On 11th October, a crocodile sighting along the malecon in the city of Campeche caused quite the commotion.
Onlookers were quick to grab cameras, swiftly followed by the arrival of crocodile-trap-armed emergency services.
All in all, this could perhaps be considered a surprising reaction, given that just a few hundred metres away from the malecon itself, crocodiles are prominent residents of the Los Petenes Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest and healthiest mangroves in Mexico.
Though crocodiles have superseded multiple civilizations – their teeth used as ornaments at various Mayan archaeological sites, for instance – popular opinion has driven the impression of crocodiles as being a dangerous, occasionally man-eating species.
While it may be true that they are formidable predators in their natural habitats, man-eating descriptions are largely storybook dramatisations. Such human-crocodile attacks are based on anecdotal evidence that put little emphasis on the human influence that leads to such conflicts, in particular with experts pointing to a more active ecotourism sector which has increased human presence in crocodile habitats.
The lack of financially-viable alternatives available to fishermen have meant more invasive fishing methods, such as net throwing, are still common practice. Such methods would typically require individuals to physically enter crocodile inhabited waters, which, again, increases the human presence.
These practises have resulted in man-eating personas of crocodiles completely overshadowing the vital environmental role they play. For example, in the Yucatan Peninsula where fishing is a prominent activity a recent survey found that 54% of residents saw crocodiles as dangerous, compared to only 37% who thought they were necessary for the environment.
Although the fact is, crocodile attacks on humans are an extremely rare occurrence.
“These unique creatures actually maintain biodiversity through their predatorial presence,” says Alex Olivera, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “In this way they stabilise ecosystem structure and function in a vulnerable environment like the mangroves. At more juvenile stages, for instance, crocodiles catch smaller prey like insects and crustaceans, but also fall prey to jaguars or birds. Then as adults they eat fish and mammals, ultimately providing a balance of species populations. Also, their movements across swamps help transfer important microorganisms and seeds for plants.”
These ecological functions make crocodiles a keystone species, in other words what is good for crocodiles is good for their – and our – environment. If crocodile populations are healthy, then it’s probably the case that the entire context around them is healthy too.
However, at present, unregulated disposal of wastes from agriculture, tilapia fish farming and wastewater, has polluted much of the mangroves in recent years. And not until recently have researchers been able to track the presence of these pollutants in crocodile tissue. This finding highlights the far reaching effects of human pollution across the whole ecosystem – where it is not just the crocodile’s immediate health at risk, but that of the ecosystem itself.
The concerns for the habitat extend further than just contamination: mangroves in the Yucatan province are reportedly shrinking at an alarming rate.
Jorge Alfredo Herrera Silveira, Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies, has stated that in early October 2022, mangrove environments had decreased by 30% in the Yucatan province, citing the influx of salted water and pollutants from civil engineering projects and climate change as the reason for this.
However, even in the midst of damaging environmental concerns inflicted mainly by human activity, crocodiles are still perceived as a villain.
There is work being done to subvert this villainous persona. In Yucatan, for example, the Crocodile Research and Management for Conservation group have started crocodile conservation education programs aimed towards the public.
Ultimately though, it remains uncertain whether this work can create more favourable popular opinions towards crocodiles. But with a goal that aims to conserve Mexican crocodile species, there is hope that human efforts can be influential in protecting crocodiles’ environments – environments that are ours too.
For Times Media Mexico, Raymond Kitchen in Campeche