Swimming with Crocodiles

Nature is avenged by a prehistoric animal

LEARNING often takes circuitous, vortexlike routes. Certainly it did for us. We had set out to the Raja Ampat islands of West Papua to study sea cucumbers, which, since the 1990s, have been one of the most important elements to the local economy, boiled and dried and exported to China. Perhaps we should have been suspicious about this ostensibly straightforward task from the beginning. Perhaps we should not have been surprised when the sea cucumbers gave way to a larger story, one that would change our understanding of this time of heedless human influence on the earth’s environment.

Our plan was to stop in every Indonesian city along the way to the islands and inquire of marine-product merchants about the sea cucumber trade, which we assumed would be buzzing, but the merchants largely put us off. When we arrived in Raja Ampat, the villagers were too busy with the tourist trade to care about sea cucumbers. We were told to visit Mayalibit Bay, where it was said that sea cucumbers remain an important livelihood, but when we got there, we learned that no one was harvesting sea cucumbers anymore. Too many people had died from attacks by crocodiles.

The first indication of this came from Mister Rodeo, an old man so named for the large cowboy hat he sported. Mister Rodeo was a spirit quester who had spent many months living with the occult beings that dwell in the mountains of Waigeo. We were sheltering from a heavy downpour in his house one afternoon when he told us about the recent shift in crocodile behavior. “Crocodiles were never evil in the past,” he said, using the Indonesian word jahat, which means “evil” and “demonic” as well as “criminal.” But in the last ten years, there had been half a dozen attacks in the region. What might have caused the crocodiles to turn into demons?

There are twenty-three extant crocodilian species, all descended from a lineage a quarter billion years old, predating the fifth mass extinction and surviving the dinosaurs. They maintain healthy bodies, well defended against disease. Their blood coagulates almost immediately in response to flesh wounds or even amputations. At full stature, a crocodile has no enemies to fear — except humans.

For citizens in Southeast Asia, the “Great Acceleration” that characterized the twentieth century brought about cheap, accessible water transportation via outboard motors known as “Johnsons” (after the American company that supplied them as war machines during the U.S.–Indochina War). Increased transportation has led to increased coastal development, destroying crocodile habitats. Those creatures not maimed by passing boats are caused crippling pain by the shriek of motors.

The sudden encroachment of humans over crocodiles gave way to a rapid boost in the crocodile skin trade. Saltwater crocodiles, whose scales are less obstructive to the creation of leather fashion goods, were in particularly high demand. By the 1970s, the populations of all species of crocodile were crashing on a global scale. Concerned about the decline but failing to see a full stop to the trade, conservationists began to encourage crocodile ranching, a practice in which wild crocodile eggs are gathered and raised in captivity for the leather industry.

When the bottom fell out of the crocodile skin market in the 1990s and the ranches ceased their turnover, crocodile populations slowly began to recover. Where hunters had once killed off all adults, mature crocodiles were now reemerging across Southeast Asia, larger and more hostile than ever before. Were they seeking revenge? We thought of the work of the philosopher Isabelle Stengers, who refers to the biogeology of the planet as Gaia. In her book In Catastrophic Times, she suggests that Gaia is striking back against environmental insults. The world she depicts is one in which we no longer can assume passivity of the landscape. Might crocodiles be among the agents of this movement?


AS WE TRAVELED to villages where crocodile attacks had occurred, we found ourselves embroiled in further mysteries. Beyond the narrative of hungry and dangerous crocodiles were those of crocodiles as guardian spirits, sorcerers, enactors of God’s will. Through them all was a constant refrain: “There’s no proof.” There is something unknowable about these encounters, we were told. Perhaps crocodiles attack because they are commandeered by spirits, by sorcery, by ancestral anger. Or perhaps because they are hungry? One can guess the reasons, but the true cause remains hidden in the same way a crocodile hides in a murky estuary.

