Lords of the Wetlands – Full Episode

Reggae music, tropical white sand beaches…
these are the images that come to mind when people think of Jamaica. Less thought of is one of the islands’ largest
predators – the American crocodile. It’s part of our heritage, it’s on our Coat
of Arms. The crocodile is the mascot for our cricket
team, the Jamaican Tallawahs. It’s on our Jamaican defense force. Most people here fear the crocodile, they
think it’s like a monster that will come and get you. Jamaicans have an ingrained fear of reptiles
in general so we don’t like lizards, and a crocodile is just a big lizard. So, most people have the view of, “best
crocodile is a dead one.” So, we have to try and combat that. American crocodiles are not man-eaters like
the Nile crocs are, like the saltwater crocs are. Other crocodiles have a disposition of killing
people, American crocodiles don’t. They could, but they prefer not to. Crocodiles will defend themselves if you molest
them. Otherwise, they’ll keep away from you. They don’t want to have anything to do with
human beings. American crocodiles are found in 17 different
countries – ranging from South Florida throughout the Caribbean and Central America down to
Peru. In Jamaica, they face a lot more problems
than in other countries. They were normally found around the whole
island, but mostly on the south coast which had a larger area of wetlands. They live along the coast in salt water and
brackish water. They’re especially restricted by nesting habitat. They only nest on sandy, sunny, secluded beaches
in south Jamaica, and what’s happening is with all the construction, there’s not a lot
of sandy, sunny, secluded beaches remaining. There has been a radical drop off in the past
ten years of the wild population. Habitat loss along with poaching have led
to their drastic decline. The crocodile was here before us. You might not find it beautiful, but I find
it beautiful. They have a role in our environment and a
lot of studies have been showing when you remove the top predators there’s a lot of
problems. I’m not asking people to love crocodiles,
I’m asking people to try to understand them a little bit more. We’re dealing with a cultural animal. This is part of our heritage and we owe it
to ourselves to protect our culture and our heritage. And they’ve been around a long time, much
longer than we’ve been living on this island. Can the American crocodile survive in Jamaica? What is being done to save the species? Major funding for this program was provided
by the Batchelor Foundation, encouraging people to preserve and protect America’s underwater
resources. And by: Diver’s Direct and Ocean Divers;
The Do Unto Others Trust; The Charles N. and Eleanor Knight Leigh Foundation. And by the following. In Jamaica, the place for tourists to go and
see wild crocodiles is Black River, a small community on the island’s south coast. Growing up, if you’re ever interested
in crocodiles or wanted to see crocodiles the answer would be Charles Swaby. And that would be the only place to actually
do river tours and see crocodiles. So here now you can see, it’s so nice and
shaded this area is. I just love them, they’re nice animals, I’ve
never been bitten or attacked by one, even when swimming in the water with them. While there are a number of eco-tour operators
on the Black River today, Charles Swaby was the first, opening for business in 1987. We started originally with one vessel and
right now we have eight vessels. It is the crocodile that is bringing people
here, there is practically no other river in Jamaica where you can take vessels of this
size on a nice beautiful river without looking at garbage on the banks, without seeing the
trees cut down. This is what we have here, something that
is really authentic, something that is beautiful, and something that needs to be protected as
much as possible. This is what people are coming here for. Not just sun, sea and sand. Ecotourism plays a major role in educating
people. They come away with a new appreciation and
more information because there’s a lot of misconceptions. Charles Swaby had been interested in crocodiles
since he first saw one as a child. In the late fifties, while we were still at
school, we used to go out shoot them in those days, and on holidays I used to carry tourists
out to hunt them. And then, I got a soft spot for them, and
rather than hunting them I wanted to try and keep them in captivity, save them from some
of the problems that we were seeing, because I always said that if you shoot a crocodile,
sure the tourists that comes, he gets a skin, you get paid for carrying him out, but if
you shoot him with a camera, you can shoot him 100 times and collect for the tour. This wetland is the largest wetland in Jamaica,
or certainly was. In 1997, the Black River Lower Morass was designated
as a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental
treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and
their resources. The challenge though is that we don’t have
much management of these areas. We don’t have enough people on the ground
