Supersize Crocs
Interview: Crocodile Conservationist Rom Whitaker

Rom Whitaker is a reptile conservationist who has spent the past 40 years conserving the most endangered crocs. Rom was on his way to Ethiopia in search of yet more supersize crocs when NATURE caught up with him to “talk crocs” in January 2007.

Q: What is it about crocodiles — and especially supersize crocs — that draws you to them?

A: As a kid I was hooked on dinosaurs. To me, the living reptiles became the next best thing. It was only natural that when I got older I entered the field of herpetology. While, to most people, crocs seem huge and dangerous, I could not help being sympathetic towards them as they were so vulnerable. Humans with guns could wipe them off the face of the earth. And I try to do my bit so the animals don’t disappear. The big ones are/were especially targeted by the hunters over the centuries and that is why there are so few left anywhere in the world of any species. The presence of huge crocs represents the lack of disturbance caused by humans to that habitat and perhaps that is what I’m really looking for.

Q: Do you remember your first encounter with a crocodile?

A: As a teenager I was an avid fisherman. I was 15 when I encountered a crocodile in Powai Lake in Bombay. It was night and I was looking at the float with a flashlight when a croc appeared. It was probably about 10 feet long but seemed bigger. The mugger crocodile came close to me, within touching distance, and we looked at each other in the eye before it disappeared. That eye contact stirred something inside me.

Crocodile conservationist Rom Whitaker   

Rom Whitaker

Q: Have you had any close encounters with crocs?

A: I have had hundreds of close encounters because of the amount of croc work I did in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Mozambique, Indonesia, etc. Iíve had to capture lots of crocs to measure and estimate the population structure. One particular incident stands out. Late one night I was doing a survey in PNG. We were catching small crocs, sexing (to find out the sex), marking and releasing them. For this kind of work we preferred an inflatable boat. The boatman would drive straight to a croc which I could catch and flip onboard. We had already done several that night when the boatman gunned the boat towards a croc and I grabbed it. It turned out to be a lot bigger than we had estimated. It was about six to seven feet long and I couldn’t handle it on my own. In the process of letting it go without getting bit, it gashed the boat. We managed go ashore before the boat went under.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about crocs?

A: People see crocodiles as huge, voracious, bloodthirsty, man-eating killing machines with insatiable appetites. Although crocs have a complex social life, they are in reality simple animals with small brains that are incapable of complex emotions. They are incapable of feeling anger, happiness, vengeance, etc. People have a similar attitude to snakes too.

Q: What do you hope viewers of Supersize Crocs get from the show — what message do you hope they take away with them?

A: For the people who are more aware of nature I hope they realize the importance of crocodiles as top predators of aquatic ecosystems. For the others, I hope they grow to appreciate these awesome creatures and I hope my fascination, empathy and admiration for these animals rubs off on them. In a little way this may help the crocs from being wiped out.

Q: Do you expect that finding supersize crocs will be easier in years to come? Or will we lose them entirely?

A: They’re likely found in some isolated places where the value of crocs is appreciated both ecologically as well as an economic resource, like northern Australia, and Lake Chamo in Ethiopia. In such areas tourism (to see a living dragon) could promote the continued existence of these huge reptiles.

Q: What’s your next croc-related project?

As co-chair of the Gharial Multi-Task Force, I have been working with other conservationists and organizations such as WWF to save the gharial, a unique long snouted crocodile found only in India and Nepal. The tremendous pressures on our river systems is going to wipe out all river dependent animals like river dolphins, otters, water birds and the gharial if something isn’t done. To this end, we are campaigning for better enforcement of gharial habitats, winning the local people over by providing them with alternate means of earning a living and so on.

I’m also working in Lake Chamo, Ethiopia to create a better management policy for crocodiles. There are poor people from six tribes living on the banks of the lake who exploit the fish resources. I’m currently exploring ways of promoting croc ranching, and tourism so these people can be directly benefited so they realize the value of crocs.

Q: Do some people have a hard time understanding your mission to help crocs?

A: Of course. Reptiles always get the worst end of the stick. They do not have the cuddle-factor that mammals and birds have and that works against them. One has to suspend the traditional ideas of cuteness when relating to reptiles!

Q: Have you found your supersize croc since the filming?

A: No. While on the project in Ethiopia I’ll be on the lookout for that 20 footer.

