Monday, 15 July 2013

The Maputo Crocodiles

So, let's start blogging.

I am the proverbial IT illiterate, so there's bound to be plenty of initial glitches. But through persistence, we will eventually get there.  There's only two kinds of people in this world - those who make things happen, and those who wonder what happened. So let's make it happen:

I would like to introduce you to the wilder side of Africa. The real Africa tourists seldom see.  Where possible I will post photographs, and explain what it's all about.
We'll call this one "The Maputo Crocodiles."

Way back in 1988, while on a visit to Maputo (capital of Mozambique) I took time off to visit the zoo. I remembered the "Jardim Zoologica" from my childhood - a magnificent tropical paradise.

I strollede through the erstwhile magnificence in absolute horror. Half the cages were empty, the enclosures and fencing in ruins. The remaining animals were in a sorry state. It was a desolate island of suffering.  By then the protracted civil war in Mozambique had been dragging on for years, and the zoo was obviously nowhere on the priority list.

On my return to South Africa I immediately contacted my friend Dr. Cobus Raath, who was at the time chief of game capture in the Kruger National Park. He had the necessary pull, skill and contacts.

We registered a Section 21 non-profit company, the "Maputo Zoo Fund", and got to work. For the next four years we spent most of our free time and weekends renovating the zoo.  It was hard work, with frequent highs and lows. Trying to drum up support from African bureaucrats involved in a war was not easy. We did eventually manage to get support from three gentlemen who made some of your obstacles go away - Major General Domingos Fondo, Amaral Matos (President of the City Council) and Joao Baptiste Cosme, the mayor (bless them). Thanks to these gentlemen we could get on with the job without too many hassles.

Africa being Africa, however, it was never plain sailing. We built new cages and fixed the old ones, relocated animals, and laid on vegetable gardens. Food of any kind was a rare commodity in this war ravaged country. Over weekends, when we were there, things went smoothly and all seemed to be progressing well. During the week, however, the zookeppers and staff were selling the vegetables from pavement stalls. We had an agreement with a nearby chicken farm that they would dump all their dead and sick chickens at the zoo as food for the carnivores. To our dismay we discovered that a lot of these chickens also ended up in the pavement stalls.

There were also other things going on at the zoo, which we somehow never got a grip on. We were guests in the country, and could not afford to become too pushy or nosey. All kinds of powerful people had all kinds of sidelines going. There was, for instance, a very shifty and elusive character who had permission to use some of the cages to keep birds. These wild birds were caught in fine mesh nets in the bush surrounding the city, temporarily kept in the zoo, and then shipped off to collectors in the US and elsewhere. No-one could (or would) ever tell us who this guy was, where he got permission or permits, and what exactly it was he was doing.

Another bane of our lives was the children. There were literally hundreds of bored picannins, ranging from about four to fourteen years old, who pestered us relentlessly. When the war had started some twelve years earlier, most of the Portuguese citizens fled the country, with the result that most of these youngsters had probably never seen a white face in their lives. To them our labours at the zoo must have seemed God-like, what with moving lions to new cages etc. Initially we literally had to swat them off our persons like flies - they were all over us, begging, touching, hanging on to our clothing and chattering and clamouring incessantly.
It was so bad that,by our second visit, we were greeted by two or three hundred smiling little faces, all chanting in their newly acquired international language - "fokof, fokof, fokof..."

Through an interpreter we eventually got the message across that we needed space to work in. So they reluctantly allowed each of us a personal space of about two metres.
Cobus and I each had our "Man Friday".  The chosen king of the day was allowed inside the two metre radius, and had to help carry equipment etc. They would probably have killed for this privilege. We always had an escort of Frelimo soldiers to keep an eye on us and presumably protect us.

