Page last updated at 19:23 GMT, Saturday, 6 December 2008

Life and death for holy S Africa crocs

By Hamilton Wende
BBC News, South Africa

Scientists in South Africa are trying to find out why so many crocodiles are dying in the rivers around Kruger Park, to the north of Johannesburg, where more than 50 of the reptiles have been found washed up on river banks in Limpopo Province.

Some crocodile can exceed 7m (23ft) in length
John Ngwenya sits on the ground outside his hut.

He wears a short black cloth and he pours a gourd of traditional sorghum beer and dribbles it on to a rock.

As the beer pours on to the stone, John talks quietly to his ancestors, honouring them, requesting their blessings.

John's surname Ngwenya means "crocodile" and he and his family have revered the beast for centuries.

He can tell me the name of his ancestors going back for seven generations.

He stands up from the rock, drinks from the gourd and spits the beer over a black goat tethered nearby. That is to share their blessings with the goat who is part of our family, he tells me.

South Africa

"Our family are very proud of the crocodile," he says.

"It is clever, strong and does not like to attack unless it is attacked."

He pauses when I ask him about the deaths of the reptiles in the nearby rivers.

"That makes us very unhappy," he says.

His family, he says, have a communal memory going back to the time of Shaka, the great Zulu king of the early 19th Century.

"During the wars, when our family fled to this area, they prayed to the crocodiles when they crossed the rivers, and the crocodiles always let them pass safely," he adds.

Thirty minutes drive away, on the banks of the Levhubu river, Emmalina Shuma hoes her fields.

Nearby we can see the patches of water and the long reeds where crocodiles live.

She rests on her hoe and says: "Crocodiles might be important to some people but to me they are just dangerous.

"Only a few months ago, a little girl went swimming near here. They hid her body under the water, then somebody killed a crocodile and they found her arm and her shoe in its stomach."

'Poison in the river'

John Hlengani is a nyanga or traditional healer in the village of Josefa.

Part of African mythology, crocodiles have been the subject of countless references in art and literature

In the shadowed interior of his hut, he casts a handful of bones, seashells and dried nuts on to a straw mat.

"Look," he tells me, pointing to the patterns they make on the ground.

He picks up a bone. "There is a man," he says carefully. Then he points to a shell. "And a woman. They are killing the crocodiles."

"But why?" I ask.

He hesitates, then says: "The man is doing it for cruelty, the woman to protect her children. They are putting poison in the river. And the government must do something about it, before other animals start dying too."

I contacted Paul Oberholster from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria.

"The catchment area for these rivers is heavily polluted with mining effluent and other nutrients which allow for cyanobacteria to grow," he says.

"Cyanobacteria?" I ask.

"Yes," he says. "The oldest form of life on earth. They are part-plant, part-animal."

He pauses, then adds: "I never used to believe in global warming, but we are seeing so many cyanobacteria now and it is because the water temperatures are rising. They kill the fish and then the crocodiles die because they eat the rotten fish."

Cautionary tale

That evening as the sun goes down, I find myself sitting around a fire with Daniel Shirinda and some of his 44 children.

He holds a walking stick with its head carved in the shape of an elephant.

Daniel, or MD as he is known, is a musician and storyteller.

In the flickering light, he begins to narrate a tale of a crocodile and a honey badger. They were companions and gave each other fish and honey until one day their other friend the rabbit became jealous.

"Garingani!" the children cry. "Tell us more!"

"'The honey badger hates you,' the rabbit told the crocodile, 'and knows your weakness. If he hits you on the nose, he will kill you. So you must never go to the honey badger again.'

"The crocodile was very sad, and years later he met the honey badger at the river. 'But I never planned to kill you,' the honey badger said."

As I listen to his story, it occurs to me that the crocodile exerts a powerful hold on human memory and imagination.

It has preyed on our species since before we began even to make tools or tell stories, and it has always exerted a powerful hold on human memory and imagination. Its presence and its power repel and fascinate us at the same time.

MD leans forward on his stick, his eyes bright with the joy of the story.

"So," he tells his children, "what we learn from the crocodile is that we must always ask our friends for the truth. And not believe the lies of others."

Crocodiles have been on the Earth for some 200m years but now, in this corner of Africa, because of pollution and global warming caused by humans, even their ancient existence may be threatened.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 December, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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02 Dec 08 |  Science & Environment


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