Killer crocodiles: Why are more humans being attacked in East Timor?

LOSPALOS, EAST TIMOR (AFP) – Mario Da Cruz could only watch in horror as a small army of crocodiles killed a child on an East Timor beach – another victim of the tiny nation’s soaring rate of attacks.

Such incidents have jumped more than 20-fold over the past two decades with an average of one person a month falling prey to the ferocious reptiles, though not all are fatal.

“I was walking along the beach and suddenly this group of crocodiles came out of the water so I panicked and ran, but one of them bit my leg,” explained Da Cruz.

“Another attacked a small child who died right then and there,” he said, adding that his home town of Lospalos has seen a jump in crocodiles striking humans.

East Timor sits between Indonesia and Australia, and a large number in the impoverished nation of 1.2 million rely on the waterways for every aspect of life. People are targetted by crocodiles while they are fishing in small boats, or bathing and collecting water to drink.

A crocodile at the compound of a police station in Dili. PHOTO: AFP

“They have had a pretty serious increase in the number of crocodile attacks in the past 10 years,” said Conservation Biologist at Australia’s Charles Darwin University Sam Banks. Timor’s rate of attacks jumped from fewer than one per year in 1996 to more than a dozen annually in 2014, the most recent data available.

That jump made crocodile attacks a fatality risk 10 times greater than malaria, according to Sebastian Brackhane at Germany’s University of Freiburg, who has studied East Timor’s crocodile management.

Brackhane and other scientists have looked at what might be behind the jump in a country with a relatively low population of native crocs, including the possibility of humans encroaching on their habitat. But “we think that an increase in the number of large saltwater crocodiles is the primary factor”, he told AFP.

“The problem is not limited to (East Timor). Other islands, such as the Solomon islands and the Andamans, and several coastal areas of Indonesia show similar patterns of increasing human-crocodile conflict,” Brackhane added.

Many Timorese, who revere the reptiles, believe the rise in attacks is down to foreign creatures swimming over from Australia or elsewhere in search of food. Banks said that conservation efforts have boosted Australia’s crocodile population, leading to greater competition for resources – and potentially forcing some to go farther afield.

So he and wildlife scientist with Australia’s Northern Territory government Yusuke Fukuda are hoping that DNA testing will solve the mystery surrounding the sudden rise in crocodile attacks.

Scientists said it is feasible for the creatures, which can grow up to six metres long and weigh 1,000 kilogrammes, to make the 500 kilometres journey across the Timor Sea from Australia.