It’s a hot and humid night as Matej Dolinay, a PhD candidate at the Masaryk University of Brno, finds himself in waist-deep water of a small creek in a remote part of Africa. The area around him and his team is only illuminated by the glow of his flashlight.
Here, in the heart of Africa, the Congo Basin, Matej and his team are in search for a living fossil.
Only a pair of red eyes, reflecting light from the flashlight, reveals the presence of an animal which the scientific community seems to have forgotten about in the last 100 years since it has first been described. The Congo Dwarf Crocodile.
Matej is part of an expedition that aims to prove the existence of the highly adapted jungle reptile. This species of crocodile, which can grow up to 1.9 meters, can’t be found in any zoological atlas and is not listed on the ICUN red list. Nobody knows how many of those crocodiles are left in the wild. So, the seven-week long expedition wants to shed light on this unknown species. Currently, the Congo Dwarf Crocodile is considered as a subspecies of African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) or not even that, despite the morphological and genetic differences between them.
Trying to catch a crocodile sounds dangerous. Trying to catch a crocodile at night, with bare hands in waist deep water seems even more dangerous.
But before Matej and his team are able to find the crocodile they have to get to the location where it can be found.
The Congo Dwarf Crocodile inhabits the flooded rainforests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa. Matej and his team focused on the northwestern part of the Republic of Congo, along the border to neighbouring Gabon. This remote part of Africa is extremely difficult to access.
“After the rain, it is nearly impossible to drive many roads, in one area we were stuck in the forest, destroyed the 4×4 on our car and had to sleep in a small village in the house of the local chief.”
Trekking through thick Congolese Jungle
Matej and his team worked in different locations to track down the elusive dwarf crocodile, spending up to four days in one spot to maximize their output. With the help of local porters and guides, they were marching up to six hours through the thick jungle to find a suitable place to set up their camp for the following days. The constant attacks by termites, ants and aggressive wasps are only one of the reasons which make working in the jungle so exhausting.
The red eyes remain still as Matej shines his flashlight on them. He needs to be careful not to spook the crocodile if he is to catch it. Once the crocodile dives down, it is impossible to find it again. As Matej is close enough, he pounces on it and grabs it by the neck, to avoid getting bitten. His team proceeds by measuring the animal, taking samples and marking the location where it was caught.
Serving as a living food storage
The Congo Dwarf Crocodile finds itself in a precarious spot. It is caught between the hunger for bushmeat on the on hand and the approaching deforestation on the other.
Sadly, the dwarf crocodile is one of the more common animals on the bushmeat markets, being sold as food next to antelope, porcupines and small monkeys. Crocodiles are known for surviving weeks and months without food which makes them an excellent food source as a living supply for local people that share their habitat. The market price lies around 40 USD for one big crocodile, a reasonably high price when taking the income of the local population into account. Matej estimates that a single hunter can kill up to 40 crocodiles a year, resulting in a tremendous hunting pressure for the reptile. In many homes of rural dwelling people of the Congo, the crocodile is used as a living source of food. Crocodiles are very efficient animals, that can survive many days and weeks without eating. Tied up and unable to move it remains in the homes of locals until the day it gets killed.
Matej and his team discovered several crocodiles in the homes of villagers, examined them, bought them and released them back into the wild.
China’s rush for gold and timber threatens the forest
While the crocodile has to stay out of sight of local hunters, Chinese and Malaysian companies are moving into the rainforest with heavy machinery. These companies are in search of gold and tropical timber, destroying the forest which the crocodiles and so many other animals and plants inhabit. Dr Václav Gvoždík, the leader of the Congo expedition, had worked in the same area five years ago. He wandered in pristine forests in which time seemed to have been standing still. Now, the same areas are gone. The forest gave way to deep holes, mud and wide paths where now diggers and bulldozers rumble along. Along with the jungle, the animals disappeared. Putting the Congo Dwarf Crocodile on the list of protected species would potentially stop the destruction of the forest. Matej and his fellow scientists are currently working hard with local collaborators on making exactly that happen.
Having done research in Cameroon and Madagascar, Matej is driven by his passion for reptiles and amphibians in Central Africa. He is also a keen wildlife photographer and filmmaker. Along with his fiancé Zuzana Literáková, a wildlife photographer with a Masters Degree in Zoology, he created the Project “Living Zoology”. You’ll find their work on 500px, their Facebook Page “Living Zoology” and their Youtube Channel.