The Environment

Hunting a man-eating croc in South Florida

 

Already plagued by Burmese pythons, South Florida has a new exotic-animal headache: Nile crocodiles. Wildlife managers have issued a shoot-to-kill order.

Nile vs. American crocodiles

•  Nile crocs, natives of Africa, can routinely reach 16 feet and weigh from 500 to 1,000 pounds. The largest can top 20 feet, ranking them among the largest crocodiles. They are aggressive and often take large prey, up to the size of small hippos, and are routinely blamed for killing hundreds of people annually.

•  American crocs, found from South Florida to South America, typically reach 13 to 14 feet in the Everglades but larger ones have been observed. They feed on fish, turtle and smaller mammals. Though they are considered shy and secretive in South Florida, they’ve been implicated in fatal attacks in Central and South America.


By CURTIS MORGAN

Wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski has hauled many scaly creatures out of South Florida lakes, canals and marshes over the years.

But the snappish four-footer he snared at the Redland Fruit & Spice Park was an unsettling surprise. It was a young crocodile, but not the typically timid native species. This was a Nile croc, infamous for its appetite for humans and savage attacks on wildebeest and other large animals along African rivers and watering holes.

The capture late last year appears to have been the first sighting — at least officially — of a Nile croc in the wilds of Florida. It wasn’t the last. In April, a botanist photographed a second Nile of similar size on a Krome Avenue canal bank, also in the Redland community south of Miami. After eluding capture for months, that croc is now in hiding, whereabouts unknown. A report of a third, caught in the same area three years ago, has surfaced since.

In a state overrun with exotic invaders, even a few sightings of such an aggressive and dangerous animal have raised concerns with state and federal wildlife managers. In late August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the unusual step of authorizing a state shoot-to-kill request for a reptile technically protected under federal law because it is disappearing in its native range and on international threatened lists.

“It was a tough call but we wanted to use common sense,” said Larry Williams, South Florida field supervisor for the service. “We’ve got a protected species but we’ve got it in a place where it’s an exotic.”

No one is predicting Nile crocs will become the next Burmese python, a once commonly sold pet that has settled into the Everglades as a damaging predator. But even a single Nile croc poses a potential threat if it grows to maturity, said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecologist helping search for that elusive canal croc. Like the two that preceded it, authorities suspect the still-at-large crocodile escaped from a local breeder, probably as a hatchling.

Big boys of the

crocodile world

Nile crocodiles typically grow larger than their Florida relatives, which top out at around 13 feet.

“A huge Nile or saltwater croc is 16 to 17 feet and probably three or four times the weight of an American crocodile,’’ Mazzotti said. “If it got into a tug of war with a Volkswagen, the Volkswagen would probably lose.”

But what really separates them from local boys is their aggressive nature and habit of stalking and killing large prey, including humans. They’re blamed for hundreds of deadly attacks annually in Africa.

American crocs, largely confined to isolated coastal mangroves in South Florida, tend to steer clear of people. Like any large predator, of course, they can be dangerous. American crocs have been implicated in occasional fatal attacks in South and Central America. But they’re pussy cats in comparison to Nile crocs, said Wasilewski, a consulting biologist and veteran reptile wrangler based in South Miami-Dade. With the small but sudden uptick in sightings, he said the biggest worry is whether more than one Nile could be out there, undetected.

“It’s a frightening situation,” Wasilewski said.

Wildlife managers haven’t issued public statements about the Nile captures or sightings. But on Aug. 23, Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wrote to federal wildlife managers asking approval to shoot a Nile croc that had eluded repeated efforts to trap it alive. Though federally protected, he wrote, it might pose a threat to humans and was “known to be capable of unpredictable violent attacks.’’

The hope, he wrote, was to bag it before Hurricane Isaac, when water managers were scheduled to open flood gates that could flush the animal from a canal near Krome and Southwest 280th Street and allow it to escape, possibly into Biscayne Bay. Federal wildlife managers signed off on the so-called “lethal take” the next day but the croc hasn’t been seen since.

Carli Segelson, an FWC spokeswoman, downplayed concerns over a single problematic croc, one too small to pose much of a threat to people for several more years.

“We don’t even know if this animal is still out there,” she said. “This particular crocodile is a juvenile. It’s not yet of breeding age.’’

Segelson said FWC officers are still investigating where the crocs have come from but letters between the wildlife agencies point to an escape from an unnamed captive breeding facility.

It’s illegal to own or breed Nile crocs without a state-issued Class 1 wildlife permit, which sets enclosure, safety and other standards for people who want to keep lions, Komodo dragons and other wildlife that “pose a significant danger to people.’’

