F&S Classics: The Cautious Crocodile
A spot-and-stalk hunt for 15-foot crocs in the Munyamadzi River of Zambia
To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day for the rest of the year, we’ll republish a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry, “The Cautious Crocodile” by Warren Page, first appeared in the May 1969 issue. As best as we can tell, even 51 years later, it’s still the most-recent story about a crocodile hunt we’ve ever published—and it will be the last.
Our Alitalia stewardess shuddered in exquisite horror. She had been assigned to the Rome-Lusaka flights long enough for African tales of gore to become commonplace, but the account of crocodile activity I had just given her was too gruesome for any young lady. It had involved the messy fate of a thousand Japanese soldiers who in the mid-1940s were trapped in a Burmese mangrove swamp. They were chopped up less by the British bombardment than they were by an invasion of blood hungry crocodiles. Only twenty survived. By this tale our pocket version of Sophia Loren was shaken from her uniform cap right down to her “alligator” pumps.
“And therein lies the paradox of the crocodile,” I said to Art McGreevy in the next seat, my companion for the safari in Zambia. “He’s uglier than sin and associated only with death in its more vile forms, yet is the source of footgear and handbags for the most beautiful people.”
The croc certainly qualifies on the first score. Beauty the saurian cannot boast, not unless you find attractive a length of armor-plated hide— Crocodilus wyloticus of the African rivers can make close to 20 feet, they say, and his sea-going cousin from the Australian coast has measured closer to 25—which has a yard of peg-toothed mouth gaping at one end and carries at the other a slab-sided tail muscular enough to whip the feet from under a stud zebra. The croc appears to have a specific gravity of just about 1, so he barely floats in water, or can walk around on the bottom. Hence his leg muscles aren’t much for support, and he collapses into a loglike slug when sunning himself on a mudbank, but his frame packs surprising power and speed. I saw 20 footers imitating driftwood trunks on the shores of Kenya’s Lake Rudolf, each weighing close to a ton, totally sun-sluggish since they are fully protected in that area. But turn a boat as if to land and these monsters would whip into the water with ponderous agility, almost as fast as a gecko.
The croc is a well-organized animal for his job, which is to seize and haul back into deep water about anything he can clamp his beartrap jaws onto. He can stay underwater for endless minutes, or ooze along with only his nostrils and eyes showing. His eyes and his ears are rigged for submarine operation, the ears having sliding covers that keep out the water but seem to reduce not at all his ability to hear either an antelope drinking upstream or a man with a rifle walking along the shore edge. His eyes have extra see-through lids that work precisely like a skindiver’s mask in sharpening underwater vision. I thought about those eyes every time we waded Zambia’s slightly muddy Munyamadzi River.
The area of our safari in Zambia, the valley of the Luangwa River, a chunk of acreage roughly three hundred miles north and south and perhaps fifty the other way between two escarpments, is among other things first-rate crocodile territory. It should be, with the Luangwa flowing all year round and a whole series of feeder rivers which are either bank-full floods or strings of drying pools that hold crocs even in the dry months.
“But they’re game animals here,” explained Peter Hankin, chief professional of the Luangwa Safaris operational group. His son Philip was due to squire me about in our hunting block. “Your license is good for only one crocodile. Otherwise hide-hunters would be in here and would exterminate the breed.”
I can see reason for some degree of protection even on a predator with as few friends as the crocodile. And he has almost none. Most students of dangerous beasts feel that the crocodile accounts for the bloody deaths of more African natives than do the buffalo or the elephant or the lion taken separately or together.
But even that bloody history has to be balanced off against possible species extermination. And the hidehunters, shooting at night with lights, and preferably picking off the smaller, younger crocs for their more workable hides, could in providing shoes and handbags for the fair ladies of this world clean up the crocodiles as effectively as they ever threatened the egret or the Somali leopard. One croc on the license would be plenty for me, however, if he was a big one.
“And I can’t see how busting one will be much sport anyway,” I confided to Philip later on.
“You may regret that remark,” he replied cryptically.
I certainly did. From here on out please understand that while shooting just any old croc may not constitute the highest form of hunting sport, I seriously consider that shooting a specific crocodile, one selected for trophy size, for example, offers as great a stalking and shooting challenge as does picking off an antelope as big-eared and spooky as, say, the kudu.
