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Jungle Lore

Cruising with crocodiles


You can't get too close to the saltwater crocodiles, the world's largest reptiles, of Australia's Daintree rainforest but it's easy to fall in love with them

Oh yes, Scarface is burly. As macho as a male can get. I hate it when people call him dangerous. I loathe the 'instinctive killer', 'opportunistic predator' adjectives that are thrown at him. My heart bleeds for Scarface. You'd be surprised how shy he is. He's definitely not devious. He's cautious, he'll slink off if he sees you. " Sitting in the heart of Daintree rainforest, a 60-minute drive from Port Douglas in northern Australia, I thought Bruce Belcher was talking of a dear friend scarred by the world's vitriol.

"You want to see Scarface?" asked Belcher, who runs Bruce Belcher's Daintree River Cruises, springing from his chair and pointing to a photograph. There he was. Scarface. Large head. Broad body. His skin dark green. A pair of ridges ran from his eyes along the centre of his snout, his scales were oval and small. He weighed roughly 700 kilograms. Scarface looked macho, as macho as a crocodile can get. Yes, Scarface is an estuarine crocodile. The alpha male of the Daintree river with a harem of six females and territory stretching over 30 kilometres. I was in Daintree rainforest, a world heritage site, on a crocodile-spotting cruise.

Daintree is no ordinary jungle. It is the largest continuous tropical rainforest in Australia and home to rare species of flora and fauna, including the saltwater crocodile, the largest living reptile. Call them estuarine or Indo-Pacific crocodiles, in Daintree these saltwater crocodiles are simply referred to as "salties".

A bunch of nearly 70 adults live in the rainforest.

"Seventy adult male crocs?" I whooped. "Do I get to see half of them?" I was getting impatient. And greedy. "Half? No, lower your expectations. Daintree is actually a low-density croc population, the average being 1. 3 adults per square kilometre. " My enthusiasm waned but Belcher promised a few big crocs, and a few hatchlings too. Lizzy, Daintree's prima donna croc, had had a litter recently and the hatchlings could be seen on the banks prowling for crabs and prawns. I just had to trust Belcher. He sure knew all about crocs. Over the last 25 years, he's done 40, 000 croc-spotting cruises. Perhaps that's why he's demystifying the killercroc tag, and why his heart bleeds for the crocs who were mercilessly massacred for their exquisite hides until a law was promulgated in 1974 to protect Australian crocs. Even before I hopped onto the MV Mangrove Jack II for my one-hour cruise, Belcher had converted me into a croc-lover. Then came a loud warning: "Walk carefully on the boardwalk. There are amethystine pythons. " Ken White, our boatman and guide, added more slithery intrigue to the croc cruise. I looked around, dreading a hiss and fearing a bite. But I got distracted by White's stern safety instructions. "If you see a croc, keep your arm in. Do not scream. Do not feed the crocs. We cannot get closer than 10 metres to a croc, so do not expect to get up close and personal with them".

As the Jack II glided along the 120-km long Daintree River, I clutched my binoculars and squinted into the murky waters. White started telling a story about mangroves and pneumatophores and interspersed it with stories of Lizzy, her babies, Scarface, and the territorial wars between the dominant male and the wannabe alphas. Suddenly, there was a hush -White cut the engine, shushed all of us, and ordered, "Look at the fallen log. Peer under the yellow leaves. That's Lizzy's baby. A 2011 model. A two-year-old croc. " But Lizzy's little baby was so well camouflaged that I could barely make out her pale yellow and black striped skin from the brown of the pneumatophores. But I did spot her. Barely 36 inches long, Lizzy's baby looked like a cuddly toy. "You think she's cuddly. Wait till she grows up. It could be five metres long. Maybe you could cuddle then, " guffawed White. He was right of course - the salties are the only extant crocodiles to reach and exceed a length of 16 feet.

I dropped all thoughts of cradling a croc and yearned to see Scarface. "Perish the thought, " said White, as he vetoed any possibility of seeing the alpha male. A couple of days ago, Scarface had brawled with the younger male crocs who wanted to vanquish him and usurp his territory and his harem. Bruised, he was now sulking somewhere by the messy compost mounds that the crocs call home.

But I saw Lizzy and another of her babies. Lizzy had laid 70 eggs and incubated them for three months but no more than 25 had hatched. In the croc world, 25 hatchlings out of 70 eggs is usual.

As Lizzy glided into the waters and White steered Jack II back to the bank, I found Belcher standing with a croc skull in his hands. "Look at this one. It probably got killed, its skin turned into a dainty purse for a vain woman, " he said with disdain. "I'll never let this happen to other Salties"

I joined the chorus. Salties are a formidable species of reptile indeed but they're certainly no brutes.

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