SWAT team handles rogue crocs in Sarawak

Bernama

KUCHING: On Feb 8, Selamat Draup went to the riverbank of Sungai Santubong to catch river prawns, just as he did every other day.

However, when he did not return home after the activity that day, his family became worried and subsequently reported him missing.

The location, in Kampung Santubong, is a popular area for prawn-catching among the locals.

One of them told Bernama that it had be a routine of the 54-year-old secondary school staff. He said that Selamat had been blessed with bountiful catch over the last few days and had shared his haul with the nearby residents.

On the next day (Feb 9) after he was reported missing, a search and rescue (SAR) team was mobilised along the river.

They found the lower half of his body some three kilometres where he had been catching prawns. It was believed that a crocodile had attacked him.

The situation triggered a response from the Sarawak Forest Corporation (SFC) Swift Wildlife Action Team (SWAT). The team is usually deployed to contain wildlife threats, this time involving a man-eating crocodile.

SFC Wildlife Officer Christopher Kri Ubang said the SAR operations typically involve the police, the Fire and Rescue Department, the Civil Defence Force. In this case, the SWAT team only went down to the ground as soon as it was confirmed that there had been a reptilian attack on a human being.



HANDLING ANIMAL/HUMAN CONFLICT


Not much is known about the SWAT SFC. Their movements are much of a mystery. The media only came to know of their activities through the press statements issued after the success of each operation.

This writer intended to find out more about their work by following them on a four-day crocodile hunt at Sungai Santubong, after the tragic death of Selamat Draup.

Kri said that the SWAT team started operating in 2013 and was mainly in charge of saving wildlife and reducing the conflicts between man and beast throughout Sarawak.

He is the Head of Operations for the team and has over 30 years of experience in animal conservation under his belt. He said that the team comprised 15 people with six based in Kuching and three in Sibu, Bintulu and Miri respectively.

He said among the tasks handled by the team were the culling or relocation of crocodiles, saving wildlife, solving human-wildlife conflicts in areas affected by such conflicts and helping the Sarawak Forest Department in enforcement duties, if the need arises.

“The members of the team did not undergo special training for the tasks. We consider whatever experience we have gained as training. This is because among us, there are those who are very experienced, not just in (the capturing of) crocodiles but wildlife in general,” he told Bernama.

He said that other operations typically handled by the team included reducing the conflict between macaques and local residents.



THE CROCODILE POPULATION IN SARAWAK

The conflict between crocodiles and humans in Sarawak often becomes the area of focus.

According to an SFC spokesperson, a study to identify the population of saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) in the state from 2012 through 2014 revealed that there are approximately 13,500 of the species inhabiting the 22 river basins throughout the state.

The study also found that the population density of river basins Similajau (5.74 persons per kilometre), Saribas (2.25 persons per kilometre) and Samarahan (2.17 persons per kilometre). These are the three areas with the highest population of crocodiles in Sarawak.



CROCODILE FREE ZONE


Hence, to reduce the crocodile-human conflict, SFC has identified Crocodile Free Zones.

When a crocodile is found in the area, it has to be removed as it is believed that it will pose danger to the local population as well as their property.

The areas designated as Crocodile Free Zones includes area with a high population of residents; recreational areas or resorts that organise water activities like bathing, boating and jet-skiing; riverbanks; schools, clinics and places of worship. Areas where there are public requests for the removal of crocodiles would also be taken into consideration.

There are 19 areas throughout Sarawak that have been declared Crocodile Free Zones in Kuching (7), Sri Aman (1), Sarikei (1), Sibu (1), Bintulu (1), Miri (6) and Limbang (2).

In Kuching, the zones are located in Kuching City (from Satok Bridge to Baraj); Pasir Panjang to Pasir Pandak; the Damai Beach Resort, Santubong; Telok Asam, Teluk Lakei, Telok Tajor and Telok Bako Kecil (Bako National Park); Kampung Bako; the recreational areas for bathing at the Gua Angin Nature Reserve and Pantai Siar and Pantai Pandan in Lundu.

In Sri Aman it is the Sri Aman Waterfront; Sarikei (Sungai Sarikei Waterfront); Sibu (Sungai Sibu Waterfront); Bintulu (Sungai Bintulu Waterfront) and Limbang (the Sungai Limbang Waterfront and Sungai Lawas Waterfront).

The areas declared as Crocodile Free Zones in Miri are from the Miri Marina to the Piasau Bridge; the Batu Niah town; Sepupok town; from the Sungai Bekenu Waterfront to Kampung Dagang; Esplanade Marudi and the Sungai Long Lama Waterfront.



