LIKE LIONS in the jungle, crocodiles are the dominant predators in their ecosystem, the swamp.
As carnivores, they feed on a variety of live and dead mammals, birds, fish, molluscs, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and insects.
According to studies, crocodiles are ecologically valuable because they help to preserve the diversity of species in wetlands.
By eating sick fish, they also contribute to maintaining a healthy aquatic population. As a result, the healthy ones are able to thrive without worrying about contracting diseases.
Crocodiles also create habitats for other animals by burrowing and building nests. They also serve as protection from land animals during the dry season, deterring them from using and drinking the limited water supply.
Conservation biologist Joseph ‘Joey’ Brown, who also serves as curator at Hope Zoo in Kingston, told The Gleaner that the myths surrounding crocodile meat such as an increase in sexual stamina and performance along with being more fertile were not true.
He also stated that there was also a lack of enforcement for those who breached laws governing the protection of endangered species.
“We should have some serious fines and even punishment for [their] endangerment and [ensure] investigations [are done], and there is none of that in this country. There are guys that got caught red handed a few years ago beating a crocodile to death, and they still haven’t been charged ... so there’s a lack of manpower, and there’s just a lack of overall enforcement. So if that’s not there then there’s nothing to really stop these people,” he said.
The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) informed The Gleaner that since 2020, there have been no charges laid for the poaching of crocodiles for meat.
There is, however, an ongoing case before the May Pen Parish Court, that of R v Anthony Vassell, who is charged for breach of Section 6 of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1945.
The case is based on a report that Vassell hunted and killed an American crocodile between February 21 and March 10, 2020, in Clarendon.
Other protected species include the Yellow Snake or Jamaican Boa ( Epicrates subflavus), the Jamaican Iguana ( Cyclura collei), the Green Turtle ( Chelonia mydas), the Hawksbill Turtle ( Eretmochleys imbricata), and the Loggerhead Turtle ( Caretta caretta).
Under the Wild Life Protection Act, it is unlawful to injure, kill, or have in one’s possession the whole animal or part thereof of protected species under the Wild Life Protection Act.
Breaches attract a fine of up to $100,000 and/or 12 months’ imprisonment.
IMPOSSIBLE TO TAKE ACTION
The hotspot parishes and/or communities where offenders are frequently caught for the unlawful capture, killing, sale, and hunting of protected animals could not be identified by the NEPA.
They said that it was impossible to take action since direct reports of the selling of meat from protected animals were uncommon.
“The anecdotal reports point to Clarendon, St Catherine, Westmoreland, and St Elizabeth. This coincides with areas with larger populations of crocodiles,” the agency said.
In addition to the action being unlawful, there is concern that Jamaicans, unwittingly, could be putting themselves at risk of illness or food-borne diseases by the failure to adequately cook these meats.
The most recent surveys of the American crocodile in Jamaica were done for the period 2015 to 2019. Selected locations along Jamaica’s southern coast, including Portland Bight Protected Area (St Catherine and Clarendon), and Black River, St Elizabeth, were used for the study.
According to the findings, there were 153 reports of ‘individuals encountered’ at sites within the Portland Bight Protected Area and 11 for the Black River Area.
Between 2019 and 2020, five new sites were evaluated, four of which were natural and one that was man-made. The man-made site was located at the Soapberry wastewater treatment plant in St Catherine, with a count of 19. The natural sites are in Kingston, St Thomas, St Elizabeth, and Westmoreland.
“The relatively low number of crocodiles encountered in the natural habitats is of great concern as it suggests that some of these populations are severely stressed,” NEPA said, noting that the stress factors are largely unknown and may include a combination of scarcity of food, diminishing habitat and illegal hunting.
Brown believes that the Government could consider an incentive programme to help encourage Jamaican protection of the species.
He said that if one were in place, locals would want to set up initiatives where they worked together with the Government in protecting the species.
“I’ve worked in some countries like the Philippines and in Africa, too, where, like, if a crocodile’s nest is on this person’s farm or in this community, they actually get, like, a reward for protecting that nest until it hatches and by protecting it, I mean just leaving it be,” he said.
He added that there have been cases in Old Harbour, St Catherine, where residents have destroyed crocodile nests found in their yard. However, he said that people would want to protect them if they saw more value in doing so.
Where there’s no value, he said, “We can try to preach all day long ... but for so many people, they just won’t care.”