One of these weekends we were accompanied by by an SABC TV crew, who was making a documentary about the goings-on at the zoo. There were too many people about, which probably contributed to the fact that the eyes in the back of our heads missed some clandestine movements which should have been spotted.
After a long day we all sat down in what was left of the cafeteria, and were offered a green beer of doubtful origin in large jugs. When Cobus opened his briefcase, his calculator was gone.  So was his Man Friday.
One of the soldiers trotted off, soon to return dragging Man Friday along by the scruff of his neck. The youngster had been trying to sell the calculator to passers-by outside the gate. He probably thought it packed potent muti.
Our interpreter asked us what punishment we wished the soldier to inflict on the picannin.  I sometimes still wonder, had we suggested a firing squad at dawn, if he would have survived. Judging by the trembling felon, these thoughts probably also crossed his mind.
You could hear a pin drop.
We were still contemplating a reasonable solution when Hoepel, Cobus' veterinary technician at the time, scraped his chair back and got up slowly, the epitome of menace.
Hoepel was an extraordinary charachter - short and stocky, he was as strong as an ox, and took nonsense from nobody. But he also hade a sharp, humourously inventive mind. The silence was palpable as Hoepel slowly descended the seps, eyes fixed mesmerisingly on the trembling youngster.
Unfortunately the camera crew were so caught up in the potentially explosive scene unfolding before their eyes, that the cameras were forgotten. As Hoepel, bent over in a sort of crouch, approached the picannin menacingly, the latter's eyes were getting bigger and the trembling took on the likes of a reed in a strong current.
Hoepel stopped half a metre from the boy, staring into his eyes silently. Then he brought his hand to his mouth agonisingly slowly. Three hundred pairs of eyes were focused on that hand, and nobody breathed.
Then Hoepel suddenly whipped out his dentures and nipped the youngster on the ear with them.
All hell broke loose. With bloodcurdling screams everyone stampeded for the gates.

From that day on we found it much easier to discipline the horde of youngsters.

But back to the crocs:  The crocodile, like the shark, is one of Nature's more successful designs. It had stopped evolving some 200 million years ago, because it was perfectly suited for its environment.  I sometimes think Mother Nature had foreknowledge of the Maputo Zoo, because the crocodiles flourished under these circumstances. They bred like rabbits. They threatened to eat the Maputo Zoo Fund out of existence - we had to do something.

Barry Jacobs, a south African friend of mine, owned a game farm near Hectorspruit, a short distance from the Mozambican border. In exchange for crocodiles, he would make a handsome donation to the Zoo Fund.
It took us a full three months to get all the necessary documentation in order to transport six crocodiles across an international border, and release them in the wild.
The date was set, and everything was organised for the big day.
We were going to use a drug called Flaxedyl, which is a muscle relaxant. The crocodiles would be wide awake all the time, but unable to move. The drug was safe enough to allow us the time to transport them all the way from Maputo back to South Africa, and they would only recover once we administer the antidote. For transport we planned on using one of Barry's seven ton open trucks, with a six inch layer of soil on the back. We calculated that, if we get through the border post when they open at 6AM, we would comfortably make it back before they closed for the night.

The day before our departure, however, the first case of anthrax was diagnosed in the Kruger Park.
There was just no way Cobus would be able to get the dat off. Some of our documentation was dated, so postponing the trip was out of the question.
Being a dentist and not a crocodile hunter, I had no option but to listen to a quick crash-course in darting and transporting crocodiles. Cobus gave me a compressed-air dart gun, eight darts, and a bottle of Flaxedyl.
"I found this on a shelf in the lab", he said as he handed me a bottle with only the word 'Flaxedil' written on it with a black felt-tipped pen. He also gave me a sealed bottle of Flaxedyl powder 'just for in case.'
A further complication was that I didn't have a heavy duty drivers licence, so Barry was going to have to drive his own truck.

Customs officials in Africa are in a class of their own. Our man for the morning smirked as he listlessly fingered through our stack of documentation, revealing the absence of one of his front teeth.
"Ah, so you go catch the crocodile, eh?"
"Well, actually we are just going to fetch them from the zoo to release in the wild."
"What for?"
"This man here", I said, indicating Barry, "bought them for his game farm. We need the money to keep the zoo going."
"Ah, I see," said gap-tooth, eyeing Barry speculatively. "You pay much money for the crocodile?"
I knew we were on thin ice - he was already calculating the size of the bribe.
"Nah," I said, shrugging off the banal thought of money. "Just a small contribution - every little bit helps."
"Eh," was his only comment as he stamped our entry visas. I was fervently hoping the man would be off duty by the time we returned.