to manage the activities that occur in there. We need to see what we can do to keep it in
good condition so that the remaining animals that are here have somewhere to live, that
people won’t just come in and kill them. Because this wetland right now, right here
is in problems. The Black River Morass extends through a large
section of the parish of St. Elizabeth and there’s a road that connects communities along
the coast of St. Elizabeth and cuts right through the wetland and some houses are built
along the sea, there has been some farming and other development adjacent to the wetland
and this is where we encounter problems with human and crocodile interactions. We do need education. I would really feel very badly if a few years
down the road we’re not going to be seeing any crocodiles here. Over his long career of working with crocodiles,
Charles teamed up with scientists from overseas to tag animals and conduct surveys of wild
populations along the south coast. We were doing it from about 1974 up until
the eighties. And I have recorded maybe data from close
to 300 animals that we caught and tagged. The agency wants to collect the data that
has been put down from before, and we have in house data that we keep adding to as well,
and there’s various studies that have been done across island and we want to create a
base and a model to help us better make decisions, and influence policy when it comes to certain
areas and guide us with conservation of crocs. We are aware that there’s a problem. We don’t have information to tell what’s the
overall population size of the animal. While there currently isn’t funding available
to conduct a much needed population census for the entire island, research is taking
place on a remote beach on Jamaica’s south coast. It lies in a protected area that is owned
and managed by Jamaica’s Urban Development Corporation, or UDC. It’s nearby Kingston, yet you’re like in a
whole other world out here. There’s been population surveys conducted
off and on in Jamaica since I would have to say the sixties. I’m working with the University of the West
Indies and a couple of other entities and we’re trying to replicate those original surveys
with baseline data to estimate the number of crocs remaining in Jamaica. American biologist Joe Wasilewski has been
researching crocodiles in Jamaica since the late 1990s. There’s two ponds, to the east and to the
west where we camp and we might hit it once or twice a year in terms of spotlight surveys
and captures, and we’ve got well over 100 captures, and what we’re learning is growth
rates, we’re learning about when crocodiles grow up they go to different habitats, so
we’re learning a lot of valuable information by coming here and collecting the crocs in
these two areas. This would be considered juvenile habitat. They’re ponds that are a little shallower
and less likely for adults to come in. An eight-foot croc will eat a three foot croc
like that. So, they go from wherever they’re hatched,
usually a beach, to this pond of low salinity, and then when they get to be an age where
they’re nearing maturity they’re going to move and they’re going to spread out. So, I’ll get this noose set up. The best time to count and catch crocodiles
is at night when experts can more easily find the animals by pointing flash lights and looking
for their red eye shine. American crocodiles are pretty shy animals,
and they’re -they could be real difficult to catch. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve caught probably
five thousand or more over my career, so. I know a little bit about their habits and
you have to be very stealthy. It’s a beauty, man, and it’s a recapture. When we catch a crocodile there’s a standard
procedure for particular measurements. A snout -vent, a total length, and then we
measure the girth of the tail, that’s sort of just a health indicator. And then every animal is weighed and every
animal is sexed. Okay, male. And then we assign it a number, we clip scutes
for that and the scutes that we clip, they’re kind of like your fingernail and we keep those
scutes and we’re doing DNA analysis for that. And I don’t want to be too premature here
but I have a really funny suspicion the crocodiles here are a unique species. Recent genetic research by other experts suggests
there likely are distinct populations of American crocodiles within their range, which could
mean the crocodile in Jamaica is either a subspecies of the American crocodile or its
own species altogether. That would change the conservation value of
the animal and it would make it much more important if it is endemic to this island. Scientists also microchip the animals to identify
them in the future. They’re passive devices that give the animal
a barcoded number. And in the microchip, which is about the size
of a grain of rice, is injected into their tail, we scan it, and it’s just like you going
to the grocery store getting a box of crackers, you scan it and there’s the number. When I know I’m going out looking for crocs,
it’s exciting. So, I’m totally, absolutely, fascinated by
these animals and it’s my lifelong mission to see they’re protected and future generations
