Words by Bryan Havemann.
Although the hippo is said to be the mammal that kills the most people, the Nile crocodile has the reputation of killing more people in Africa than any other animal, full stop. Crocodiles have remained unchanged since the dinosaur times and are considered to be perfect killing machines. The Nile crocodile is a top predator that reigns supreme in all water bodies in Africa, whether they be large rivers, lakes, wetlands, or even shrinking pans. On the fear barometer, most humans would rank the Nile crocodile right up there with the great white shark. The golden rule in Africa is: Do not swim in anything larger than a teaspoon of water, because, if the crocodile does not get you, bilharzia will.
The Nile crocodile is found throughout central, eastern and southern Africa. For the most part, their diet consists of fish and other small animals, but the really large crocodiles will also take big land-based prey. The horrific images of crocodiles attacking blue wildebeest and zebra in the Serengeti are a testament to the immense strength that crocodiles have, to overcome such large prey. They can grow to over 6 metres in length and weigh over 1 000 kg, although, on average, they are half this size; and, unfortunately, indiscriminate hunting in Africa has killed most of the really large specimens.
The Nile crocodile will normally stay under the water for only a couple of minutes at a time, but, if they remain inactive, they can hold their breath for up to two hours. The crocodile has its nostrils, eyes and ear openings all on the same level; so that with just the top of the head above water, it can keep the rest of the body hidden. Its modus operandi is to drag its prey under the water so that it drowns, and then to eat it at leisure. A Nile crocodile cannot chew its food, so once it has clamped down on an animal it goes into what is known as a “death roll;” it spins around until it rips off a chunk of flesh, which is then gulped down whole.
As a game ranger in the Kruger National Park, I have always been very conscious of the dangers that crocodiles pose. One of the most famous crocodile stories from the KNP was of the game ranger Tom Yssel, who was caught by a massive crocodile while wading knee-deep through the Sabie River in 1976. Tom and a group of friends were picnicking on the river bank, and, as they were not expecting trouble, no one had brought a substantial weapon. Louis Olivier, a KNP game ranger legend, and Hans Kolver, the helicopter pilot, fought an epic 20-minute battle to free Tom from the crocodile’s jaws. They first tried to use a spade, without success, but eventually by using a kitchen knife, lots of muscle and sheer guts, they managed to free Tom and rush him to hospital. Tom suffered massive trauma to his leg, and endured numerous operations over the years to deal with infection and other complications. Fortunately he did not lose the leg, and was able to continue as a very successful ranger in the KNP. Both Louis and Hans received South Africa’s highest civilian decoration for Conspicuous Bravery.