According to FWC records, the closest licensed facility to the Redland park is operated by Jose Novo, who said he has safely raised gators and crocs for years.

Novo, who manages Everglades Safari Park, a tourist attraction on Tamiami Trail, acknowledged a visit from FWC officers but said his property met all fencing and other requirements. He said he was not issued a violation notice but was asked to install mesh along the fence bottom as a precaution against hatchlings crawling through chain-link openings.

Novo, who said he has one of the largest private collections of crocodilians in the U.S. and once hoped to open a park called Predator World to educate the public, insists he’s had no escapes and always collects eggs before they hatch.

4 feet long, ‘pretty darned feisty’

“I have probably the safest facility around,” he said. Novo believes the crocs might have been released by unlicensed owners who illegally obtained eggs or hatchlings.

Chris Rollins, manager of the Fruit & Spice Park , initially figured the reptile was a small American croc or a spectacled Caiman, a smaller South American species imported for the pet trade that also has become established in South Miami-Dade. But as it fattened up, growing to four feet, Rollins said it became more threatening so he called Wasilewski to remove it. Wasilewski, who has a Class 1 permit, added the small croc to his own collection.“It was already pretty darned feisty,’’ Rollins said. “Normally, a gator or crocodile that size would disappear if you got near it. This one was really a little more snappish and aggressive.’’

According to a database of invasive species sightings maintained since 1991 by the United States Geological Survey, Wasilewski’s catch was the first Nile croc found in Florida and second in the United States. The only other reported sightings came in 1998 when Hurricane Georges flooded an alligator farm in Mississippi, allowing five Nile crocs to escape. All were reported quickly recaptured.

Wildlife managers, however, admit records are sketchy. Segelson said the FWC wasn’t aware of any previous Nile releases but staff members would have to go through old, hand-written notes to be certain.

Bob Freer, owner of Everglades Outpost, a wildlife sanctuary and attraction in Homestead, said the official list is missing a Nile he caught three year earlier about a quarter-mile from the Fruit & Spice Park. He said he reported the animal, which he keeps penned up as part of the Nile crocodile exhibit at the Everglades Alligator Farm attraction in Florida City, to a now-retired FWC officer. But the capture does not show up in federal or state databases.

Nor did a Nile croc nicknamed Houdini, a former escapee from the Billie Swamp Safari on the Seminole Tribe’s Big Cypress reservation near Clewiston.

‘Swamp Men’ and the elusive Houdini

In a 2010 episode of the Nat Geo Wild reality series Swamp Men based there, the staff recaptured the nine-footer, which the show claimed had lived in the Big Cypress swamp for years. Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said Houdini had indeed lived in the wild for nearly a decade but never strayed far. Houdini, along with other Nile crocs once on display at the attraction, have since been relocated to facilities off the reservation, he said.

Freer, who has caught an array of exotic reptiles in South Miami-Dade, believes the state’s caging standards for croc breeders aren’t strong enough — particularly for hatchlings.

“They don’t need the mother to survive,” he said.

Mazzotti, the UF crocodile expert, agrees sub-tropical South Florida offers young crocs the same sort of climate and habitat that has nurtured Burmese pythons and so many other exotics.

“Nile crocodiles live at the same latitude in Africa that alligators do here, so watch out if they get established,” he said.

Though the Nile croc may have fled the canal it once occupied, Mazzotti believes there is a good chance it is still alive.

For now, scientists see little risk of Niles colonizing the Everglades. It took decades of periodic releases by pet owners and escapes from breeders to establish a breeding python population. There just aren’t enough Niles to make a go of it, said Williams of the FWS.

Even if a few remain loose and undetected, “the chance of them actually finding each other and breeding is incredibly low,” he said.

Though some species have been cross-bred, experts said differences between the Nile and American also make hybrid offspring highly unlikely.

Mazzotti said teams have spent well over 1,000 hours in weekly searches for the canal croc since the kill permit was issued in August.

“This is when we should take action with invasive species,’’ he said. “We shouldn’t wait until they’re out there in big numbers and breeding.”

Canoeist: This is not a good thing

For people like Roger Hammer, a Redland resident who spends many of his off-hours canoeing and fishing in the Everglades, even one Nile is too many. Hammer, a longtime Miami-Dade parks naturalist, has helped Wasilewski on several hunts for the Nile croc. He’s had a few too-close encounters with American crocs in the Glades, he said, including a massive one that shot from a bank in fear so swiftly it rocked his canoe.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Thank God, that wasn’t a Nile croc,’ ” he said. “You’ve got at least one Nile croc out there in a canal that leads to the Everglades. As a canoeist, I’m certainly more than a little concerned.’’

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