  • tabor

    have you ever been bitten

  • Denise

    Hi Rom, I have just caught the end of a Natural World TV programme on BBC2, I really would like to congratulate you on your excellent work to save this wonderful creature. I hope you continue to be inspired to continue with this work.
    I have to admit that the programme bought me to tears; I find it so sad that we as Humans are mostly responsible for the decline or extinction of so many species.
    Thank you for caring.
    Denise Butler

  • Georgie Ray

    Helllo Rom. I am 8 and I watched your program tonight. I am really worried about the Gharials. I like them very much. I would like to find out more about them so that one day I can help them. Its so sad that they might die. Love Georgie X

  • Duncan Lloyd

    Hi Rom,

    Im 24 and a keen conservationist with an FdSc in wildlife and habitat mangement, I caught natural world on tv last night and was truely inspired by your work. I am currrently looking for a location to progress with my conseravation work. I would like to come to india and do all i can to help with the Gharials and there habitat preservation.

  • David Alford

    Deer management in the USA has shown large antlered deer can be taken over many decades w/o reducing antler size. The key element is age and good habitat.
    Hunters in fact are conserving habitat and providing the $$$ to produce healthier deer herds which result in larger deer. It is only when hunting is uncontrolled or improperly managed that there is a deleterious effect. Anyway, I suspect the genes for large size in crocs. are still there and the key element is age. If there is a good way to age crocs, this hypothesis could be tested.

  • kuntal

    sir i also work 4snakes in my city i had passed bachlor of commerce can i do any course by which i can work professionally in wildlife

  • arnoldus anggaibak

    Does crocodile can run as fast as human?
    if that’s true we can be killed by crocodile .sorry if i wrong.thank’s

  • Alison

    Hi Rom, I have just been reading about your work with crocodiles. I would love to congratulate and thank you for this work. It’s so great to see that there are some people on this planet who love these magnificent creatures. I am hoping that the program that you made on Supersize crocs will be avaliable here in New Zealand on DVD at some stage, if not I’ll do my darndist to get it from overseas.
    Keep up the great work. :-)

  • Dana

    Rom, I would like to send you some photos of a recently- and wastefully-killed alligator that measured 28 feet, one inch long. This magnificent animal was shot in Alabama and is shown swimming with a large buck in its mouth. I wonder how old it was and whether anyone can develop practical methods of capture and relocation instead of extermination!

  • david bosch

    To me the most amazing thing was that an animal which has been a top predator for 280 million years should have learned/evolved to be so elusive in only a few generations.

  • John Olsson

    Hello Rom. Would you be kind enough to share the photos of Dana from Alabama who states that a 28 footer was needlessly killed. Could you give me her e-mail, or give her mine. She is so right in the sense that much more could have been gotten from that alligator alive, rather than it being dead. All the best. JO

  • Keith Jensen

    Hello Rom, I visited Australia in Aug of 2009. While there I met Ranger Dave in Kakadu Park. Dave took us to a billabog to see Rough Nut, a croc he has known since 1976. We never saw him out of the water but Dave said he was close to 7 meters when he first saw him in 76. He was enormous, half of his teeth are missing and Dave figures he will loose a fight with a young croc one of these days. He would be easy to check out as he is used to goose hunters and will come to gun fire to see if he can get a goose. We were four feet from him as he ate geese.

    I have footage of him and would love to know if he is realy over 7 meters.

    Keith

  • Dr Fischer

    Here is a croc over 23 ft.

    I cannot copy and paste. If you give me an e-address I will forward

    This picture was taken by a KTBS helicopter flying over Lake Conroe !

    (For those of you who are not local, Lake Conroeis about 50 miles North of Houston)

    That has to be a HUGE gator to have a whole deer in its mouth! Are you ready to go skiing on Lake Conroe ? If you ski at the west end of the lake — try not to fall.

    This alligator was found between Athens and Palestine , Texas near a house. Game wardens were forced to shoot the alligator-guess he wouldn’t cooperate …..

    Anita and Charlie Rogers could hear the bellowing in the night Their neighbors had been telling them that they had seen a mammoth alligator in the waterway that runs behind their house, but they dismissed the stories as exaggerations. “I didn’t believe it,” Charles Rogers said. Friday they realized the stories were, if anything, understated.

    Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens had to shoot the beast.Joe Goff, 6′5″ tall, a game warden with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, walks past a 23-foot, 1-inch alligator that he shot and killed inthe Rogers’back yard.

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