The crocodile is ugly as vice and twice as hateful. Nobody in his right mind would eat one. In desperation I once ate roast alligator tail in Bolivia, found it like chicken that had been fed a steady diet of codfish, and the Bolivian alligators are I suspect less likely to chomp on carrion than are their African relatives. But they are not stupid and most definitely not insensitive. And you do not, regardless of what the hide-hunters do at night, shoot them casually in daytime hunting. The bullet must be spotted precisely right. If you do not slip the bullet in just fractionally behind the nearly invisible earhole (to blow his doorknob brain into smithereens) or hit a mite further back to break his neck vertebrae, it’s impossible to kill a crocodile quickly enough to keep him out of the river. Once in, he sinks, and that’s that.
The first time we waded the Munyamadzi to hunt a prime patch of buffalo and elephant country beyond it, we met the granddaddy of all local crocodiles ngwend in the Chuyanja tongue spoken in much of Zambia. We had eyed the river pretty carefully before slipping off our shoes and sliding into the cool water. The four natives with us made a particularly careful inspection. No doubt some of their ancestors had been taken by crocs. No eye knobs showed, no swirls broke the surface for at least 50 yards either way, and we had selected the shallowest fording place in a mile. Halfway across, we paused, partly in bravado, partly because the cold mud squishing between our toes felt so good. An upstream mudbank that had been hidden by a bend was in full view. A saurian as long as a Cadillac limousine nonchalantly slipped off the bank into deep water, the boil showing he had turned downstream in our direction.
“Wow! See that character?” I exclaimed to Philip when we, after a dozen quick strides, stood on dry land. “I’ll nail his hide to the barn!
PULL QUOTE: “And therein lies the paradox of the crocodile: He’s uglier than sin and associated only with death in its more vile forms, yet is the source of footgear and handbags for the most beautiful people.”
When we returned from trying to locate a head of 46 inches or better from three different bunches of buffalo that morning, the super-croc was back on his mudbank. With glasses, and concealed at 300 yards, we studied him carefully. An ordinary crocodile, like an 8-footer, occupied the far end of the bar, gave us a comparison Grandpappy was distinctly more than twice as long.
“He’ll make 17 feet anyway.” Philip’s guess coincided with mine.
I picked the 7 mm magnum from the hands of Jemusi, who had the job of toting my camera bag and whatever rifle was not slung on my own shoulder, checked the chamber, and with Philip made a long sneak that ended at the undercut riverbank perhaps 50 yards from the mudbar. Cautiously we peeked over. The big croc was gone. Had he seen us from 300 yards? Had he somehow smelled us upwind? Or had he, as the natives insisted, felt the vibrations of our footsteps? Or had he just decided to swim off on his own?
Two days later it happened again. We sighted the big croc from several hundred yards downstream, sneaked into possible shooting position, found him long gone. Uncanny. We built a blind and waited two hours. He never returned. He knew.
The lesser eroes weren’t quite that jumpy, but even they, after their sandy siestas had been interrupted by humans a few times, began to slide off into the water and knobs-only watchfulness at the slightest suspicion of an approach.
“Crocs may be reptiles, and their brains may be the size of a small orange, but they certainly get smart fast,” I said to Philip. “Let’s leave this section of the river alone for a few days, let ’em cool off.”
Philip agreed. He even refrained from pointing out that he’d said it would be tough to take a specific trophy croc in fair daytime fight.
But the idea of resting the area didn’t work out so well. A hippo, it seemed, ended his days in the Munyamadzi, not far from the steep-banked section with its beaches and bars that we had named, for obvious reasons, Crocodile Alley. Every saurian in the river, and a hundred or two from the Luangwa itself, therefore, came to dine on the defunct hippo. And a dead hippo is a lot of dinner, a couple of tons of edibles, and while crocodiles can go a long time between feedings, they are pretty casual about what is considered edible. The more rotten a carcass, the better they like it, very possibly because while their jaws have great closing force, they are not designed to bite off chunks as a shark does but rather to tear by grabbing and twisting or shaking violently. The deader that hippo got the better the crocs liked it. Yet they fed not constantly, but in waves, and no matter how sneakily we approached we never could catch out on the bank, sleeping off a surfeit of hippo, a really big crocodile. Certainly we never fooled the Big Daddy of the river. Ordinary crocs sunned by dozens, but never a really huge one.