Traditional beliefs, so we often tell ourselves in the West, provided certainty to villagers in simpler times before modernity sent our world awry. In Raja Ampat we found no such firm beliefs to pin down the crocodile attacks. Unable to hold fast to the imagined clarity of modern research, we fell under the spell of uncertainty. Doubt entered our way of knowing alongside danger: another feature of the Anthropocene. When Gaia strikes back against anthropogenic design, we are left with designs undone and gone astray. And when the best-laid plans for the mastery of the earth prove unrealizable, neatness itself becomes suspicious, and we suddenly return to what we once imagined as archaic fears: what of the beast lurking just below the surface?

In the dream of modernity, human ways were separated from nonhuman ones so that the former could conquer the latter. But how irrelevant the match seems to someone sitting in a small boat at night amid the phosphorescence of a tropical sea. There is no Man versus Nature toss-up to prepare for, no prize to seek; instead, there is only the possibility of something out there surrounding you. Perhaps there are no crocodiles at all, or perhaps one is right under the boat. Even if your flashlight catches two red eyes, who knows what it is in a world where both witches and crocodiles have shining red eyes?

Piecing through our own morass of doubts, the best we can do is offer a report on what we learned while inquiring about crocodile attacks in Raja Ampat. The stories we heard formed a thickening cascade, as one attack followed another. The following dates are the years in which the attacks are reported to have occurred. All people involved have been given pseudonyms and place-names obscured, but the reports are as true as we know how to make them.

MAYALIBIT BAY is a great expanse of brackish water embraced by the nickel-and-limestone arms of the island of Waigeo. Sediments run down the sharp slopes, especially where industrial logging has left skeletal landscapes of tangled vines. Caught in the twining roots of mangroves, mud piles up in plains and estuaries reaching into the water, which sometimes is so dark and thick that underwater one can barely see a meter ahead. This is not a good distance to watch for crocodiles.



Pilu, 2014

A man, let’s call him Ali, went out to hunt birds in the mountains. Ali paddled across the bay and took his boat into the mouth of a muddy creek. Tying the boat to a tree, he might have proceeded into the forest on foot. He might have come back later. No one knows because no one ever saw him again. Ali’s boat was found tied neatly where he left it, with the white cockatoo that he used as a lure still perched on its wooden pole.

A fellow villager heard someone cry out. Search parties went out to look for him, and offerings of cigarettes and betel nut were made, but Ali was never found. In the next few days, help was called in from surrounding villages. Pilu villagers sought out Pak Johannes, an elder from Garuwa. Many believe that Pak Johannes can speak to crocodiles, but he insists that he speaks only to God and the ancestors. In fact, he resents the implication that he speaks to crocodiles; only witches speak animal language, he says. Then Pak Johannes fixes us with an intense stare: “For all I know, it is you Westerners who speak the language of crocodiles.” For the descendant of a population ravaged for centuries by Dutch-sponsored raids, this possibility is not farfetched. Maybe Westerners are the real witches?


Warwar, 2014

A few months later, an incident happened near the village of Warwar. Eager to make some money, a teenaged boy named Rudy went to dive for sea cucumbers at Serpent Point. It was night, the time when sea cucumbers are most active and easiest to find. By morning he hadn’t returned. Offerings were made on the village pier. A few days later, Rudy’s body was found in the creek at Serpent Point. The intestines were out of the body; the legs and feet were fractured and gnawed. Strangely, in response to the offerings, the crocodile had presented the body standing up with its feet in the mud. The head of the corpse stared out above the waterline.

Pak Riady, the village leader, could not comprehend the incident. Crocodiles, he mused, are traditional enemies of wild boar as well as dogs, but they had never before indulged in human flesh. He had heard the idea that once a crocodile tastes human flesh, it won’t stop, but the recent attacks were distributed widely, impossible to attribute to an individual crocodile. He wondered if crocodiles who have found a good food source invite each other to dinner — just as humans do. Perhaps this crocodile had been a guest of one such gathering and had there acquired a taste for humans.

But why pick Rudy, a young man so full of life? Here Pak Riady, a pious Muslim, could only refer us to the will of God. Rudy’s allotted time was over.


