3 May 2018

Crocodiles: The deadly totems of Timor-Leste

2:13 pm on 3 May 2018

A country under siege for decades, Timor-Leste has more than its fair share of challenges as it seeks to develop, recover and move forward after decades of struggle under its occupation by Indonesia that only ended in 2001.

Some of the key problems Timor-Leste faces are environmental and economic (among many others) and these two in particular came to a head with the issue of crocodiles in the island nation.

Rama, crocodile at the BOP compound

Rama, crocodile at the BOP compound Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

Under Indonesian rule (and Portuguese before that) crocodile culling was the norm. However, crocodiles are sacred to the Timorese, so once the country gained sovereignty the government granted saltwater crocodiles a protected status as they sought to rectify a sense of national identity and culture.

Culling became outlawed in 2002, and the effect was detrimental to many communities, the majority of which rely on subsistence living like fishing.

The saltwater crocodile population skyrocketed growing to such an extent that it saw a dramatic increase in crocodile and human conflict. This has rendered many beaches in Timor-Leste largely unswimmable and many communities live in constant fear of crocodile attacks.

In recent years Timor-Leste appears to have conquered its turbulent history and has seen relative stability.

The nation is in the process of rebuilding much needed infrastructure and slowly creating a tourism sector. President Taur Matan Ruak (2012 - 2017) knew of the crocodile related issues when he undertook a diplomatic trip to Australia in 2012, noticing how successful Australian management incentives were and how the correlating crocodile farms had also become a tourist draw.

Rural Timor-Leste

Rural Timor-Leste Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

This led him to make moves to institute similar management incentives in Timor. However for the Timorese, the crocodile holds an intense cultural significance in Timor-Leste, so any management incentives would then need to delicately cater to these animals and local customs.

With this in mind, I flew to Timor-Leste hoping to learn more about the cultural significance of the crocodile, and the outcome of the task force.

It was a hot humid day in Dili for my first interview. The locals crowded in the shade trying to find some reprieve from the intense heat and the streets were possessed with lethargy.

I crossed the road, navigating through a river of scooters and microlets (the brightly painted vans that serve as public transport in Dili), finally reaching the cool air-conditioning of the cafe in Hotel Timor, a five star hotel near the port and the Presidential Palace, to discuss the cultural significance of the crocodile with anthropologist Josh Trindade - an expert on all cultural nuances of the 16 ethnic groups of Timor-Leste.

Anthropologist Josh Trindade

Anthropologist Josh Trindade Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

Trindade had been working as an adviser for the crocodile task force, assisting them with identifying potential cultural barriers that could arise as well as providing the task force with a crash course on the importance of the crocodile.

Timor-Leste's origin story lies with the crocodile, telling of its original ancestor Lafaek Diak 'The Good Crocodile' and a young boy; the crocodile sacrifices itself to create the land of Timor Leste, the mountains his spine, a home for the boy who had trusted him enough to ride his back to a new land.

The crocodile is a prehistoric and resilient animal and judging by Timor-Leste's history, this resilience is a characteristic that the people and the nation seemed to have inherited. The crocodile in Timor-Leste is considered lulik 'sacred' and the Timorese believe that they are ancestors - often referred to as Abo Lafaek 'Grandfather Crocodile'.

It is hard to gauge an accurate number of crocodile related deaths or attacks per annum as the stigma that surrounds a crocodile attack quite often keeps communities silent.

Many believe that a crocodile attack is a punishment by their ancestors for familial transgressions, and it is not uncommon for families to not report a crocodile related death or disappearance due to the stigma that comes with an attack.

The beliefs that surround the crocodile vary from region to region, there are some clans that keep them as pets and believe they can communicate with them, others who consider lulik crocodile more as a warning and keep their distance.

Josh Trindade believes that the success of the crocodile management incentives will largely be dictated by the relationship that the task force develops with the communities involved, and an awareness that each situation relating to a problem croc will need a case by case sensibility due to the variation of the beliefs.

It's hard to come to terms with the true spiritual significance of the crocodile when discussing theory and studies; it became clear that I would need to meet eyes with a Lafaek to understand the visceral mysticism that surrounds the crocodile... Luckily I had been tipped off on the whereabouts of some crocodiles in Dili.

I reached the Bairo Pite markets just before lunch and the heat and humidity had already drenched my t-shirt and shorts. I had been getting confused stares from locals at shop stalls - a tall malai 'foreigner' walking through the labyrinth of alleys and shacks in Bairo Pite, carrying three frozen chickens and asking about Lafaek.

Officers at the BOP compound

Officers at the BOP compound Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

Finally, I reached the BOP (paramilitary police) compound. The BOP guards at the front gate see my chickens and immediately understand my purpose.

"Lafaek? Lafaek?" they repeated.

Three uniformed elite police led me five feet from the guardhouse to where a goliath saltwater crocodile lived. His name was 'Aminu' which means bodyguard. I was taken aback by its sheer size and prehistoric gaze.

