Looking Out for the Spirits of the Marsh

Saltwater or estuarine crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are the largest reptiles on Earth. In 1823 a gigantic 27-foot crocodile was shot and killed near the town of Jalajala in Laguna de Bay, the Philippines. Lolong, the saltwater crocodile captured on September 3, 2011, died of pneumonia after less than two years in captivity. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

"Eyes out for snakes,” warns our sweating, bolo-clutching guide, Edgar Yucot, as we hump through cobra-infested trails towards Magsagangsang Creek in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur. It’s another scorcher of a day, and we’re on the lookout for far more than cobras.

For the Philippines, Eastern Mindanao is crocodile-central. In these chocolate-hued swamps and streams two years back, one hundred brave men hauled a crocodile from the depths and into history. Named Lolong to honor a croc trapper who fell from a heart attack right before the capture, the 20.2-foot beast went on to become the Guinness World title holder for the world’s longest crocodile before his untimely demise last February.

Led by Yucot, our eight-strong squad left the quiet riverside town of Nueva Era an hour back, and without a single croc sighting, our impatience was rising.

Long, long ago, crocodiles were common in the Philippines. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere described how Crisostomo Ibarra saved Elias from a rogue beast by the banks of the Pasig River.

“For generations, we believed the spirits of our ancestors lived within the largest of crocodiles,” he says while halting to unhook a 1.5-liter water bottle jury-rigged to his back. “Many crocodiles inhabit the marsh, each differentiated by color. Black crocodiles like Lolong are the fiercest. Green, yellow and red ones are middle spirits, while white ones are a portent of luck.” 

Taking a swig, he abruptly points to a clump of hyacinth and bamboo lodged dead-center in the channel. “That’s where I saw a baby crocodile this morning.” 

We sit and squint for ten minutes and see nothing but wind caressing water.   

Crocodile Hunters

Since 2011 Yucot has dedicated himself to tracking and bagging an alleged 25-footer photographed in Magsagangsang Creek that year. So goes the tale from a Nueva Era resident: “Jabar Abdul usually tethered his carabao near the river. We heard splashing one night and came out to investigate. What we saw was incredible—the carabao was being eaten by a crocodile, much larger than any we’ve ever seen!” 

Nicknamed Lalang, the beast is the new Moby Dick of Yucot, sought by other crocodile hunters of Agusan Marsh. 

Across the country, hunters are scouring swamps for their own armored quarry. In the mangrove mazes of Rizal in Palawan, crocodile hunters are on the prowl for a beast said to be larger than Lolong. An enclosure patterned after that of Lolong’s has already been built near Puerto Princesa. 

Crocodile hunter Edgar Yucot shows the team what a typical Agusan dugout canoe looks like. In 2009 a rogue crocodile attacked and ate a 12-year old girl as she paddled a similar canoe. To this day, locals still fish using these flimsy boats. Human-wildlife conflict remains a global issue to be fully resolved by conservation groups. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Long, long ago, crocodiles were common in the Philippines. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere described how Crisostomo Ibarra saved Elias from a rogue beast by the banks of the Pasig River. On display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in America is the preserved skull of an enormous 27-foot saltwater crocodile shot and killed near the town of Jalajala, Laguna de Bay, in 1823. Today most of the giants have forever slipped beneath the murk, extirpated for space, hide and pride. 

The Philippines hosts two crocodile species. The Philippine or freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), critically endangered and endemic to Mindanao and Isabela, grows to nine feet and sports sharp grooves down its nape. 

The larger estuarine or saltwaterc (Crocodylus porosus) has a smooth neck. Once widespread throughout Asia and Northern Australia, it has been pushed to extinction in several countries,  including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and possibly Cambodia. “Salties are the largest reptiles on Earth,” explains former DENR Secretary and reptile-expert Dr. Angel Alcala. “Some grow longer than 25 feet and live up to a century.”

Juvenile crocodile swims across the murk. In Agusan del Sur, reverence for crocodiles has been replaced by fear, owing to a recent spate of crocodile attacks on livestock and humans. To spare both people and crocodiles, local leaders saw fit to allow crocodile hunters to trap and detain the larger beasts at the Bunawan Eco-Park and Rescue Center in Agusan del Sur. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

In Human Hands

Today both Philippine crocodile species are threatened with extinction. Explains Dr. Alcala, “Wild numbers have taken a nosedive because of hunting, habitat pressure and human conflict.” 

Crocodile farms might be a viable conservation option. In 1986 the Philippine government set up the Crocodile Farming Institute (CFI) in Irawan, Palawan, to explore the viability of commercial rearing and propagation. Now converted into a tourist draw and renamed the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), the breeding complex hosts thousands of crocs, including giants like Surigao, an 18-foot saltie.

To fast-track development, CFI selected six candidate farms for pilot testing in 1999. Today as many as 8,000 crocodiles — mostly salties — are kept in various farms across Luzon and Mindanao. Classified as farm-raised, the offspring is sold for hide and meat. Already, delicacies like crocodile sisig and teriyaki are gracing menus across the country. 

Numerous questions are posed by crocodile conservationists. Are farmed crocodiles to be treated no differently than livestock? Do breeding programs truly intend to release offspring back to the wild? How will we release them if they have no homes to return to? 

We walked over to the town of Nueva Era in Agusan del Sur to look for wild crocodiles and interview locals. Similar to riverside communities in Laos and Cambodia, many houses near the marsh are built on stilts—some as high as 20 feet. In these parts, people take floods and crocodile attacks seriously. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

The main problem of course, is that humans are encroaching on crocodile habitats. To protect local residents who fish for dalag, gurami, tilapia and tasty fist-sized snails called kambuway aboard flimsy dugout canoes, the local government of Agusan del Sur saw fit to capture and “rescue” crocodiles large enough to be deadly to people. In the end, humans won out, leaving the fate of these ancient creatures squarely in human hands.

“People call us crocodile hunters, but we are really here to protect them,” reasons Yucot as we head back to Nueva Era, our chances of seeing crocs evaporating with the rising midday heat. “The people of the marsh have always revered crocodiles, but recent attacks on people and livestock have pushed many to fear them. Those that get too big must now be removed for their own good — or else they might be killed from fear and anger. Believe it or not, the best way to keep them safe is to capture them.” 

I nod slowly, taking a last glance at Magsagangsang Creek and its mysterious residents. As we leave the area to the spirits of the marsh, I can only wonder: But will their fate be better than Lolong’s? 

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan serves as the Communications and Media Manager for WWF-Philippines. He has written hundreds of stories on the environment, ranging from renewable energy shifts to satellite tagging for whale sharks. His goal is to convince people that sustainable living offers excellent economic and holistic returns.