Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Day I Saw 16500 Crocodiles in Malawi

Teachers spend hours and years trying to shape students, journalists chase after sources to get a story, it is how life goes. But for one man, every day is potentially his last as he deals with humongous hungry crocodiles: stealing their eggs, feeding them and killing them. I have been in Salima and been mingling with the reptile handler there.

Away from the white sandy beaches that revelers throng in Senga Bay, Salima lies one fenced establishment, from the outside it is just low lying fences with threes growing inside. But if only the swimmers at the beach knew that just 600 metres from where they are there are 16,500 crocodiles, they would think again before diving head first into the water.

The “Croc Farm” or Nyika Farms lies some ten minutes off the road going to Livingtonia Beach Hotel and next to Kambwiri Lodge. It is a breathtaking site, not aesthetically, but for what is grown on the farm: crocodiles.

About thirty humans mingle to and fro inside the fenced establishment, a carpenter, someone is slashing grass and there is general beehive activity with each person doing their niche and from a vantage point all is normal.

One man stands out from the crowd, he barks out instructions, he jumps from driving a tractor to talking to guests, and labourers slightly bend their bodies when talking to him. He is definitely in charge.

Goliati Chibakuwa, 39, was just like any other school leaver before 1999, he landed a job as a truck assistant and plied his trade in Dwangwa and then one day his boss says to him, “I have bought a crocodile farm and I want you to manage it.”
“By then, I had never seen a crocodile, all I knew about crocodiles were the rumours that they are a dangerous creatures,” says Chibakuwa.

Chibakuwa is medium heighted with a roundish face and eyes set deep in his skull. He wears his beards long and his cleanly shaven head brings one to think of a boxer or members of the Apostolic faith. He is the second in command at the Croc Farm and he has been since the farm started back in 1999.

“When I saw a crocodile for the first time, it corresponded with rumours I had heard of the beast. I was tensed,” He confessed.

But what was he to do, go back to unemployment?

He was soon on the bus to Zimbabwe to learn all there was to learn about minding crocodiles. He learnt how to breed, how to feed and how to slaughter crocodiles and what to do with the meat and skin after slaughtering.

“Crocodiles are unlike other animals that you get used to, they can never be tamed. Each time I deal with them I am mindful of that, it’s why I have no scars despite handling thousands of crocodiles,” said Chibakuwa outstretching his hands like Jesus did to his disciples to show his scars.

There are several brick fenced pens on the farm of about one and a half metres with a wire lining tilted inwards for obvious reasons. Inside the pens several trees stand alongside man made shades to provide shade to the coldblooded reptiles.

I did not learn the collective name for a group of crocodiles in primary school, so I will go with “gang.” There are gangs upon gangs of crocodiles in the pens with some piling on top of others. Their unmistakable greenish yellow skins dominate the place.
Some with mouths constantly open like a mouse trap, some only showing their nose and eyes on the surface of the water in the pens. The place is silent, apart from the hiss of the wind and the distance cracking of the waves at the lake; it is like being in a horror movie just before the beast strikes.

As one is guided from pen to pen, the size of the crocodiles does not change significantly, only their ages. At four years the crocodiles are still diminutive, but they don’t have to rush to grow up, they can live up to 160 years according to Chibakuwa.

Most of the crocodiles have their teeth removed to avoid damaging each other’s skins while they pile up and definitely to keep the handlers safe. There are however a set of adult ones that still have their teeth intact, these adults are not to be slaughtered and are used to produce eggs.

One male is allocated seven females and after mating in the months of May to July the females start laying eggs in September and can produce forty to a hundred eggs each. The eggs are laid in the sand next to the pools and Chibakuwa and his assistants have to invade the pools to get the eggs for incubation.  It will be 90 days before the eggs can hatch.
“We feed them on every second day of the week; each of these young ones gets about half to one full chicken every two days. The adults can get up to ten chickens each,” said Chibakuwa.

Chibakuwa has to see to each egg, making sure it is not damaged, after it hatches, the younglings have to live in warm water otherwise most of them die, a boiler sits on standby to heat the water for the newborns to swim in.

Since they never get to meet their mothers, Chibakuwa teaches them how to feed by dropping small fish into the water and letting them grab.

After enjoying more chicken than the average Malawian household for five years, the honeymoon ends, the animals are stunned and taken to the butchery, a secluded building on the farm.
Those about to face the knife are not hard to miss; their pool water is coloured red with Potassium Permanganate to heal the skin.

“We slice them somewhere on their neck just below their heads where it’s softer and we insert a wire into their spinal cord, which kills them fast. We skin then, clean the skin and salt it and then put the skin in a cold room ready for export.

“We have markets in Italy, France, South Africa and Germany. The meat from the slain ones is fed to the others,”

14 years ago when the farm was being set, people were afraid and understandably so with the tales from the Kamuzu Banda era where some dissidents are said to have been fed to crocodiles. Now the farm employs 18 people from the immediate areas.

There was no need to inquire as to the price of each skin, but if one feeds chicken to a beast three times per week for five years, it has to be for a reason.

And as people invade the market in Paris, Venice or Sandton to buy crocodile leather products, they might not know wha

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