It was well over 12 feet long and its head was roughly my height (6 foot 2). Its attention was immediately drawn to me as it started to follow me around the perimeter of the enclosure. As Aminu began to lean and claw against the fence with his sheer predatory mass, the mesh wire warped and bent; I began to question the structural integrity behind meshed number 8 wire as a means of holding back the force of the apex predator.

Meanwhile, the BOP guards cheered and encouraged their gargantuan friend as he crushed a frozen chicken in his jaws with ease.

Aminu, crocodile at the BOP compound 2

Aminu -the crocodile at the BOP compound. Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

The BOP headquarters houses three rehabilitated crocs: Aminu (Bodyguard), Sparro (Sword) and Rama (Beret). They have essentially been adopted as totems by the BOP who have named three special divisions after the crocs, with each divisions' barracks being accordingly placed near the correlating Abo Lafaek. They sleep next to and maintain the wellbeing of the totem under their watch, and vice versa.

The military also has its own larger crocodiles which are cared for in the same way. It was clear to me watching the guards feed the crocodiles that the BOP officers love their crocs. It gives them a fortified sense of strength - which fits in well to the very masculine-centric world they inhabit. The enclosures for the crocs are unfortunately small, but this is in no part a reflection of the care that the crocodiles are shown.

More a reflection of Timor-Leste's lack of funds and budget for such things. If possible the BOP would give their grandfather crocodiles larger enclosures, but the little Government spending available is prioritized towards development of the basic infrastructure that is lacking in Timor-Leste.

I was surprised to find out that the crocodiles at the BOP headquarters are not advertised as an attraction for tourists, although the officers seemed more than happy to accommodate a visit and show me the Lafaek.

I had assumed that maybe the Ministry of Tourism was unaware that tourists would actually want to see the crocs, or that perhaps the motions were being made to introduce them into a paid controlled tour. A later meeting with the head of the task force would elaborate as to why these police crocodiles are not common knowledge to tourists or foreigners.

I would have been lost and stranded had I not organized a last minute translator for my next interview. Having the local geographical knowledge of Cosme Rubilai de Oliveira was a lifesaver when trying to locate a building which shared the name with half a dozen other buildings in Dili. I showed him a photo of the building and he recognized it from memory.

Aminu, crocodile at the BOP compound 1

Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

We hailed a microlet and walked through the pastels of the Indonesian district, spending half an hour navigating the halls of the government building asking for Flaminio Gusmao, who had been the acting head of the Crocodile Management Task Force.

The people most affected by crocodile attacks are rural communities; as Timor-Leste's human habitat expanded, so too did the crocodile habitat until it lead to a series of flashpoints. Agricultural workers, fisherman and children were most at risk, as it was these groups that would most often wander into crocodile territory. Many crocs began to adopt local fishing grounds and waterways as hunting grounds.

Much of the work done by the crocodile management came in the form of educating local communities on how to identify and avoid habitats, and essentially manage Lafaek themselves. This was one of the greatest successes of the task force due to its effectiveness and its affordability. The Australian-trained handlers were only called in if the community was dealing with a particularly aggressive croc.

During the progression of the interview I was saddened to hear that the Crocodile Management Task Force had its funding cut, essentially leaving it defunct - this was partly why the crocodiles at the BOP base were not advertised as an option for tourists.

Again the importance of the task force paled in comparison to the other issues the country was facing. Solace could be found in the fact that the task force had instituted educational programs which can largely be sustained within the communities affected, but for Flaminio he had future goals that he hoped to achieve through the task force.

Timorese fishermen

Timorese fishermen Photo: Emma Gleason

He wanted to help develop a crocodile farm with suitably large enclosures that could be used to humanely house the aggressive crocodiles that would have to be re-habitated. The crocodiles would be handled and cared for by local spiritual handlers named lenai who respect the cultural importance these prehistoric predators hold within the country.

He hoped that this would in turn create a community driven ecotourism network that would give back to the community and sustain itself.

The crocodile management incentives had been a push in the right direction for Timor-Leste, a clever and progressive solution to a problem faced by the young nation, essentially catering to the local customs and cultural nuances while also trying to improve other sectors - mainly tourism and environment. However the lack of funds has shown the struggles still faced.

Throughout Timor-Leste you see a large proportion of those involved in the tourism sector pushing for eco-sensitive methods. Many expats and locals who were present for the turmoil the country has suffered through are wanting to assist in creating a regenerative and sustainable tourism industry to breathe new life into its struggling economy.

Looking at the natural beauty of the beaches, the current stability and safety, rainforests, culture, and the largely untraveled mystique of the land leaves me with high hopes for the future of Timor-Leste and its 'Abo Lafaek'.

Timorese woman and her grandson at the markets

Timorese woman and her grandson at the markets Photo: Vinnie Paunovic

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