Mankind likes to believe that as a species it bosses the food chain on planet Earth. While our guns, bullets, and explosives might give humans an advantage over less-advanced species, there’s no substitute for raw power and a predatory instinct derived from millions of years of existence. Numerous creatures gracing this planet strike fear in the hearts of humans, perhaps none more so than the saltwater crocodile.
The saltwater crocodile belongs to the reptile family of the animal kingdom and has numerous family members around the globe posing a danger to humans and other animal species alike. The southern United States is home to the American crocodile whilst the Nile crocodile calls the Nile River and its estuaries in Egypt home. While these crocodiles are famous in their regions, the saltwater crocodile is known the world over for its enormous size and deadly ferocity.
Sitting atop the crocodile family throne, the saltwater crocodile is not only the largest of its species but is also the largest reptile on the planet. While confined with a much smaller region of the globe in the 21st century (predominantly northern Australia and South East Asia), it might surprise many modern Seychellois to know that one of the planet’s deadliest hunters used to call their island paradise home.
Regardless of where the saltwater crocodile’s found, the species claims the title of apex predator. Throughout its current distribution along Australia’s northern coast and in various island nations in south-east Asia, the saltwater crocodile feeds on anything that mistakenly ventures too close to it. Hunting largely at night, saltwater crocodiles will feast on large and small prey alike. Smaller prey such as the dingo, goanna lizards, snakes, and mud crabs are as important in the croc’s diet as larger prey such as wild boars, water buffalos, and even domestic livestock.
The saltwater crocodile can thank its massive size for making it the apex predator it has become over the course of history. Today, the average male croc reaches a length of anywhere between 13 and 18 feet, and can weigh upwards of 2,200lbs. Historically, there is evidence that suggests these beasts could have reached lengths of up to 33ft and weights in excess of 4,000lbs. The largest confirmed alive today was captured in the Philippines in September 2011. Nicknamed “Lolong,” the creature’s 20.2ft long and weighs roughly 2,370lbs. He’s now a star attraction at a local zoo.
So how is it that saltwater crocodiles came to call the Seychelles home? The distance between the islands of the Seychelles and mainland Australia is roughly 8,600km (5,344 miles). Saltwater crocodiles, as their name implies, are capable of surviving in saltwater environments. While they predominantly inhabit estuaries, mangroves, lagoons, and brackish waterways, it’s not uncommon for them to venture out into the open sea or even spend the majority of their time there.
It was discovered via satellite tagging that saltwater crocodiles use surface currents in the open ocean to cover distances both large and small. This behaviour explains why the species is found not only throughout parts of Australia and south-east Asia, but also as far as 8600km away in the Seychelles.
Early travellers to the Seychelles reported that crocodiles were the most sighted animal along the coastal portions of numerous islands in the Seychelles. When the first European visitors passed through in 1609, the abundance of saltwater crocodiles was noted. However, all these early encounters led to a misconception that the crocodiles inhabiting the Seychelles were Nile crocodiles given the relative proximity of the Seychelles to their natural habitat in Africa, a mere 1,500km away.
Despite their number upon the discovery and early colonization of the Seychelles, the native crocodiles would not survive long. Many estimates put the extinction of crocodiles in the Seychelles around 1819. It was not until long after their disappearance on the Seychelles that the true identity of the saltwater crocodiles was discovered.
Dr. Justin Gerlach, an Academic Associate at Pembroke College in Cambridge, UK, compared fossils and bone fragments of crocodiles from the Seychelles with three known species that were thought to be the ancestors of the crocodiles in the Seychelles. The research found that neither the Nile crocodile nor Mugger crocodile (both assumed to have been the species in the Seychelles) were actually the species that once inhabited the Seychelles.
It is believed that the dying out of the saltwater crocodiles in the Seychelles occurred due to environmental changes and human contact. When humans and predatory animals collide, it’s often the animal species that suffers the most as human fear pushes society to rid itself of these beasts. Additionally, crocodile skins have long held high value in the marketplace. Numerous other crocodile species have been hunted to near extinction by humans in the past. Despite recent legislative efforts around the globe, various crocodile species still face the threat of destruction at the hands of poachers.
Environmental degradation is also likely to have played a role in the disappearance of saltwater crocodiles in the Seychelles. Saltwater crocodiles, while clearly masters of the sea, still need land and habitat in which to reproduce. Changes to the environment, likely influenced by human colonization at the time, could also have led to the extinction of the species in the Seychelles.
Although no longer a resident of the Seychelles, saltwater crocodile populations remain strong along Australia’s northern and western coastlines as well as throughout the islands of south-east Asia. The discovery of their historical habitat in the Seychelles is a testament to the seafaring abilities of nature’s greatest beasts.