Two-year search for deadly Nile croc ends with capture in Everglades National Park

03/12/2014 7:26 PM

03/12/2014 8:21 PM

A juvenile Nile crocodile, a larger, man-eating relative of the local species, was captured alive Sunday in Everglades National Park after eluding wildlife officers for nearly two years.

Officials believe the 5 1/2-foot croc escaped from a south Miami-Dade County facility, along with two others captured in the area in 2009 and 2012. They are now looking at DNA from all three to confirm that they came from the same place, said Officer Jorge Pino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Because the investigation is still open, Pino would not name the facility.

“We are conducting DNA sampling to determine if the crocodile recovered on Sunday is part of a stock of crocs being housed in southern Dade,” he said. “At that point, we’ll present our case to the State Attorney’s Office and proceed from there.”

Because Florida considers the Nile crocs an exotic species, their escape is considered a crime, Pino said.

The croc, weighing about 37 pounds when it was caught, was first spotted in April 2012 on a Krome Avenue canal bank in the Redland by a botanist, said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecologist who helped with the search. Then about a week ago, volunteers with the Swamp Apes, a team that searches for invasive Burmese pythons, spotted the croc and notified park officials.

“They initially identified it as a caiman and then we took a look and said, er, it looks more like a croc to us,” Mazzotti said.

On Friday, the croc was confirmed as a Nile, which can grow up to 17 feet, three feet longer than Florida crocs, and three times heavier. They are also far more deadly, blamed for hundreds of fatal attacks annually in Africa. Caimans, native to Central and South America but also found in South Florida, are far smaller, averaging four to six feet.

Two days later, a team from UF, the FWC and the Swamp Apes used nets to corner the croc in a canal in the Chekika area in the northeast corner of the park, near Southwest 168th Street, which is closed to the public. Once they had it trapped, the team used a dart to tranquilize it, Mazzotti said.

Because they are so aggressive, Nile crocodiles are placed in the same class as lions or gorillas when it comes to permits to keep the animals, said wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski, who captured a smaller croc in 2012 at the Redland Fruit & Spice Park. That location was about a quarter mile from where Bob Freer, the owner of a wildlife sanctuary, captured the first croc in 2009. Croc owners, Wasilewski said, “have to have a minimum 1,000 hours of working with the animals to even be considered for a permit.”

In fact, after the croc first appeared, the state wildlife agency, fearing the creature’s record of deadly attacks, took the unusual step of asking federal officials to sign off on a “lethal take” to shoot the animal. Nile crocs are federally protected because they are disappearing from their native range and considered threatened internationally. Their escape in Florida is also a crime because they are exotic, Pino said.

“That goes for whether it’s an iguana, a tegu or a python,” he said. “So if we can prove through DNA that the animal that was caught belonged to that specific individual, then that individual will be facing charges.”

The croc was taken to the Everglades Alligator farm in Homestead, where it will remain while officials determine its fate, Mazzotti said.

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