‘Be careful with your crocs'

Concerns raised after last week’s mass crocodile breakout from Moshav Petzael in Jordan Valley.

crocodiles_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Following the mass escape of some 50 crocodiles last week from Moshav Petzael in the Jordan Valley, an amphibian-reptilian expert, as well as Nature and Parks Authority representatives, have warned that ranch owners must better safeguard their floats so that the animals are not reintroduced into the wild.
“Nobody can know for sure if it’s at all possible that they can reproduce in the wild in Israel, but considering the very, very remote chance that they could start to have a population here, a reproducing population in the wild – that’s a very, very scary possibility,” Dr. Boaz Shacham, collection manager and technician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Zoological Museum’s Herpetological Collection, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Crocodiles, which mainly exist in Israel as tourist attractions and for the sale of their hides and meat, were native to the area for tens of thousands of years until the last of the wild creatures was shot dead by hunters in the early 20th century, Shacham explained.
The crocs particularly inhabited wetland areas on the Mediterranean coast, in places like the shores of Herzliya, he said.
While it is still highly unlikely that escapees will find each other and mate to form a new wild species – the Nature and Parks Authority believes that all the surviving fugitives were caught – the possibility that they could do so is still real – and frightening in many people’s eyes.
“The last known documented crocodile that was killed – and actually I have it in my lab, a stuffed specimen – was allegedly shot in 1912 by a Jewish zoologist and an Arab hunter who shot the crocodile dead and later had the crocodile stuffed,” Shacham said.
“We haven’t heard of or seen any live or dead specimen since.”
The escapees in recent years have not been in the coastal region, however, and have been recovered mostly in the northern Negev and the Jordan Valley, Shacham explained.
“The Jordan valley used to be prime crocodile habitat, but that was back 10,000 or 20,000 years ago when the area was much more humid,” he said.
One of the most interesting sites to document that fact, he said, is in this area, featuring huge digs containing remains of ancient elephants, hippopotami, long-extinct giant freshwater fish and, of course, crocodiles, according to Shacham.
Even if a large population of crocodiles made it to the Jordan River without being caught, the chances of their survival is still not huge, Shacham noted.
“It’s too hot and too dry – there aren’t any wetlands in the area,” he explained.
“They probably wouldn’t survive. But on the off chance they do survive, crocodiles can live for decades, maybe even a century. They could be very dangerous – the longer they live, the longer they grow.”
And Shacham has no desire to see that happen.
“Even though I’m very much interested in preserving Israel’s fauna and, as much as possible, to try to fix some of the damage we’ve done in modern times, I would strongly recommend against releasing crocodiles back into the coastal region, even where the habitat is suitable,” Shacham said.
“There is a reason they went extinct – they became too close to humans.”
The Nature and Parks Authority said that there is “no danger” from the most recent escape, as the authority “already found all the crocs” and the animals were only about half a meter long, but there is a concern about the “general danger” of crocodile flights, as well as ecological issues, such as the inhabitation of rivers that Shacham mentioned.
Shacham said he would not voice an opinion about the ethics of farming crocs, but said that if the dangers outweigh the benefits of such a small-scale enterprise, then the industry might not be worth it.
“If regulation is not enough – if these guys aren’t serious enough to keep up their fences and gates and have all sorts of fail-safes to prevent animals from escaping and making it into the wild and endangering hikers, livestock and wild animals – it should be reconsidered if they should get the permits to keep doing this,” he said.