CROCODILE ATTACKS


According the statistics issued by SFC, there have been 12 cases of crocodile attacks in 2013, eight in 2014, eight in 2015, seven in 2016 and as at March 16, 2017, five cases have been recorded.



CULLING CROCODILES IN SUNGAI SANTUBONG


Kri said that when his team was informed of the case of Selamat Draup, they were on a crocodile culling operation in Sungai Skrang, Sri Aman.

“After the crocodile culling operation in Sungai Skrang, on Feb 14, the SFC SWAT team did a survey of Sungai Santubong,” he said.

On Feb 16, a 2.9-metre long female crocodile ate the bait they put out, resulting in the capture of the riparian predator that was estimated to be about 200kg.

“However, the necropsy performed on the crocodile did not reveal any human remains in its stomach,” he said.

The operation was thus continued from March 6 to 11.

“The second time around, we managed to trace four crocodiles, two of which were over 3m-long and the other two less than 3m-long,” he said.



TO CAPTURE A CROCODILE


The operation required the use of an aluminium boat measuring 3.66m-long, 16 hooks with chicken and goat as bait, marker buoys and caving ropes.

The SWAT team members involved in the operation also brought with them boat knives and other emergency preparations in the event of animal attacks. They were accompanied with fully armed police officers.

Kri said that the methods of capture depended on the situation. Sometimes it was the use of bait at selected locations or a metal cage.

“The baits were attached on a specially-made hook measuring 6 by 2 inches. The hooks were placed at 16 selected locations along the river within a 2.5-kilometre radius from the location of the crocodile attack,” he explained.

The team went down to the river for surveillance every morning and evening. They had to limit their movements to minimise the disturbances to the environment so as not to scare the crocodiles away.

“To determine where to place the bait, we asked the villagers where the crocodiles lived and did a probability assessment based on that information. That accounts for 50 percent of it.

“The other half comes from our own assessments based on our surveillance and target areas,” he explained.

Kri said that when a crocodile ate the bait, it would inadvertently tug the marker buoy. This would alert the team that a crocodile had gone for the bait.

After four days of following the operation, this writer concluded that the process was certainly not easy.

Kri said in this particular operation, the crocodile they were trying to trap were rather resistant to the bait.

“Animals can survive for days after a meal, so they might not go looking for food after one,” he said.



PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE


Kri said the team had many times encountered alarming situations during such operations. This includes the times when their boat nearly capsized after being struck by the reptile.

“There were a few times when crocodiles tried to knock over our boat from below. When they eat our bait, they would drag our buoy markers along and this stresses them out. A stressed animal will fight back.

“When we pull (the hook) and the crocodile doesn’t surface, we need to be careful because we don’t know where it is. It is stronger and heavier than us and we must remember that the water is their home. We are going into their territory and we must be extra careful. Otherwise we would be putting ourselves abd the others in danger because an injured crocodile would do anything to free itself,” he explained.

Kri said the largest crocodile caught by SWAT was about 5.4m long (17 feet), in Batang Samarahan on Jan 15. It was believed that it had earlier attacked and killed a local fisherman.


EXPERIENCE COMES IN HANDY


Kri said that despite the lack of specialised training, the members of SWAT each had experience in dealing with the conflicts between crocodiles and man.

He said members needed to have multipurpose skills and be ready for a variety of tasks, including steering a boat, should the need arise.

“We work as a team. There are no ‘heroes’. Before going into an operation, everyone agrees on what needs to be done and goes on out to do it.

“For example, if they come across a crocodile, they already know their roles and there is no need for further discussions,” he said.

They generally avoid night time operations, except when necessary.

“Sometimes we have to camp by the river. That adds up to the challenge and it makes us more committed to it.

SWAT member Wan Mazlan Wan Median, 58, is one of the more recognised member of the team after his picture hauling a captured crocodile in Samariang became viral in December 2016.

Wan Mazlan said the job required a high degree of patience, focus and preparedness to deal with any conflict that might arise.

“I have been injured during operations and I have also nearly died after being attacked by a crocodile. I was rather new at the time and had yet to gain experience, but it is different now,” he said.



QUIT THROWING RUBBISH IN RIVERS


Often times we pay no heed to the reminder to not litter, especially in rivers. The fate that befell people like Selamat Draup, however, is a stern warning as to why we should observe the advice.

Kri said that crocodile necropsy often reveal that its stomach contents included a number of plastic bags.

“This is what we found in the past one year handling conflicts between crocodiles and human beings. For example, at the riverbanks in Sri Aman, every time someone comes by the river to throw away rubbish, the crocodiles would surface and swim towards the rubbish.

“The reptile is attracted to the garbage because it has been conditioned to think that there is food among it. However, imagine when in the future, someone goes to the river to do something other than to dispose of rubbish. What would happen then?” -- Bernama