The unexpected death of a rare crocodile at the hands of state trappers has wildlife managers rethinking capture policies for the protected species.
Though familiar to many residents in a waterfront Coral Gables neighborhood, a longtime resident croc nicknamed “Pancho” found itself unwelcome after biting two late-night swimmers in the first documented attack on a human by an American crocodile in Florida.
The 12-foot-long, 300-pound reptile died early Friday morning shortly after being snared and hauled ashore by trappers, said Jorge Pino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
“This is not the beginning that we wanted, and it certainly is not the ending we wanted,” Pino said. “He died fighting. He was weak and lethargic and at some point died."
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Craig Aubrey, South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the death has sparked concern. Federal wildlife managers intend to review plans for responding to “nuisance’ crocs with state wildlife officers and trappers who handle the threatened species.
“I think we'll have a conversation to see if there were any lessons learned,” Aubrey said.
Several trappers helped capture Pancho around 2:30 a.m. Friday. The croc hit a baited snare in the same Gables by the Sea canal where two swimmers had been bitten early Sunday morning. After a 30-minute battle, the reptile died either on shore or as it was being trucked away.
Pino said it is unclear why Pancho died, noting that the trapping process “could be traumatizing for the animal.”
Because the croc had bit a human and twice before been removed from the area and made its way back, the FWC had intended to send it to a licensed facility for the rest of its life.
‘MOST WANTED CROC’
Instead, there was a surprising and sad end to the hunt for Pancho — dubbed “Florida’s most wanted crocodile.”
Photos of markings on Pancho’s hide were telltale clues that Pancho was behind the encounter.
“We are confident that this [crocodile] is responsible for the bites,’’ Pino said. “A scar or marking on the front leg of the crocodile gave it away.”
The croc’s death left some FWC employees in tears, he said.
“Some of our guys are very touched by this whole incident,” Pino said. “Since 2008, some of our people have been dealing with this crocodile. They know that crocodile.”
Authorities had considered using Pancho’s carcass for display in a public education exhibit but couldn’t find a location for an animal of its size.
Though captured alligators are typically processed for their skin and meat, Pancho was simply buried following his capture at an undisclosed location after the carcass was examined by investigators, Pino said. The agency did not conduct a formal necropsy.
The hunt for Pancho attracted the attention of half a dozen animal trappers from Collier, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, becoming one of the largest searches the FWC has ever coordinated for a single reptile.
It was not, however, the first incident involving crocodiles. Because of the expanding population in South Florida, wildlife managers are increasingly dealing with a reptile once considered near extinction in South Florida. The growing population and expanding range has increased encounters and complaints from residents.
Hundreds of crocs have been relocated by the state, according to FWC biologist John Wrublik.
Concerns have been heightened in the Keys since a croc was blamed for snatching a dog from a Key Largo dock last year. Several dogs were also found dead in the Gables by the Sea area.
In 2013, an eight-foot female crocodile that had survived being run over by cars in 2007 was found dead in the Keys under suspicious circumstances. It was found floating next to Florida Bay mangroves near Mile Marker 74 in Lower Matecumbe.
In comparison to alligators, the croc population is small, but its numbers have risen enough that in 2007 the Wildlife Service elevated its status from endangered to threatened. Scientists estimate the current population along the Florida coast at anywhere between 1,200 and 2,000. The species is also found in parts of Cuba, coastal areas in Mexico and in Costa Rica.
Aubrey said federal wildlife managers have a “crocodile human interaction plan,” which preps officials on how to handle certain situations.
“Fortunately, we’ve never had to use it,” Aubrey said. “Until now.”
State biologist Wrublik said the population is currently “stable or slowly increasing.”
“We’re looking what the long term prognosis is for them,” Wrublik said. “We’re very concerned about species conservation but more importantly human safety.”
Some residents were relieved Pancho was gone; others were saddened.
The croc was considered a neighborhood character, both good and bad. Other crocs in the community are named after color-coded tags and markings on their tails.
Snaggletooth and Streetwalker are regulars as was 15-year-old Pancho, which was the largest and oldest.
“Poor Pancho,” said Cristobal Marin, who lives on the water not far from where the incident happened. Marin said he lost four of his dogs to Pancho in the past eight years. Trappers were in his backyard at 1 a.m. Friday, on the hunt.
“I am an animal advocate, but living surrounded by crocodiles isn’t easy,” Marin said. “Whenever it ate a dog, people brushed it off. But it was only a matter of time until it bit a person.”
Russ Rector, a former animal trainer and activist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, blamed the two swimmers for jumping into a known croc habitat at such an hour.
The two had left a party in the 1300 block of Lugo Avenue around 2 a.m. to go for a dip in the canal behind the home. Both were bitten, but the injuries were not life threatening. An FWC report noted that the incident was alcohol related.
“That crocodile did not die. He was killed,” said Rector. “These people screwed up here, and Pancho paid the price. What a waste of a fine animal.”
Pino urged the public not to swim in areas frequented by crocodiles, especially at a time where they’re most likely feeding.
“Do not do what they did,” he said. “It’s just a recipe for disaster.”