The Beauty in the Beast

During countless hours spent observing Africa's Nile crocodile, a pair of photographers have documented the reptile's strength, speed and surprising gentleness.

08-01-2008 // Michael Lipske

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THINK ABOUT THE WAYS of crocodiles and words like “predatory,” “deadly” or even “man-eating” come to mind. “Tender” probably won’t make the list of attributes. But according to photographer Anup Shah, who has recorded the beast from all angles, “there are two sides of the crocodile.” There is the large, powerful, dangerous reptile that bursts without warning from a murky river to pull down a wildebeest or zebra, dragging it underwater in viselike jaws until it drowns. If the hundreds of thousands of grazing mammals that migrate annually across the African plains are prone to nightmares, surely crocodiles occupy center stage of their bad dreams.

Then there is the crocodile’s “tender side,” says Shah. When the few dozen eggs a female crocodile has buried in sandy soil at the riverside are ready to hatch, her offspring make a chirping sound that sends the mother into action. “Once the mother hears the call, she rushes in, digs the eggs out and then tenderly picks up a baby in her mouth and carries it to the river,” says Shah. The mother “then comes back to get another baby, puts it in those fearsome jaws and so on,” until all her offspring are in the river and launched on the voyage of life.

“A few make it,” adds the photographer. Other animals, such as monitor lizards, view hatchling crocs as tender morsels in their own right.

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Growing up in Kenya, Shah observed crocodiles along with lions, giraffes and other wildlife in that country’s national parks. Ultimately, he embarked on a successful career as a photographer documenting the lives of animals of the African savanna. Along with his brother, Manoj, he photographs crocodiles—specifically Nile crocodiles—in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve during the months when more than a million wildebeests and hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles cross the African plains in search of green pastures and along the way ford the crocodile-crowded Grumeti and Mara Rivers.

The crocodiles greeting the migrators are the largest of Africa’s three crocodile species (and the second largest crocodiles in the world, just behind the saltwater crocodiles of Australia and Southeast Asia). Male Nile crocodiles, which are larger than females, reach lengths of 16 feet or more and can weigh over a thousand pounds. Found from Angola to Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Nile River basin, the species is—no surprise—top predator in the rivers, lakes and freshwater swamps it inhabits. Though it eats mainly fish, a Nile crocodile can kill most animals, four- or two-legged, that stray within range of its jaws; clamped tight, those jaws exert around 3,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.

To photograph crocodiles, says Shah, “the most important thing you need is plenty of time”—time observing the reptiles to learn about their habits and behavior, and time talking with other people, such as wildlife filmmakers, who also have come to know crocodiles. Shah spends still more time hunting for intersections of predator and prey—places where he can count on crocs connecting with migrating herbivores.

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Male crocodiles carve a river into territories, explains Shah, with dominant males laying claim to areas where female crocodiles congregate. “You know what stretch of the river you’ll be able to find them in,” he says. “And then, with a little bit of foreknowledge, you know the places the wildebeest will come to drink at. You put two and two together.”

It’s at such a place that Shah sets up a blind, a low structure of canvas covered with grass or other material that blends with the surroundings, situated about 20 to 30 yards from where crocodiles are lounging on the sandbanks. He slips in through the blind’s back entrance just before dawn, then stays as still as he can throughout the long, hot day of watching and, he hopes, photographing. “It gets quite crampy,” Shah says of the hours in the small structure, “but if you take a couple of novels, it’s not too bad.”

No matter how cramped or warm, Shah resists any temptation to cool off with a swim in the river. “In the water the crocodile is supreme,” he says. Not only strong but fast, crocodiles can easily move at six miles per hour, and perhaps faster, in water—faster than the speed of a human athlete swimming a sprint. Like all crocodiles, Nile crocs have ears, eyes and nostrils atop the head, enabling them to stay hidden just below the surface until the instant they attack. It isn’t surprising that among many rural Africans, Nile crocodiles elicit a narrow range of emotions—from intense fear to “pure hatred,” says Shah.

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“So many people live in the rural areas that now and then you do get incidents,” he says. “Children bathe in the river and get snatched by crocodiles.” Firm figures don’t exist, but it is estimated that Nile crocodiles kill as many as 200 people a year.

Meanwhile, humanity pushes back at the crocodiles, in the form of population growth that translates into land clearing. According to Richard Fergusson, regional chairman of the Crocodile Specialist Group, a worldwide network of biologists, wildlife managers and others involved in crocodile conservation, “Human population expansion into areas not inhabited 20-plus years ago is probably the biggest threat to [Nile crocodile] populations outside protected areas, along with increasing lack of tolerance for attacks by crocodiles on humans and livestock.”

Of the crocodiles he photographs, Shah says, “The population is healthy, although it is dwindling. But you could say that with almost any species.”

Ask him what impresses him about the reptiles he observes from his cramped blind on the riverbank and he mentions not their brute ferocity but instead how they surmount an anatomical hurdle: Crocodile jaws aren’t made for effective chewing. Ripping meat from a carcass works best for them, and teamwork makes it easier. “One crocodile holds the carcass and the other crocodile spins around, pulls off a chunk,” Shah explains. “Then that crocodile holds the carcass and the other one spins around and pulls off a chunk. That’s great, they’ve worked it out—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

Michael Lipske, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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