Garuwa, circa 2010

Before the deaths began, several people had been hurt, but not killed, by crocodiles. One couple, Maria and Darius, told us they were working in their garden, which lay at some distance from their village house. Heading home that evening, Darius suggested that they gather clams for dinner. Maria wanted to go straight home, but Darius insisted, and so they stopped to look for clams. Maria was washing her feet in the stream when a crocodile grabbed her leg. She cried out and Darius ran over, grabbed her, and attempted to pry her out of the crocodile’s grasp, which tore the flesh off her leg. Then Darius heard a bird call to him in a human voice: “Yell!” it instructed him. So Darius yelled, and at once the crocodile let go.

Maria was transported to the hospital. Her foot is still deformed from the bite, but she gets along well despite it. The attack actually seems to have drawn husband and wife together in affection and generous regard. Darius recalls the incident with a sense of both bewilderment and blessing. And what was that bird with the human voice? Darius believes it was God. Perhaps the crocodile had been “sent” by sorcery, he says, as a result of Maria’s troubles with her siblings over their land. One never can tell with crocodiles.

Even the bodies of crocodiles are uncannily unknowable, almost humanlike in their strangeness. Crocodiles attack not with their mouths but with their hands, the villagers explained to us. They use their hands to pull their victim into the water, hold them in a tight embrace, and roll around until the victim has drowned. Then they place the body on their back, as a villager might carry garden produce home in woven baskets.

To Western science, this explanation does not gel with natural history. The limbs of the saltwater crocodile are almost vestigial compared to other crocodiles, so well adapted are they to swimming. Crocodiles therefore must grab with their teeth. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the sense of crocodile-human connection the Raja Ampat stories offer. Most animals are said only to have feet, after all, not hands. This resemblance brought our interlocutors closest to thinking with the crocodile: “Perhaps he was hungry,” people said, distancing themselves from the more personal motivations for the attack.



Markan, 2015

Just a few months after the attack at Warwar, a young man named Hanson was taken near Markan. He too had gone out to dive for sea cucumbers at night. He was with two friends, both of whom took the land side of the boat, while he took the deepwater side. The friends heard him cry out for help, and at first they thought they could indeed help, because they saw him rise up from the water, fighting the crocodile. But then the crocodile dove, bringing Hanson under. The friends could only get back into the boat and go home to report his fate.

People from nearby villages came to ask the crocodile to return the body. A group found something along a muddy stream amid the mangroves — the crocodile, pulling the corpse back into the water. (We were told that crocodiles stash their victims for a few days until the meat softens.) Pak Johannes, the elder from Garuwa, prepared offerings, casting them into the water, and he prayed for assistance. In half an hour, the corpse came floating up from the bottom of the river. The crocodile had surrendered the body.

Why had Hanson been attacked? Several theories circulated. Hanson had quarreled with his parents, who had forbidden him from diving, but he went anyway. Many people thought that this quarrel had inadvertently angered the family’s ancestors, and that is what put him in harm’s way. But a second observation pushed the event in a different direction. A monitoring boat from the nongovernmental organization Conservation International had stopped by the day before Hanson’s dive. The boat was patrolling the marine protected area that had been established in the bay in 2007. On their patrol they had spotted several crocodiles. “Watch out, there are crocodiles around here,” the conservation monitor remembers telling Hanson. But Hanson replied boldly, “How can a crocodile eat a crocodile?” Did his comment suggest that he had been playing with black magic and now perceived himself as a crocodile? Or was it just boyish bravado, a joke?

Many people suggested that a crocodile would not attack someone at random. “There are three reasons a crocodile might attack a human,” said Pak Abraham, a village elder. “It could be the will of God. It could be that the person trespassed against traditional custom and law. Or it could be that the crocodile was sent by a sorcerer.” In the case of Hanson, the village consensus was that it was the second of these. Besides the fight with his parents, Hanson had been a harsh critic of the no-take zone established in the bay in an environmentalist-brokered conservation compact between Christian and Muslim villages. The compact was put into place through ecumenical offerings to place-based mon spirits. Some speculated that Hanson may have offended those spirits in his search for sea cucumbers. Perhaps environmentalism itself, in its alliance with local spirits, had claimed him.

