The Monster Crocs of Lake Chamo
July 2014, Volume 12-4

A look at the crocodile entries in the SCI trophy records reveals the astonishing fact that the four largest crocodiles and six out of the top ten entries come from a single location in Ethiopia: Lake Chamo in the Central Rift Valley. All were hunted in 2006 and 2007. The largest measures 18 feet 7 inches; the first three entries are all surpassing 18 feet (ca. 5.50 m).  The 40 year-old SCI records contain more recent entries than the much older Rowland Ward Records of Big Game Animals.  The 28th edition of Rowland Ward lists only four crocodiles over 17 feet, the largest one a 17 ⅞ footer from Tanzania, harvested in 1995. Only number four is from Ethiopia, taken in Gambella in 1969. There are very few older records of crocodiles in the record books since crocs were regarded as vermin and nobody bothered with record book entries in those times.  There have always been speculations about how long Nile crocodiles (Crocodilus niloticus) can grow. Rowland Ward remarks in the 28th edition that “legends of crocs over 20 feet are many, but that it is doubtful if Nile crocodiles grow that big”.

In older travel, exploration and hunting books on Africa there are of course many references to monster crocs. Hans Besser, a German agriculturist from German East Africa, probably described the largest croc in Africana literature: “One crocodile that I shot in March 1903 at the Mbaka river [a tributary to Lake Malawi from the North] had a height at the highest point of 93 cm, a circumference at the belly of 4.26 m and a total length of 7.6 m, even though around a quarter of the tail was missing, a fact which could be concluded by the abrupt and thick end of the tail. The bones of the head measured 1.4 m in length and 0.96 m in width.  When I saw this monster lying at the riverbank I thought at first that it was a large, damaged canoe…..” 7.6 m are almost 25 feet!

We do not know much about Hans Besser, apart from what he wrote in German in his two small books, but he presents himself there as a very accurate observer of African wildlife, not at all given to exaggerations. In those days the hunt for record trophies was not yet really on, so that this motivation could not have been a reason to exaggerate.

Whatever the largest length of a Nile crocodile might be, fact is that the largest ones recorded by hunters and scientists come from Lake Chamo.  This lake is situated in the lovely landscape of Ethiopia’s Central Rift Valley close to the university town of Arba Minch. The lake is around 30 km long in north-south direction and around 15 km across. Its northern shores form part of the Nechisar National Park, known for its large herds of zebra. These shores are also renowned for the large crocs that tourists can observe at the so called crocodile market, a sandy piece of shore where the huge saurians like to bask in the sun. The park can be easily reached by road and plane, hence visitor numbers are rising.

Arba Minch is also the location of Ethiopia’s first and until today only crocodile ranch. The ranch, run by Government, is relying on the crocodiles of Lake Chamo for hatchling collection. Another private ranch has recently failed.

Crocodile ranching and hunting started after Ethiopia submitted a proposal at CITES CoP 8 in 1992 to transfer its C. niloticus population from Appendix II (export quota) to Appendix II pursuant to Resolution Conf. 3.15 on ranching.  Between 1992 and 2007, legal international trade was carried out for ranched skins and a limited number of hunting trophies.

Subsequently the Government declared the southern part of Lake Chamo as Controlled Hunting Area and trophy hunting for crocodiles started in 2005.  Also in 2005, Ethiopia contracted African Parks Foundation (APF) to take over the management of the Nechisar National Park. During this process, APF contracted a consultancy to report on crocodile surveys in Lake Chamo. This report was intended to assist in the formulation of recommendations for a management program for the “Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of the Lake Chamo Crocodile Resource.” The surveys

confirmed that the crocodile population had increased following the cessation of widespread and unregulated hunting in the 1950s and 1960s, but suggested that it had only increased to around 17.5 to 25% of historical population levels. The Wildlife Department, then under the Ministry of Agriculture, wrongly assumed the report represented official recommendations from the IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group and, on that basis, stopped the limited trophy hunting at Lake Chamo in July 2007.

During the CITES CoP 2013 a meeting between the Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) and the Ethiopian delegation took place to discuss this issue. It was decided that CSG undertake a mission to Ethiopia to review the crocodile management activities of the Ethiopian government and private operators. This took place during from 28 April to 08 May 2014 and the Arba Minch Crocodile Ranch was visited to provisionally assess production protocols, facilities, harvesting procedures, and future needs.  For three days night and day surveys of the Lake Chamo crocodile population were conducted. The team was composed of Dr. Matt Shirley (CSG), Dr. Ludwig Siege (Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority), Mesereth Ademasu (Senior Biologist for the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State’s Bureau of Culture) and Abraham Marye (Chief Warden of Nechisar National Park). For the crocodile surveys, staff from the crocodile ranch and Prof. Dr. Murali Pai (Biology Department University of Arba Minch) participated.

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A report of the findings was prepared for the annual CSG meeting in Louisiana (May 2014), the highlights of which are the following:

  • Like the 2007 report, it was found that Lake Chamo supports a large and healthy crocodile population.
  • The number of nets in the lake has increased at least two-fold since 2007. The concession holder actively patrolled and controlled for illegal mesh diameter nets and actively managed the lakeshore habitat to facilitate crocodile nesting and basking. These activities, however, were discontinued after the concession was closed in 2007 and the cessation of controls certainly has a negative impact on the crocodile population.
  • Contrary to the suggestions of the 2007 report limited trophy hunting will not negatively or unsustainably impact the population as a whole and the benefits derived justify it as a continued component of Nile crocodile management.
  • The permit fee for trophy-sized Nile crocodiles should be increased from US$2,000 to as much as US$6,000 – $8,000, though a sliding scale depending on the ultimate size of the trophy or the hunting area.
  • The system of bi-annual quota setting surveys should be reinstated. It was stated that, unlike for other concession-based quota setting, the survey covers the entirety of the lake and not just the concession area.
  • Human Crocodile Conflict (HCC), in the form of crocodile attacks on people and livestock, does exist at some level on Lake Chamo, but investigations do not support that this is increasing or that people feel exceedingly threatened. Establishing a better managed crocodile program, that includes a combination of better fisheries management in Nechisar NP, trophy hunting, and habitat management/protection of nesting and basking beaches could help significantly reduce HCC.

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Other findings of the 2014 report are:

  • There are obviously healthy hippo populations in the lake
  • The integration of the ranch’s harvesting procedures into the overall management of the lake makes sense (guarding of hatching sites, collection of hatchlings), even though no nesting surveys were made recently.
  • The crocodile ranch practices good animal husbandry. There is, however, a problem with procuring enough food for the ranched animals.
  • The economics of the crocodile ranch management have to be changed radically. Presently it is run as a Government department and not as an economic entity with own budgeting and marketing.
  • There is a problem to find markets for the skins. CSG may be able to help.
  • Documentation of non-detriment of the utilization is difficult due to lack of data. This concerns above all the annual hatchling collection. The collection must be based on nest censi.

Author: Dr. Ludwig Siege

Note: Both photos © Dr. Ludwig Siege