A 57-year-old man was crossing the bridge when he was attacked by a two-meter saltwater crocodile at Sitio Dalit, Barangay Poblacion VI, Balabac in November 2022. Fortunately, the attack in Palawan recorded by the Crocodylus Porosus Philippines, Inc. (CPPI) was deemed non-fatal.
The case is one of 80 crocodile attacks reported in the Philippines between 2000 and 2022. According to CPPI data, Palawan has the most attack incidents with 52, 36 of which were non-fatal and 16 of which were fatal.
These occurrences fueled increased animosity toward crocodiles, which were portrayed as dangerous predators capable of attacking humans. Yet, the CPPI emphasizes that this view must be transcended in order to see the benefits of coexistence between humans and crocodiles.
“We believe that humans and crocodiles’ co-existence can be managed at an acceptable level for the community. Naniniwala kami na kayang ma-achieve ‘yong co-existence na ‘yan na ang tao at buwaya ay may sari-sariling lugar,” Meljoy Corvera of CPPI said.
In January this year, a 15-foot-long adult male saltwater crocodile attempted to attack a resident living near a river in the southern Palawan town of Bataraza. It was captured by locals in Brgy. Sumbiling and turned over to environmental authorities for treatment after sustaining a wound to its body.
However, while being transported to the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), it died from problems caused by bullets from an air gun transformed into a .22 caliber rifle that penetrated its lungs.
It was the most recent known instance of man vs crocodile conflict in southern Palawan.
CPPI Program Director Rainier Manalo said crocodiles play a vital function in the aquatic ecosystem and contribute to its value. It also helps with soil fertility, enhancing fish stocks, and indirectly reducing flooding because it lives in mangrove swamps.
Palawan has an estimated population of 5,785 crocodiles spread across 7,143 kilometers of river. The population is primarily concentrated in the province’s south. CPPI said it is a steady population that should be maintained and managed.
“Hindi natin siya kino-consider na ibaba, bagkus gusto natin paramihin kaya nilalagay natin yong protection scheme. Pero sustainable use, stable lang siya doon na hindi siya maubos. Ginagamit ng tao para kumita pero yong number natin is stable. Kasi they increase ecosystem value, hindi siya direct value na ibenta mo si crocodile,” he said.
Other than environmental value, the CPPI promotes crocodile conservation through sustainable management, which includes economic rewards. Since 2016, the PWRCC has been involved in international trading for skin demand in the European fashion business.
It was only hampered by the pandemic and has yet to recover since the peak of COVID-19 in 2020. The meat also meets the demand in Palawan for three-year-old or 1.5-meter crocodiles.
“Ibig sabihin may paggamit, may ekonomiya. May ambag ito sa ekonomiya ng bansa, kailangan natin siya gamitin, hindi siya kailangang patayin. I-convert natin into something that can infuse economic gains for the country,” he said.
The Philippines also obtained approval in 2022 for its petition to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to move the Philippine population of saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) from Appendix I to Appendix II.
Appendix II enables the trade of species that are not on the verge of extinction but must be regulated to avoid utilization that is incompatible with their survival.
“Without the economic support sa community, hindi nila maiintindihan na may pakinabang ang buwaya. Akala nila nangangagat lang,” he said.
Local communities will be compensated for safeguarding crocodile nests and hatchlings. According to the country’s proposal, offering rewards to locals who tolerate crocodiles alters the community’s attitude and tolerance, like in Australia and the Malaysian state Sarawak.
The risk of getting the alpha crocodile
Rio was captured in 1990 at Brgy. Rio tuba, Bataraza, and is currently on display at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC).
Manalo explains that catching the dominant or largest crocodiles has no effect on the population. Instead, their removal makes room for crocodiles of medium size that are eager to find food and more aggressive.
“Iyong malaki ay kaunti na lang ang pagkain niya, kasi malaki na siya. Kapag kinuha mo yong malaki, yong mga medium size na malaki ay hahanap siya ng mas maraming pagkain, ilan ang na-create natin na problem? Mas nag-create tayo ng problem,” he said.
What causes crocodiles to attack?
The Philippines is home to two of the world’s 28 crocodile species, the Philippine crocodile and the saltwater crocodile. The more aggressive saltwater crocodile inhabits Palawan and the Indo-Pacific region.
Crocodiles are more aggressive between October and November or December, during their breeding season. During this season, male crocodiles expand their territories in preparation for courtship. The nesting season occurs between February and April.
The three main reasons cited in human and crocodile conflicts are territoriality, breeding season, and time of day. Biologist Jake Wilson Binaday said crocodiles have a strong sense of smell and the strongest bite force.
“Ang ugali ng buwaya ay hindi basta-basta aatake. Inoobserbahan niya ang kaniyang prey kasi ang buwaya ay hindi aatake sa mas malaki sa kaniya. Isa rin rason kung bakit more than 10 feet ang nasa criteria,” Binaday said.
A crocodile that has grown to 10 feet in length is already capable of attacking humans.
To guide locals, CPPI installed reflectorized warning signs at boat docks in Brgy. Rio Tuba in Bataraza, and Balabac municipalities. Reflectorized stickers are also distributed to municipal residents.
There is also a conservation strategy for Balabac and protocols for human-crocodile conflict. Before removing a potentially dangerous crocodile, five criteria must be met: verification, size, barangay proximity during the attack, size of quality habitat, and breeding season.
“Hindi lang isa o dalawa, kailangan mapasahan niya yan bago natin siya kukunin sa wild,” Manalo said.
Manalo stated that ongoing monitoring of crocodiles with law enforcement and government organizations, as well as study in areas where they are present, are required.