Even as crocodiles respond to trespasses, they are also sentient animals. Pak Abraham took us back to his parents’ and grandparents’ time. Even though crocodiles were plenty then, Pak Abraham does not remember any attacks on humans. Crocodiles could often be seen coasting the waters of the bay, seemingly oblivious to humans. Then, when he was a teenager, crocodile hunting began in earnest. The crocodile population dwindled until there were only small ones to harvest. Crocodiles became wary, disappearing as soon as humans came into view.

Pak Abraham remembers going out at night with a friend, one paddling and one standing ready with a spear. You could find the crocodiles’ eyes shining red when hit by a flashlight, he said. On a good night, you might kill two. On land, the skin was dried with salt, rolled up, and carried to the city of Sorong, where the merchants were.

Since the crash of the crocodile skin market in the 1990s, the people of Markan have increasingly turned to sea cucumbers. Teripang gosok is one of the most coveted of sea cucumbers. Known as “sandfish” in English, teripang gosok is the primary source for the dried bêche-de-mer, fetching good prices in the global commodity supply chains that end in China. Labeled as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, sandfish are easily gathered at night when they come out to forage on the mud and sand of the bay. Hanson was the first person in the village to be attacked by a crocodile while searching for sea cucumbers, but since his death no one wants to go out. Meanwhile, crocodiles have grown braver and more numerous. They have eaten a number of village dogs. Crocodiles lunge at dogs when they stand on shore, dragging them to their death.

Pak Abraham’s stories were as close as we were able to get to Indigenous natural histories. We were disappointed at first; we had hoped for more guidance on crocodile behavior. But the crocodile is an elusive creature, rarely available for close observation. It’s a pool of fear, a guess within murky waters. People wondered, speculated, but explained that they did not know. One person suggested that the eggs were twisted into mangrove roots, where few people ventured. Others suggested that crocodiles must give birth to live young, because they had never seen their eggs. In the end, people told us, crocodiles are a mystery. They would turn the conversation to the question that seemed most pressing: why that victim was taken at that time. Had something been done to bring on the attack?


Housing Block  300, 2013

MAYALIBIT BAY has had more than its fair share of crocodile attacks, but it has not been the exclusive site for them. As we glided along Waigeo’s outer coast, not far from the mouth of the bay, our friend Pak Salmon pointed to a sheltered cove: that’s where the boat of the first man killed by a crocodile was found, he said. The victim lived in Housing Block 300, a new complex of houses. He had gone night diving for sea cucumbers and had never returned. His torso was found nearby. Then his head turned up to the west, near the regency capital, quite a distance away. Later, his legs were observed along the coast to the east, past the mouth of the bay.

Saltwater crocodiles are known for their long-distance swimming, as well as for their tendency to follow coastlines. Male saltwater crocodiles swim up to thirty kilometers a day over several consecutive days, covering distances of up to four hundred kilometers in one stretch. As mobile as the Western tourists who visit the area, crocodiles from the Mayalibit Bay may reach any of the remote islands in Raja Ampat, carrying in tow whatever fragments of food they have yet to consume.



Interlude with shape-shifters, 2017

Following limestone coastlines with bright glittering coral reefs, we found ourselves among Beser-speaking people, migrants from Biak (off the north coast of Papua), known for their entrepreneurial ambitions and millennial dreams. Our first conversationalist on crocodile lives was Markus. We asked Markus if crocodiles can be sent by sorcery. Yes, he said, and he mimed the way a request such as that can be sent, blowing onto his lifted hand. When we asked for examples, Markus told us about spirits of the land who can appear as crocodiles. If you kill those crocodiles, the spirit, which lives in a tree, does not die. He saw two crocodiles in Waisai, the regency capital, one in the main harbor with all the boats and the other blithely crossing a city street. Both were killed as soon as people saw them. But what exactly was seen? When you see a crocodile, it’s not immediately clear what it is: sorcerer, spirit, or perhaps ordinary animal? Even after they’re killed, it’s impossible to say.


Walimu, 2016

Crossing the water but still following coasts, we arrived at the island where a Russian tourist whom we will call Dimitri was attacked by a crocodile. He had been living most of the previous month at a homestay, swimming and diving in the day. How could such a thing have happened? It was not just decades but centuries since the villagers had heard of anything like this. For hundreds of years, they said, there have been no crocodile attacks on humans in that area.

