Lord of the Nile
Worshipped and feared by the ancient Egyptians, the Nile crocodile is reportedly making a comeback. Amira El-Noshokaty sifts fact from fiction
“When I was a young boy, I would climb up the tallest tree on the Nile’s bank and from my perch, I could see the crocodile bury her eggs deep down in the sand. Later, I would watch her lead her young slowly into the waters of the Nile.” As we sat in his home in what was once the Nubian heartland, only a few kilometres from the Abu Simbel temple complex, hagg Abdou Mohamed spins a tale of the famous Nile crocodile. “My father told me that the crocodiles who swam up north were pure crocodiles, while those that swam south were a bad breed, called waren [mixed breed crocodiles],” Mohamed recalls.
The days Mohamed brings to life were not so long ago, but then man and crocodile lived in an uneasy harmony. The fishermen of Nubia would hunt crocodiles and stuff them with straw, hanging them over their doorsteps as talismans to protect against the evil eye. The crocodile’s mouth was left open, but the body was draped with colourful beads, explains Mohamed, who is a village elder.
For the people of ancient Egypt, the olom, as the Nile crocodile is known in the Nubian dialect, was much more than a good luck charm. In the time of the Pharaohs he was worshipped as the god Sobek, in whose honour the temple of Komombo was erected in Upper Egypt. The crocodile was also the master of Lake Qarun, in the oasis of Fayoum, which during the Middle Kingdom was known as the city of the crocodile — or “Crocodilopolis.”
“Crocodiles are depicted on Old Kingdom tombs in Saqqara,” Khaled El-Enani, professor of Egyptology at Helwan University told Al-Ahram Weekly. “They were worshipped as protection against the harm they could do.” In ancient times, the crocodile reigned over the Nile waters, and, according to El-Enani, they were known to attack fishermen’s boats, eat livestock and even hunt the hippopotamus. “We have records of holy songs sung by the fishermen of ancient Egypt to protect them while crossing the Nile. They also used magic spells to deter the crocodile from eating them.” It is not surprising then that the crocodile was also the symbol of danger. Seth, the god of wind and storms, was sometimes depicted as a crocodile.
Since ancient times, Egyptians living by the waters of the Nile have both feared and respected the crocodile. And though they worshipped it, they also sought to tame it. El- Enani notes that Herodotus recorded Egyptians keeping crocodiles as pets in the fifth century bc. “They would adorn them with gold bracelets and earrings and when they died, they had them mummified,” he added.
Today, the Nile crocodile, or crocodylus niloticus, is on the verge of extinction. No longer does it command the Nile waters. Instead, the crocodile has become the prize of ever-more stylised hunts. In the 1950s, professional hunters from around the world were given permission to come to Egypt and hunt crocodiles — a lucrative business considering the high price fetched by crocodile skins. By the 1960s what remained of the crocodile population was dammed off in the newly created Lake Nasser by the building of the Aswan High Dam. The lake was a secluded habitat and the crocodile population has managed to make a small comeback, aided in large part by the naming of the area as an environmental protectorate.
Prior to the prohibition of crocodile hunting in Egypt, there were no local professional hunters. The hunting procedure is, therefore, unlike the Sudanese tradition, as it does not involve any personal contact with the crocodile. In Egypt, crocodiles are shot, using a special technique to ensure that the bullet can pass through the thick skin.
The entrance of environmentalists into the long-running saga of the Nile crocodile is a peculiar twist for locals around Lake Nasser. Reda Fahmi has worked as a fisherman at the Abu Simbel marina for the past 22 years. “Fifteen years ago, smaller crocodiles would get caught in our fishing nets. We used to hunt them until the environment people told us to stop.” Environmental laws prevent all forms of crocodile hunting, but it is not the laws that have changed fishermen’s attitudes. According to locals, the crocodile has grown both in size and in strength. Fishermen claim that their nets are no longer strong enough to contain a crocodile caught in it. “Fifteen days ago, we were fishing and we ran into a crocodile that was seven feet long and two feet wide,” recounts Fahmi. He is not impressed with efforts to save the crocodylus niloticus, noting that they have a voracious appetite. Crocodiles are a threat to the fishing industry, he says.
Tall tales abound, but most locals agree that the crocodiles are multiplying and getting bigger. Ramadan Hussien, a fishermen at Lake Nasser since the early 1970s, told the Weekly that for most of his life, the crocodiles he saw were relatively small in size — less than five feet in length. A couple of months ago, however, he says he spotted one that was at least 15 feet long. Mourad Zulficar, an irrigation engineer responsible for monitoring the irrigation systems along Lake Nasser, recounts seeing “thousands of crocodiles lying lazily in the sun and burying themselves in the sand.” So rampant is the fear among fishermen that the old Lord of the Nile has returned to reclaim his legacy that they have begun once again to invoke higher powers to protect them against crocodiles.