can enjoy them. Habitat fragmentation and loss have been a
problem for American crocodiles across much of their range. While the International Union for Conservation
of Nature currently lists American crocodiles as vulnerable, they are considered endangered
in Jamaica. Like other countries, the island nation has
laws on the books to protect the species. We have two main laws, the Wildlife Protection
Act and the Endangered Species Conservation and Trade Act. You’re not supposed to have it in your possession,
either the entire animal or parts of the animal. You shouldn’t try to catch it, or molest it,
or anything like that. But despite the threat of fines and imprisonment,
poaching of crocodiles for meat has increased in recent years. Poaching would be the number two cause of
population decline, in my opinion, of the crocodile. And that has been fairly recent, I would say
the last twelve years it has become more of a thing. And because it fetches a fairly high price,
that demand is actually driving this illegal activity. There’s this myth that it’s an aphrodisiac. So, they’re saying that if you eat the man-eater
you’ll be strong. There’s also now a market for eggs to make
punch and stuff like that. Some would say it’s because of some new people
to the island having different appetites. Some would say it’s just people being more
exposed, and it’s a problem because clearly our numbers are decreasing. The biggest challenge to combating poaching
and harassment of the animals is a lack of manpower for enforcement. One area where there have been quite a few
human-crocodile encounters is the urban community of Portmore, just outside of Jamaica’s capital,
Kingston. The Portmore area is actually one of the largest
residential communities in the entire Caribbean region and it so happens that this residential
community is actually built in a wetland area. It was a good crocodile habitat. Most people are going to tell you, “oh they’re
in my back yard,” and they don’t know that they’re the one that are in the backyard. You find that these houses have a lot of canals
going through them and these canals are connected to swamp areas that have these crocodiles. So, you find that especially when you have
floods or rains, these crocodiles come up into these areas so you have these increased
interactions a lot of the times. More often than not, the crocodile is the
one that actually ends up with the short end of the stick. It’s a little unfortunate because the encounters
most of the time are avoidable. Persons see the crocodile in a drainage and
they could very well have gone along their merry way and left the animal alone. They go out of their way and try and catch
the animal and they’re not trained to do this. So, they end up hurting either themselves
and more often than that they end up hurting the animal. Which by the way is illegal, to catch the
animal. Injured crocodiles are taken to rehabilitation
centers like the Hope Zoo in Kingston. Crocodiles that come to us are rescued crocodiles. We’ll bring them in with the ultimate goal
of re-releasing them and that’s what we’re doing today. We try to release it close to where we actually
took it from with caution. Sometimes the animal is really massive and
we think it might be a threat in certain areas, we move it a little farther away. The overall aim of all of these efforts is
to conserve crocodiles in the wild. Because there tend to be more frequent human-crocodile
interactions in Portmore, government scientists are also conducting surveys there to get a
better idea of population trends in that area. We’ve been doing surveys for about three years now. Once every quarter counting crocodiles basically. I’m sad to say one of the best place that
you’ll see crocodiles in Jamaica is at the sewage ponds. You get such big counts there. We go to the natural ponds and we might get
one eye shine, you know, one crocodile in the pond, this huge pond. And when we go to the sewage ponds, we realize
that there’s tens, twenties, thirty, or even more crocodiles there. A crocodile feels really safe over there,
because no one goes over there, there’s water over there, there’s fish over there, there’s
birds over there. It’s actually a very easy survey because it’s
already in a grid work system. There are 24 ponds that we can easily go from
pond to pond and assess what is there. Here’s a little cutie—look at this little
one. So, this is definitely in the one to three
category in terms of length, in feet. It’s probably about two and half, no, yeah
just over two feet. The population on a whole is declining, and
we are fairly confident of that. And that’s a common misconception with people. They see crocodiles more often these days
and they think the population is on the increase. But what it really means is that their natural
habitat is being impacted, and so they’re moving out. To help change the public’s perception of
crocodiles, outreach programs have been put in place to educate the public. We try to target schools that are smack in