After his death, Dimitri grew larger in the memory of his host family. He could free-dive to thirty meters, they said, visiting the depths “where the manta rays sleep.” They turned him into a navy captain, one who could swim around the whole island of Walimu (unlike the other European at the homestay, Nick, a poor swimmer). Every day after his swim, Dimitri would eat pastries the family prepared for him. He spoke no Indonesian, so communication was difficult, but the family said he thrived on the island. When he first arrived, he was skinny, but he filled out during his stay. They’ll remember him in the late afternoon, happily gobbling doughnuts.

Dimitri’s vacation was to have ended the day before his death; he and Nick were planning to check out and return to Europe together. At the last minute, Dimitri decided to stay one more day, the family recalled, and he convinced Nick to stay too. Nick spent the day, as usual, on the beachfront reef. But Dimitri set out into the jungle with his snorkeling gear to another, more deserted place, and never came back. Nick left the next day with tears running down his face.

The family brought in the police, who looked for Dimitri for several days. Four days after his death, the search-and-rescue team found his body in a bay on the other side of the island, with one arm missing, one leg broken, and wounds to the torso, but otherwise intact. A crocodile was seen near the body, seemingly guarding it. The police took the body away to be returned to Dimitri’s home country, but to the family, Dimitri’s spirit, his nín or “shadow,” seemed stuck on the island. In late afternoons, they could hear his characteristic cough in the place where they once served him doughnuts. A bad death can leave a spook.

The family went to the place where his corpse was discovered to retrieve his spirit, and they made a grave right in the middle of the tourist cottages. They poured a bottle of water out, thinking it might make the drowned spirit comfortable by clearing its airways. With stones and shells surrounding it, the grave became a kind of memorial. Dimitri was still very much there. “I never really spoke to him while he was alive, for he knew no Indonesian and only one or two words in English,” said Pak Amos, the father in the family. “But now he even speaks our local language, Beser, fluently. Dimitri is my friend. I speak to him every night.” Pak Amos sleeps in the nipa leaf hut next to Dimitri’s memorial and often confers with him before undertaking difficult endeavors. Dimitri has become an ancestor spirit, what Beser speakers call a rúr.

The bay where Dimitri’s body was found, where he had apparently gone snorkeling, was not an ordinary place. It was the kind of bay that local people — using the Dutch word — call a hol, a deep concave bay, usually deserted, and that still carries some of its additional Dutch meanings: a hollow place, a den, a lair. It was the site of the first village on Walimu, and was still guarded by five ípon, ancestral spirits that come out if you offend the land, for example, by logging or mining without permission. They are known to take the form of crocodiles.

Pak Lukas is the ritual expert for this ancestral place. A circumspect man, Pak Lukas does not speak carelessly about the ancestors and was initially reluctant to talk to us. And anyway, he said, his older brother, recently deceased, was really in charge of the offerings; he had only just come into this role. Slowly, he loosened up and began talking more freely. Yes, Dimitri had apparently offended the rúr spirits. Spirits are sensitive. Once Pak Lukas had gone to cut down some trees, but he had forgotten to bring betel nut for the land spirits. He immediately became sick. His whole body hurt. He started up his chain saw, but it would not cut the wood. The spirits had been offended. Only later, after he brought them a yellow rice offering, did he begin to feel better.

Pak Lukas had checked the ritual plates at the hol and found one missing. The plate that Dimitri seems to have taken was made of a powerful ancient porcelain and was known to be full of magical potential. Immensely valuable, it was a necessary component of making ritual offerings. It was also invisible and as big as a house. But how could a Western person have seen a giant invisible plate that typically only a local ritual expert could spot? Had Dimitri been an ancestor spirit all along? If ancestors can assume many forms, had they now assumed that of a Western tourist? Somehow the mystery of those “who came before” and those who come from far away had collided in a fatal crocodile attack, motivated perhaps by the mystery of crocodiles themselves.