There are no comprehensive statistics on the crocodile community in Egypt. In 1996 the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) formed a committee to look into complaints by the local community that not only were the crocodiles threatening their lives, but they were also responsible for damaging 100 metres of fishing nets per fishing round. The committee did find that the crocodile community was growing, but as to endangering local lives and wreaking havoc on the fishing industry, Moustafa Fouda, director of the Natural Conservation Sector at the EEAA dismissed them as “exaggerations and not based on facts.” Fouda told the Weekly that in the past 10 years, “there have been no records of any deaths as a direct result of a crocodile attack, except for one instance — and that does not make a very strong case against the Nile crocodile.”
He acquiesced, however, that until now, there has been no valid scientific research on this subject. To research the topic adequately, notes Fouda, his team would need all manner of high-tech devices and specialists, not to mention funding, which is not available. “We have asked for experts from different international environmental organisations ,but it was in vain. Those who came were not much help.”
But local fishermen have a different, more gruesome story to tell. Two years ago, a crocodile is said to have eaten a 16- year-old shepherdess east of Lake Hamido as she tried to defend her sheep. “And she was not the only one,” one local told me before recounting the story of a man who was eaten by a crocodile when he went down to the water to do his ablutions before prayer. Another fisherman was allegedly killed by a crocodile when his boat got stuck and he was in the water trying to move it.
These fishermen are not sympathetic with conservation efforts. “I just want to know, what’s the use of preserving an animal that has threatened mankind for so long?” growls local fisherman Reda Fahmi. But Helmi Beshai, professor of science at Cairo University, begs to differ. The crocodylus niloticus, he says, has an invaluable place in the delicate ecosystem of Lake Nasser. The crocodiles feed on catfish and crabs, which in turn feed on bolty fish in the lake. They also consume dead animals, which helps keep the water from getting polluted. Crocodile waste is also known to be a source of minerals, which enriches the nutrition base for fish in the lake.
Beshai did note, however, that only small, young crocodiles can subsist on insects. Once a crocodile has exceeded four feet in length, it will divert its attention to other vertebrates, including humans. But Beshai pointed out that people are not mindful of crocodiles’ breeding season. “Even though crocodiles will attack anyone who comes near their eggs and young, hunters continue to go after them during the time when they lay their eggs, which is from December to January.”
But money is a strong incentive. The meat is considered a delicacy in some parts and crocodile fat is used as a curative for rheumatic diseases. Crocodile leather, of course, remains the most expensive in the industry. Beshai argues, however, that setting up a hunting season would allow hunters to get what they need without disturbing the animals during a crucial life stage. “What about crocodile farms?” he asked.
A couple of months ago, the local press ran a story detailing plans by the Association for Wildlife and Tourism to set up a crocodile farm in an area of 500 feddans on the western side of Lake Nasser. But the reports were rejected by the EEAA. “No hunting or trading of the Nile crocodile, or any of its organs, is allowed in Egypt,” insists professor Sami El-Filali, under-secretary of state for soils, water and the environment at the Ministry of Agriculture and head of the Convention of Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) Authority in Egypt. The convention, which dates back to 1978, includes Nile crocodiles on its list of endangered species.
“Last year, we managed to arrest a teacher at Cairo Airport who was travelling to Jordan with some 60 small Nile crocodiles hidden in his luggage,” El-Filali told the Weekly proudly. “The crocodiles were handed over to the Giza Zoo and the traveller was sent to prison.”
Staring at me from behind big glass tanks half filled with water, 40 young crocodiles sat helplessly among other goods at the Friday market located behind the Sayyeda Aisha Mosque. Here everything is on sale — including the nation’s “protected” crocodiles. There are two merchants who specialise in the crocodile business, but both refused to speak to the me, saying that the press had already spoken ill of their trade well enough.
Since Nile crocodiles can no longer swim north past the Aswan Dam, it is clear that there is a dynamic trade smuggling them from their natural habitat in Lake Nasser. Hunting continues as well, despite tough regulations. In fact, locals told the Weekly that safari trips come all the way from Cairo specifically to hunt crocodiles in the months of December and January.
In ancient times, it was a battle for survival. Today, the battlefield is more complex. Is preserving the Nile crocodile as important, if not more so, than protecting those whose livelihood is the lake in which these animals live? It is a question for which there seems to be no answer — yet.
* Crocodiles can live for up to a century.
* They can go for a year between meals.
* They float just beneath the surface of the water. * The Nile crocodile lives in fresh and salt water in south and central Africa. Many years ago, it was found as far north as the Nile delta and the Mediterranean coast.
* Nile crocodiles are only found in African rivers and they are the most savage of all crocodile species. They are also among the most intelligent reptiles.
* Although they look like alligators, crocodiles have longer, narrower snouts. An adult can reach a length of over 10 feet and weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
* The god Sobek was believed to aid fertility. His cult centre was “Crocodilopolis”, in the desert oasis of Fayoum.
* Admired and feared for his ferocity, Sobek was at the command of the god Ra. He performed tasks such as catching with his net the four sons of Horus as they emerged from the water of the Nile.
* Another god, Seth, sometimes took the form of a crocodile.
* In the legend of Osiris, the god Horus takes the form of a crocodile in order to retrieve the parts of Osiris’s son, who was cast into the Nile by Seth.
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