When drought brings crocodiles

Sun Journal

September 19, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MUZARABANI, Zimbabwe -- In the dusty villages that lie near the Mozambique border, the long-lived drought in southern Africa has brought a battle not only with the elements but also with wildlife.

It has been two years since water flowed freely in the Musengezi, the river that feeds this town. It has been nearly 10 years since the annual rains that begin by November have arrived in normal strength. And a decade-long drought in Africa has consequences different from, say, one dry summer in Maryland.

In normal times, the Musengezi always left pools of water that satisfied the thirst of goats and cows and provided places for the villagers to wash dishes and themselves.

Because of the drought, the natural pools have shrunk -- and the crocodiles living in them began moving to the largest pool of all, one apparently fed by underground springs since it never dries up.

No one knows how many crocodiles now live in this one pool. Perhaps 100. People do know that almost every week several goats fall victim to them. Maybe once a week, a small cow suffers a similar fate. And yearly now, a person is lost.

Killed washing dishes

Last year, it was Teresa Gunduzi, 15 years old. "She had washed the dishes," says her brother, Yeukai Gunduzi, "and had just finished washing off her smaller brothers and sisters.

"Her hair was full of soap and she was about to pour a pan of water over it. That was when the crocodile grabbed her." Her body was never found.

This year, a 13-year-old girl met the same fate. "All we found were her heart and lungs," says Ruwizhu Rufira, who is strikingly different from all his neighbors. Mr. Rufira, 68, a native of Mozambique, claims to have no fear of crocodiles.

This is the territory where the wildness of the African bush meets humans engaged in the millenniums-old task of trying to tame their surroundings.

The drought has waxed and waned for the past 10 days, and it has made a mockery of farmers' attempts to maintain the production of cotton, the main cash crop. It has caused Zimbabwe this year once again to ask the international community for grain donations.

There is water not far away from Muzarabani, since the Zambezi River meanders through a forest that is just across the border in Mozambique. Along with the water is a multitude of animals.

There is even more wildlife south of Muzarabani, in a government wilderness area. Among the inhabitants are scores of elephants, creatures that Zimbabwe

has in overabundance.

They occasionally come through Muzarabani seeking water and the wild fruit that the villagers harvest for food. Last month, elephants with an appetite for fruit knocked over several huts and killed cattle they apparently thought were threatening the elephant calves.

Uncle taught him

Mr. Rufira says he can do nothing about the elephants, but he is willing to confront the crocodiles. An uncle, he says, taught him how to make peace with them.

He seems eager to demonstrate his prowess.

"A goat was killed this morning," he tells some visitors. "They say his head is now showing."

So he leads a small delegation down a steep, dusty path to the river, past the skin of a mambo snake in the folds of the trunk of a baobab tree, and past other trees that have been trampled and stripped of their bark during a visit by the elephants. He finally reaches the pools.

By the edge of the largest of them, the pool that doesn't dry up, two boys sit with their stick fishing poles extended over the water, a can of hand-dug worms by their side.

The bucolic quality of their pose belies the danger. They are always wary of movement in the water, of any indication of the hard-to-spot eyes and nostrils of a crocodile coming in their direction.

Along the sandy bank are crude barriers of branches, which might or might not keep some of the water crocodile-free. A few yards from the water someone has dug through the sand to create a private lagoon.

A dead goat is visible in the water about 20 yards from the shore. Crocodiles will often kill an animal but then temporarily abandon it, until the rot softens the tough hide. They will take the remains to caves along the riverbank for dining.

Mr. Rufira quickly strips down to his undershorts and wades into the water, splashing at his sides with his hands and making a bird-like sound as he goes. He also takes a mixture of herbs that he says provides protection.

He soon has the goat in his arms and carries it back to the bank, plopping the carcass down on the sand. Bite marks are visible on the abdomen; bits of innards have been pulled through one of the wounds.

Meat still good

"There is nothing wrong with the meat since it has not been poisoned," Mr. Rufira explains. "So the owner of the goat can still eat it. If he can afford to, he might give me a few dollars."

Mr. Rufira says he does not just retrieve dead animals but has occasionally scared attacking crocodiles away from a potential prey. He was not around, however, earlier this year when a crocodile grabbed a man.

Other villagers managed to scare off the beast by throwing rocks in the river, and the victim survived -- at the cost of his right arm.

Government officials occasionally come to Muzarabani and shoot few crocodiles in a program that shares the profits from the skins and meat with the villagers.

And on those occasions, the officials ask Mr. Rufira to retrieve the carcasses.

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