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Part 7: Saving Sacred Crocodiles in East Timor

Interview with Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin

Image: ANNIE GELLATLY

REPTILE RESCUE. In February of last year, Irwin led a team from Australia Zoo to build new homes for two captive crocs in a war-torn region of Indonesia.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Can you please talk a little bit about your experiences in East Timor?

STEVE: When the East Timor conflict broke out, when they gained independence, the militia killed a lot of East Timorese people. And their sacred totem is the crocodile. They believe that their island is actually a solidified crocodile, so it has sacred status. My dad taught me from my youngest childhood memories through these connections with Aboriginal and tribal people that you must always protect people's sacred status, regardless of the pest. Even if it's different to the way us Western people look at it. So we took on board the problem that they had in East Timor, and that means thousands of people killed and refugees, and these two crocodiles had been really badly looked after. They were kept in a cess-pit of bacteria and disease.

SA: Were they kept in captivity because they are a totem, or was there a zoo there?

STEVE: Yeah, they were virtually a totem thing that they were kept for, and they didn't know how to look after them. This female, she lost an eye, and there was actually talk of body parts being fed to them. You know, there were all sorts of atrocities attached to these two crocodiles.

SA: Where were they?

STEVE: One was in a church, which was lucky because that church never got blown up, and the other one was just in a cess-pit over next to an area where they burned all these bodies. So the Australian diggers went in¿that's the Australian armed forces¿the diggers just went, "Oh my gosh." So they gave them water and food and kept them alive until we and WSPA got there.

SA: WSPA? What is that?

STEVE: The World Society for the Protection of Animals. They got involved and so did the diggers and ourselves. We went in and were going, "Okay, what are we going to do?" There was talk of bringing the crocodiles back to Australia, and I said that is not an alternative because these animals have sacred status. We need to take a stand here, construct a new set of state-of-the-art enclosures to hold those crocodiles so the East Timorese maintain the sacred status of these animals and they can come and look at them.

So we went about the building, which was very difficult. In fact, those two crocodile enclosures we built were the first things to be rebuilt in East Timor. The project was organized by the Australia Zoo team¿funded by us, built by us¿and we're very proud of it. And then we went in and we shifted them, both the female and the male. And I'll tell you what, the male, Anthony, he beat us up bad. He's a very angry boy, and he was just so hard to catch. The vision that you see on the tele just doesn't represent how badly he tried¿he was a naughty boy. Anyway, we got him in there, we trained the local people to look after them properly because they had no idea, no concept about humane and clever techniques to look after crocodiles.

SA: Even as they're sacred to them?

STEVE: Yeah, no idea at all. Heck no, they had no idea. But we changed all that. Terri put together thousands of dollars towards the church to build a new medical center, because Terri in all her wisdom spotted a flaw in our plan in that the tens of thousands of dollars that we were putting towards the crocodiles, regardless of their sacred status, may have caused a problem with the local people because, "Why is all the money going to the crocodiles and not to us?"

SA: That's a good question.

STEVE: Yeah, it's a great one. So Terri got this huge amount of money and we gave it to the church leader, so they can build their medical center, so everything was addressed and they're flourishing, mate, they're doing really well. And it was one of the greatest rescues I've ever been involved with, but by crikey, it was hard.

Back to Part 6: Is the Croc Hunter Ever Afraid?

Ahead to Part 8: Coping with Habitat Destruction


Back to Meet the Crocodile Hunter

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