“Not much left of that water-horse but skin and a bad smell, either,” mused Philip. “A day or so more and these crocs will spread out again up and down the river.”
“Lion we bagged pretty handily,” I said. “And a kudu was no great problem, nor respectable buff, and we’ve even fooled a leopard-but these crocs, or that croc, has had us whipped for nearly a week.”
I had come to the realization that a beast I’d always regarded as vermin, hardly fit prey for a trophy hunter, could be if, you become selective, as tough hunting as any of the fancier critters that hang on den walls. So far, the denizens of the Munyamadzsi had had no reason to rely on their green-mottled armor. They’d beaten us on three scoressight, scent, and sound.
On our last two-way crossing of the river we weren’t even thinking of crocodiles. A runner had come over from one of the far villages with a tale of elephants. There were many huge njovu with great white teeth, as he recounted the story. We splashed across, this time with great disdain for any lurking reptiles, to track down the hulking gray sources of his report. The elephants weren’t there. They seldom are. Tracks, but small tracks and traveling fast to extend a lead already too great for sensible pursuit. It was noon before we returned to the river edge, striking it a half mile below the Crocodile Alley section.
“The rest of the hippo must’ve broken loose and floated downstream”, I commented to Philip as we started over the bank. “Look at those crocs on the sand!”
We hastily pulled back out of sight. Perhaps 400 yards above, a bar projected from the far shore. There were a dozen reptiles sunning on it. A very large one, precisely how large it was hard to tell from two furlongs, occupied the place of honor. Utterly relaxed, he was several feet longer than the others.
No conversation was needed. With a quick wave to the bearers to stay well behind us, back from the river’s edge, Philip and I swung off in an upstream circle. We could approach the undercut bank from behind a clump of thornbush that grew at just the right point.
I kept thinking about the croc’s ability to sense vibrations. Was it really a myth? If they couldn’t hear my feet they might at least pick up my heartbeat. This stalk held more excitement than sneaking up on a record-sized impalla, or getting up close enough to a bull elephant to gauge his ivory!
As we slipped out toward the bush, I glanced automatically upstream. Were we hidden from any crocs up that way? Too late. A huge saurian, pausing not to consider anything more than the flicker of movement he had spotted from over 200 yards, slid into the stream. He looked very large could’ve been Grandpappy, the Monster of the Munyamadzi. But the one we’d seen first, if he still snoozed under the opposite bank, would be big enough.
At a quick glance he had looked like a 15-footer, with a full yard of peg-toothed mouth open to let some type of tick bird clean his gums of bits of hippo. Now if his belly was full enough to keep him snoozing I might well have it made.
Leaving Philip at the bush, I dropped to the sand and with loaded rifle began to crawl, first on elbow’s and knees, then belly-flat to the sunhot clay, toward the edge of the river. Within 2 feet of it I stopped, pushed the rifle barrel forward and over the edge, strained to lift my eyes just enough to see the bar 40 or 50 yards away.
Two of the crocs were already awake and moving toward the water, but the big one was still fast asleep, almost straight broadside to me. Now, just barely behind the ear.
The slight click of the safety brought open one slitted eye. I saw it move in the riflescope. But I also saw the crosshairs rest with deadly steadiness on the leathery plate hiding the crocodile’s brain pan. Too late for that reptile. The rifle bucked and the top of his skull lifted off. The croc shuddered once.
Abelo the skinner and Gosamu who carried the water and Jemusi who toted the camera and Amoni who smoked too many cigarettes and carried as little as possible ran a dead heat to the riverbank. They were more pleased than Philip and I. Why not? The toothy horror that lay dead on the bar across from us might well have eaten one of their grandmothers.
A trickle of blood ran from the defunct croc into the stream. It could bring back the reptiles that had oozed off downstream at the shot. I fired again into the water, and Philip blasted another waterspout. Then we waded across, running the shallow places. I wanted the boys to repeat the wading process so I could photograph them from beyond the limp carcass of the crocodile, but they’d have none of it.
Fifteen feet of croc isn’t as much as 17, but it’s as much as two and a half tall men lengthwise in the mud. That size of croc isn’t pretty, either, but it’s a sharp reminder of what the world must’ve been like a few million years ago when teeth, claws, and armor ruled the earth. That much croc can be satisfying, however, and now I’m completely over any crocodile fever. Just one problem. What to do with all that belly skin? How many suitcases will it make?