dense vegetation.

Although VanWeerd is the first tourist bitten by a crocodile, local fishermen have had some nasty scrapes, but in thirty years only seven cases have been recorded in the Cancun Hotel Zone. All took place at night in the island's undeveloped southern end. Six occurred in 1996 alone, when a major drought caused crocodiles to forage more widely. At the same time, more Cancun residents were fishing in the lagoon because money for food was so scarce.

The smells of the bait and blood and the sound and movements of the captured fish thrashing in the water attracted crocodiles. In at least one case, the fisherman had fallen asleep and was partially submerged in the lagoon.

Soon after these incidents, authorities removed crocodiles that were making a nuisance of themselves in the tourism areas, where some lagoon-side restaurants were feeding them to amuse visitors.

"The feeding caused them to associate food with humans," Lazcano-Barrero reports. "This created the danger that they might bite someone in confusion."

Despite their fearsome reputation, crocodiles are surprisingly amiable around humans and can be domesticated if caught young. Famed crocodile biologist Frederico Medem reported that a doctor in Villavicencio, Colombia, raised a three-meter female Orinoco crocodile from a hatchling. House-trained, it lived in his house and played with his children and the family dog.

Believed to be descended from dinosaurs, crocodiles engage in a two-month courtship before mating and producing eggs. Males and females both guard the nests and will even cooperate in guarding the nests of neighbors. Mothers carry their little ones around in their mouths to protect them. When frightened, baby crocodiles squawk loudly and mom comes running to the defense. Mothers take care of their offspring for two to three years and teach them to swim.

This all sounds like perfect material for a Disney feature, but relocating a three-meter wild crocodile is not a trivial task. In one of the first removals, it took eight burly men to trap a crocodile that learned to beg food from tourists waiting in line at Lorenzillo's Restaurant. They lassoed it with ropes in broad daylight, then wrestled it into a boat and trussed it up.

Crocodiles are a protected species, but it is said that at least one ornery beast was bopped with a baseball bat to calm it down. Local newspapers published pictures of well-roped crocodiles who looked as if they were smiling for the camera as they were carried off.

Today, biologists capture crocodiles at night when their reflective eyes give them away by shining brightly in the light of battery-powered hand lanterns. Once located, the crocodile is trapped by the neck with a special wire noose tied to a 10-meter rope at the end of a 2- to 3-meter aluminum pole.

Brought to the edge of the boat, its jaws are roped closed and the crocodile is loaded into the boat. Its eyes are covered with a dark wet cloth to keep it calmer while researchers rope its limbs and tail. The captured crocodile is then taken to land and trucked in a wooden cage to a crocodile farm or a zoo.

Once an endangered species because of the demand for their high quality skin, crocodiles in the state of Quintana Roo are now merely considered vulnerable.A team of fifteen federal, state and academic experts is studying Quintana Roo's crocodile distribution and behavior to assure their survival despite shrinking habitat resulting from fast-paced tourism development. Approximately 25% of the state is dedicated to wildlife reserves.

Sian Ka'an's continuing crocodile study and preservation program is internationally recognized as a major success in the struggle to save the once-threatened native crocodiles from extinction.

"In Cancun, humans have high priority and crocodiles have low priority," says Lazcano-Barrero. "In Sian Ka'an, it's the other way around. The reserve is their territory and we enter it as their guests."



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