Chomp in the Swamp

Tracking South Florida's endangered crocodiles is a business best left to experts and maniacs

And then there are the acts of brutish human beings. In May a 23-year-old Key Largo man caught a nine-foot-long crocodile with a four-inch treble hook baited with a chicken. He was charged with two misdemeanors, including interfering with an endangered species, and he faces a fine of up to $500 and a sentence of up to 60 days in jail. And in July four men and two teenagers in Plant City, near Tampa, were charged with climbing over a fence at a reptile park and clubbing a pair of crocodiles to death with wooden planks.

So what is it about crocodiles that stirs such primitive emotions in people?
Around the world, crocodiles have always been hated and feared, symbolizing in some cultures an evil savagery. Wasilewski insists that members of the species he knows so well are shy, wary of people, and not aggressive. In fact, there is only one documented case in Florida in which an American crocodile has attacked and killed a human, and that occurred in 1925 when a fourteen-footer reared up and seized a Biscayne Bay surveyor who had already fired two gunshots into the beast. The croc survived and was shipped off to Silver Springs, near Ocala, where it was trained to perform, under the name of Zulu, for tourists.

But what about the man-eaters of Africa and Asia? What about the saltwater crocs that are said to have ravaged a thousand Japanese soldiers retreating through a Burmese swamp during World War II? What about the American Peace Corps volunteer from Cornell who was eaten by a crocodile in Ethiopia in 1966? And how about the 40 passengers on a sinking Indonesian ferryboat that crocs devoured in 1976? Don't all crocs share the same family values?

In modern-day South Florida, the crocodiles' very limited home turf ranges from north Key Largo, through Everglades National Park, including Florida Bay, to Turkey Point. There is anecdotal evidence that the range is expanding, however. Crocodiles have been found nesting on Marco Island, for example, and they've been spotted as far north as Fort Lauderdale.

Veteran crocodile researcher Paul Moler, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the animal's recovery, and he lauds the state's restoration efforts, especially a project along Card Sound Road designed to safeguard Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Still, Moler worries about roadkills, pollution, egg poaching by humans and raccoons, and exotic plants such as Australian pine that disrupt nesting sites. Most of all, though, it's people he worries about. "People think they're so Godalmighty powerful and important, but in the real world, they're not," says Moler, who has been researching crocodiles for twenty years. "People are like every other animal and plant, except they are bigger consumers.

"Studying a crocodile is giving us a gauge of the overall health of the whole world," argues Moler, who has tagged 49 hatchlings this year in north Key Largo. "If the animal's population is decreasing, heading toward extinction, we need to know: Are we poisoning ourselves? Ultimately, it could be our survival at stake."

Also tracking the crocodile's recovery is Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology who works out of the Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade. With funding from several agencies, including the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the South Florida Water Management District, Mazzotti is charged with monitoring nesting, birth, and survival rates of crocodiles from Everglades National Park to the Coral Gables Waterway.

For parts of the summer Mazzotti leaves his home in Fort Lauderdale for a small camper parked in a field behind the Key Largo Ranger Station. From here he monitors the nesting areas along the northeast edges of Florida Bay, the shallow, island-dotted estuary that composes the southern end of Everglades National Park.

On this Saturday Mazzotti and 24-year-old graduate student Mike Cherkiss intend to check the locations of nest sites they have previously identified to see if the eggs have hatched. As Cherkiss gasses up a fifteen-foot skiff, which has the words Croc Doc painted on the center console, Mazzotti expresses confidence that the federally financed Everglades area replumbing plan, designed to restore the natural freshwater flow to the south, bodes well for the long-term recovery of Florida's crocodile population. "The greater threat comes on the southwest coast, near the Marco Island airport, where several animals have been found, and in Rookery Bay," says Mazzotti. "People are not used to seeing crocodiles there. So while we have been busy trying to fix things on the southeast coast, they haven't quite caught up with that spirit on the other side."

The day is typical for July. By early afternoon a few puffy clouds float into view, and the temperature heads toward 90 degrees. Mazzotti is 48 years old, balding, brown from the sun, with a Buddha belly and an encyclopedic knowledge of crocodiles built up over twenty years in the field. He has published many scientific papers on crocs, he knows the lore, and he loves to talk. "In the early part of this century," he says in an accent that gives away his Long Island roots, "killing crocs for sport was big business. People would pay to be guided into Card Sound and around northern Monroe County on hunting expeditions."

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