Every year Shark Week rolls around and shark savers start talking about how misunderstood these nice, friendly creatures actually are. They try to dispel myths by doing things like swimming with tiger sharks — which, for the record, is not a good idea. But how about swimming with crocodiles?
In West Africa, just near Ghana’s border with Burkina Faso lies a series of unusual ponds where locals and crocodiles coexist — women wash clothes next to these modern-day dinosaurs and kids splash in the water. But there’s more to the story than just docile crocs. Locals believe that these animals hold the souls of the deceased, and claim that some births coincide with crocodile deaths. The myth goes that a man was running from a lion (back when there were still lions in Ghana) and was caught at the water’s edge between the predator and a crocodile. He promised the reptile that his descendants would never eat one of its kind again if the animal helped save him from the lion, and the kind crocodile obliged.
Locals say the Paga crocs haven’t hurt anyone in history, and that you’d better not either — it’s a serious offense to hurt or even dis them. Matthew Shirley, chair for the West and Central Africa regions of the IUCN crocodile specialist group, says this kind of crocodile reverence is found in virtually every country in West Africa. Ghana’s laws reflect this attitude too. All three of its croc species — the West African crocodile (found at Paga) and the highly endangered dwarf and slender-snouted varieties — are protected “at the highest level afforded any species,” Shirley says. That’s the same protection that the more charismatic elephant and chimp receive.
To be sure, there’s more than local lore behind the crocs’ behavior. Some speculate that these prehistoric creatures are harmless because they’re overfed and, well … lazy. But biology and a little training might play a role in their seemingly friendly demeanors too. According to Chris Dieter, the owner at Crocodile Encounter in Texas, which deals primarily with African crocodile species, there are certain populations that are naturally nonaggressive. The species at Paga “aren’t lapdogs, but they’re pretty calm,” he says. “It might look dangerous to an outsider, but in reality the animal probably isn’t viewing them as lunch.” Ghanaians capitalized on this and turned the ponds into a tourist attraction where guests can hand-feed live chickens to the crocodiles. Shirley explains that crocs have an incredibly strong response to food — we’ve noticed this on NatGeo and in various horror flicks — and are as easy to train as dogs. In Thailand, for example, the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo has acts where keepers put their heads into the open mouths of crocodiles without getting bitten.
The system can break down on occasion, though. In 2012 the head caretaker of former Ivorian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s famous presidential crocodiles made one mistake and was eaten (on camera!) by the very crocs he cared for for roughly 30 years. So if you are venturing to Paga, you might want to err on the side of aloof with anything that’s got more teeth than you.
This article was originally written for OZY.com