Crocodiles may not be the first creature that comes to mind when you think of Norway. And if you are Norwegian you are most likely never going to see, let alone, handle a croc. So let me tell you a story about the exciting world of crocodile conservation seen through my green Norwegian eyes.
The story goes as follows; My mom walks in to the living room one early morning. I was five years old, sitting on the couch watching some nature show on TV and reciting the scientific names of every snake I saw – before they were mentioned by the presenter. My mom looks curiously at me and asks, “how do you know all of these names?”. I turn and answer without hesitation “isn’t it obvious? I have lived a previous life.” I slowly return to my program while my mom withdraws to the kitchen – tears rolling and goosebumps appearing out of sheer fear. Now, fast forward about eighteen years. My knowledge and passion for animals in general – and herpetology in particular – had faded and I was pursuing other interests. After finishing a bachelor’s in political history I realised that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in some dusty cellar. I wanted to be out there, making a difference and pursuing my real passion. Nature. I wanted to save nature, and animals in particular, so I applied for a bachelor’s in biology and began my new journey. Long story short. During my studies I volunteered in a project which tried to develop a new kind of zoo in Oslo, Norway. I worked a part time job, I spent six months as an exchange student in Australia, I finished my bachelor’s six months before schedule, AND I rediscovered my passion for herpetology. This time it was not snakes who were on the top of my list of interests – even if they’re way up there – but crocodiles. My exchange in Australia gave me a chance of studying herpetology in paradise, and these magnificent animals caught my mind and heart.
Returning to Norway I took aim at finishing my bachelor’s and move on to a master’s in crocodile science. But this being Norway, I could not find any support for my dream project, and after being offered a permanent position with the zoo where I worked part time I started my career as a zookeeper and wildlife educator. Whilst my dream of working with reptiles were slowly residing to an early grave, my new boss had a different idea. One early morning I stumble in to the daily staff meeting severely coffee deprived and cranky, where I am met by project plans for a crocodile and reptile exhibit. And five months later I got to start living the dream and work with crocodiles.
But what does working with crocodiles in Norway do for their conservation? It’s not like there are a lot of crocs lurking in the ponds around the polar circle. For our park the crocodiles have great symbolic value as they represent an analogous to the troubles our native predators face. By using the crocodiles and their conflict with humans and their livestock, we can show our guests that this is not an isolated issue. We can showcase that the treat of bears and lynx killing livestock are not so bad when they are compared with the amount of animals being taken by other predators around the world. We can show our visitors how important these apex predators are in a trophic hierarchy.
In addition to the crocs’ role as an analogue to our local predator scepticism, we also try to bridge the gaps that exist between Norwegians and reptiles. A fair share of the visitors at the park rare back when the crocodiles approach the glass walls of the enclosure. Many are sceptical, some think they are scary, and some just believe that crocodiles are evil creatures who lurk in the shallows ready to clasp their jaws in an unsuspecting human. With only five native species of reptiles in our entire country it’s easy to understand the disconnect, so we have taken it upon ourselves to tell the reptiles’ story and create fascination instead of fear. Basically, the crocs at our park function as ambassadors for the threatened wild predators of Norway and their crocodilian cousins. In return for their work as ambassadors for our native species, we donate a portion equal to about €0.06 (0.5 Norwegian Krone) per ticket sold to the IUCN SSG Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) and their work on conserving the critically endangered Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius) in Venezuela.
Our crocodiles came from a crocodile zoo in Denmark (Krokodille zoo) and arrived in the middle of March. The director of the crocodile zoo and the director of our park have been collaborating for many years, and these collaborations resulted in thirty crocodiles finding their way to a remote wildlife park in the eastern parts of Norway. Not all of the keepers and locals were immediately on board with the idea, but with the convincing and enthusiastic voice of a few individuals the attitudes changed.
The switch from working with large Scandinavian species such as moose and bears to the ancient group of crocodilians has been challenging. After working a while with them, some zookeepers feel like they can read and understand the signals of mammals better than reptiles, like they’re connected through the true placenta or something like that. Luckily we have the support of a few of the zookeepers from Krokodille zoo for a few months. They’ll teach us how to work safely with the crocs by reading their signals, keeping them happy, and how we should plan and think ahead when we work with these highly successful predators.
Whenever I speak to an audience with the goal of convincing them that a species is worth conserving, I always relate the species to an individual. What does that mean? It means that I give the animal a name and a face when I talk about their biology and behavior. The crocodiles all have a name. A name will give an animal an identity and humanize it to some extent. When people are less fearful they are easier to influence and persuade to join the conservation movement.
The work with the crocodiles in this frozen part of our planet will continue, I will keep learning, I will keep educating, I will keep contributing to the conservation of these magnificent animals, and if I am lucky I will also keep writing for BioWeb.ie.