Sorong, 2017

We left Raja Ampat through the city of Sorong, a raw-edged frontier town that illustrates just how much fossil fuel, sweat, compliance, and coercion it takes to create a space without crocodiles — except in cement enclosures. At our hotel, air conditioners struggled fitfully and unsuccessfully to keep out the moist, hot air. We were back in the Anthropocene as aspiration, rather than Anthropocene as warning.

We decided to cap our trip with a visit to a crocodile ranching operation we had heard about in the islands. Indonesia exports between three thousand and seven thousand skins from captive ranched saltwater crocodiles every year, mainly from farms in the province of Papua. At least there we might see an actual crocodile, rather than just hear about their mysterious presence. It was August 17, Indonesia’s national birthday, and the official celebration was punctuated by the grumbling disquiet of freedom-seeking Papuans. Schoolchildren wore their formal uniforms in the morning, but hurried to take them off for the rest of the free day. We splurged on a taxi and spent the morning winding through peri-urban neighborhoods, looking for our destination. At last we found the place, a giant junkyard near the coast. Enormous earth-moving machines took up the largest space, some rusty and some still clean. Beyond them, mud and weeds: a saltwater marsh of anthropogenic abandonment. Balancing on sticks across muddy ditches, we wandered to the middle of the mess. There, indeed, was a room-size cement-and-board enclosure around a mud hole.

When conservationists started worrying about crocodiles in the late 1970s, they came up with a plan: flood the market for crocodile skins with skins from ranches. Then, they believed, there would be no need to harvest wild crocodiles. It was the kind of plan governments and development organizations love, one that offered opportunities for businessmen to take resources once common and show how they could be privatized to concentrate profits for the elite. Ranching was a modern Anthropocene dream: the idea that one could only encourage the growth of nature by mastering it.

Sorong became a regional center for crocodile ranching and a model for the nation. The forestry department sponsored one ranch; others were private. Sorong Motors, which owned the muddy junkyard in which we found ourselves, once had more than a thousand crocodiles in a system of interlinked cementenclosed ponds. Now the crocodile industry had moved on to other places, and this business sat in abandonment. Pak Natu, the caretaker, showed us what was left.

Once, he said, the operation was vast. Now all the crocodiles had died or been sold except one, a lazy beast he estimated as seventy years old. He liked the crocodile, calling him Tuni, after the farm in Bintuni Bay from where it had come. Every week or so, he bought some fish for it. It would come out for him and even feed from his hand, he said. But it was just a remnant. The once vast ponds were now muddy swamp; the enclosures had been scavenged for their materials and were now a bit shaky. In a flood, the crocodile escaped, and it had taken fourteen men with chains to bring it back, Pak Natu recalled. But lately it didn’t do anything but nap.

Pak Natu and our taxi driver threw rocks at the pool to see  if they could get the crocodile’s attention. It came up, looked around, saw no food, and submerged. Pak Natu kept calling for it, and, every now and again, it would surface, look around, and sink once more. We asked the taxi driver to go to a local market to buy a tuna. When Pak Natu waved a fish at the crocodile, it finally took notice, swallowing the snack in a single gulp. The crocodile then lay quietly at the surface, digesting before us. Such a patient survivor. As modernist dreams turn to mud, those of us privileged enough to survive will sit in our cement enclosures, hoping that someone will come along to throw us a fish.

There was a time when people in this area of the world nurtured their relations with crocodiles. Children could safely bathe in the bay, protected by their crocodile kin. People often developed close relations with a particular one. Indeed, we talked  to members of one clan in Mayalibit Bay whose ancestors had been crocodile shape-shifters, offering protection in exchange for tobacco and betel nut. But what kinship we once enjoyed with crocodiles came to a halt with the colonial order. Viewed from this distance, the colonial separation of humans and beasts appears with its own exoticism: we call it Anthropocene. It has been a strange time, and now it forces us into a new wariness. Other natures beckon, whether of land spirits or animal kin. As dangers reemerge around us, human and not human, we find ourselves, again, swimming with crocodiles. O


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Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is the author of The Mushroom at the End of the World, Friction, and In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. She is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Nils Bubandt is the author of The Empty Seashell, editor-in-chief of the journal Ethnos, and a professor of anthropology at Aarhus University, Denmark.


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