The city of Maputo is only eigty kilometres from the border. Having flown down on all our previous visits, we had no idea what twelve years of civil war could do to a road.
It was a nightmare. Enless kilometres of giant potholes were interspersed with small patches of remaining tarred surface. Sometimes Barry could push the truck to forty, but most of the time we were negotiating potholes at walking pace. The few vehicles we encountered on the road were a sight to see. The locals had refined pirate hitch-hiking to a fine art. They would wait at the roadside at a spot with a succession of deep potholes. Anything that came past with as much as a handhold was fair game. All the vehicles were literally covered with people - they were on the running boards, on the backs and on the roofs.
We reached Maputo shortly befor 9AM with a packed truck.

First we had to drain the pond in the crock enclosure. If a darted croc should rush into the water it would drown as the drug kicked in. With this done, we selected our six lucky ones, and proceeded to dart them. One was a magnificent specimen of 4.3 metres, which I dubbed Geles (the yellow one).
The Flaxedyl was supposed to take no more than ten minutes to fully immobilise the animal. For safety we gave it twenty.

I then gingerly approached Geles and prodded him with a broom. In about one thousandth of a second he whipped around and took the front half off the broom.
The Faxedyl definitely wasn't working.
All the crocodiles were still fighting fit, sporting little red feathers as if planning a party.
Fortunately two students from the nearby Eduardo Mondlane University had gotten wind of the project, and had pitched up to see if they could lend a hand. They assured me they had access to chemical scales and distilled water, so off they went to constitute fresh Flaxedyl.

Meanwhile, I had only two darts left, and I needed six.  Recovering a dart from the backside of an irritated crocodile while retaining all limbs is no mean feat. Some two sweaty hours an six brooms later we had five of the darts back - Geles could keep his for the time being.
The students had done their job well, and the darting and loading proceeded without incident.

By now we were running out of time, as the border would be closing at six.
We were dog-tired and stressed out by the time we left the zoo. But from the moment we left the city, we spent the eighty kilometres back to the border screaming with laughter.
The sides of a seven ton truck are too high for someone at ground level to see into the back.
But still low enough for an agile person to grab hold of, and with a flying leap land in the middle of the seemingly empty truck.
It looked as if we had a trampoline on the back.
To behold an unsuspecting pirate hiker landing on all fours, surrounded by large crocodiles and staring into Geles' unblinking eyes at a distance of six inches is a sight never to be forgotten. The departures were invariably spectacular.
A couple of times we had to stop to offload baggage that the hikers had flung onto the back prior to boarding themselves. The hikers never approached us to collect their baggage - we had to settle for distant abuse in a foreign language.  But it was one hell of a trip.

We arrived at the border post with half an hour to spare, and with gap-tooth waiting for us like a bear trap. On entering the customs office I had the distinct impression that everyone in the facility had been awaiting our return with great anticipation. Everyone had stopped working, and some were sauntering out to have a look at our cargo. The rest were watching gap-tooth.
The man once again fingered through our inch-thick stack of documents prior to informing us with a sigh of regret that we "..need a-one more permit", and that we would "have to travel all the way back to Maputo to get it".
"We need no more permits - everything we need is there. We made very sure of it".
It bounced right off him.
"You need a-one more permit. You have to go back to Maputo to get it."
He had probably already started spending his bribe. We were having none of it.
A protracted argument ensued, but the man wouldn't budge. I tried name-dropping. It was clear that gap-tooth had never heard of the likes of General Fondo, Amaral Matos or Baptiste Cosme.
By now it was well past closing time, but no-one seemed inclined to leave.
I had no option but to risk playing my ace:
"Come with me," I said, crooking my finger at him, "I want to show you something."
We led a whole procession out to the parking area. I motioned gap-tooth to get up onto one of the rear tyres and look in the back of the truck while I joined him. Geles was giving us the unblinking evil eye at close quarters. Cold, primitive and, with a little imagination, rather peckish.
"You see," I explained, "these crocodiles are already waking up. I have no more medicine to put them to sleep again. In fifteen minutes or so they will be running around all over the place, looking for food. Now, the crocodiles are nothing to me - we have too many in the zoo anyway, and we can't feed them all. They are hungry. Next week I can go get the other permit in Maputo and fetch six more crocodiles, easy. Our personal papers are in order, so you can't stop us from leaving. So I'll just dump my load here and go home."
With this I stepped down and headed for the flap at the back.  "See you in a week or so. Meanwhile, tell you people to be careful for a day or two - the crocs will eventually find their way down to the river."

He didn't call my bluff - we zoomed through customs like greased lightning.

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