the middle of these high encounter areas and we probably get in there probably once or twice per year. You want to educate the adults because adults
are the ones that are having that impact a lot of times. You don’t have children killing crocodiles. But we’ve decided that it’s really best for
us to go from the schools, young people in the schools, they’re the ones that are going
to be having that impact later down the line. And they themselves now are influencing their
parents. And so, we’re seeing some results in that
regard. I’m not afraid of them anymore, now that I’ve
learned all that I need to know about them and know what to do if I see one. Why don’t you feel that they’re going
to run you down and eat you? Because if you stay a distance from them they
won’t hurt you. So, this is what you guys need to be hearing
and thinking about all the time. Would you believe me if I said a crocodile
is pretty much as afraid of you as you are of them. Yes, miss. We tell them it’s still an animal that needs
to be respected and feared a healthy fear, but at the same point in time, don’t have
this feeling that this crocodile is just looking to harm you in some shape or form. Ultimately, saving crocodiles in Jamaica will
require active conservation in the wild. We’ve actually been looking at a dedicated
crocodile conservation area. Lawrence Henriques has shown remarkable interest
in that regard. And so, he has identified an area that he’s
hoping, with the help of government agencies and international funders, to establish a
crocodile wildlife refuge. On the southeastern tip of Jamaica is a rural
area known as Holland Bay where sugarcane fields meet the sea. We have two types of habitat in Holland Bay. You have the natural habitat, what we refer
to as the fringe of mangroves, and beach, and some dry forest. Then we have a large area of what we refer
to as artificial habitat which is the cane lands, and canals and drainage system. These waterways feed the natural habitat. So, the waterways,
it’s providing avenues for crocodiles to expand their ranges through these canal systems,
as well as accessing feed through the form of crustaceans and fish which would breed
in these canal systems. So, we’re looking in total around 11 thousand
acres of available habitat for these reptiles. Of course, the majority of the cane land,
crocodiles are not going in there. But in the canal system which crisscrosses,
that we call the habitat. The cane lands and other lands surrounding
Holland Bay area are acting as a buffer. So, it’s really quite isolated compared to other areas of the south coast. Lawrence, who has years of experience breeding
and rescuing crocodiles, is setting up a non-profit organization that will work in close collaboration
with the government and sugar cane operations to oversee the planned crocodile wildlife
refuge and sanctuary. What we want to do is to look at ways of getting
refuge type status for these areas to preserve not only the wildlife but the whole ecosystem. We’re setting up a facility which is going
to be multipurpose. We’re going to have animals that we have especially
for breeding. That would allow us to produce a regulated
amount of young animals each year. So, what we want to do is re-introduce a few
animals each year over a period of say ten years for starters. These would all be properly catalogued and
microchipped. Plus, we would continue with rescue and rehabilitation
when necessary. As well as education and fieldwork. And I’ll tell you what, it’s the most exciting
conservation-oriented project for American crocs here in Jamaica, ever. And this sanctuary slash reserve is going
to give the crocodiles in Jamaica a chance. And once we have that we can replicate it
across the island in other areas, so we’re actually quite excited to get that program
on board. Jamaica’s crocodile population is in trouble. But through education, enforcement, and the
work of dedicated individuals, the species may still have a chance to recover. We want people to be able to experience them
in the wild. Knowing that it was here from the time of
the dinosaurs and it just found a way to survive, I just think it’s a remarkable animal. You know, these creatures belong on this earth
just like you and I. Finding that balance, it’s about putting
value to the animals. Jamaica is a young nation and we’re learning. And so, moving forward I think we are slowly
getting it. We tend to be very prideful people, Tallawah
is a Patois word meaning very strong, despite size. So, we’re a small island and we have a very
big personality. Crocodile is a part of that personality and
its presence is synonymous with a lot of what we’re very prideful about in our culture. It’s not that much of a mammoth task to change
culture, it just has to be sustained. And that’s what that I hope will eventually
happen. Major funding for this program was provided
by the Batchelor Foundation, encouraging people to preserve and protect America’s underwater
resources. And by: Diver’s Direct and Ocean Divers;
The Do Unto Others Trust; The Charles N. and Eleanor Knight Leigh Foundation. And by the following.

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