Some time ago, shortly after I first moved to Bakau, I was writing about my new home and the neighbourhood round about, and I mentioned that I was living near the crocodile pool. This led to a comment by a young lady who thought I was teasing because I only mentioned it very briefly. So on the assumption that you have managed to contain your excitement for the last six weeks or so…….this blog is for you Aisling!
Crocodiles are a regular feature of Gambian folk tales – there is a Mandinka tale about the “crocodile in the moon” – and their image appears on the one dalasi coin, the banknotes, and much else in everyday life. Traditionally they are viewed as having supernatural powers and are thought to act as intermediaries between the spirit world and the living. They are also associated with fertility and there are three sacred crocodile pools in the Gambia where childless women may visit for a ritual bathing in the water with the intention of increasing their fertility, or where other pilgrims may go to pray for good luck in business, sport, politics, or other endeavours.
The largest of these pools is Katchikally which is a couple of minutes walk from my home. It is said that the Bojang family – the guardians of the pool – were the first people to settle in the area and were visited on their arrival by a spirit called Katchikally who lived in the woods and came to find out if the newcomers were good and kind people. Apparently she approved as she gave them a freshwater pool here with instructions to bring two crocodiles there. These first two crocodiles were obviously happy in their new home as the family now look after nearly a hundred crocodiles who can be seen hauled out on the banks or lying in the water with just their snout protruding amongst the thick bed of water lettuce which covers the pool.
The inhabitants are Nile crocodiles which prefer freshwater to salt, are fairly widespread in the Gambia and are one of the largest of all crocodilians. They are a long lived species with an average age of 70 to 100 years and can grow to about 20′ long and about 800 or 900kg although the ones I saw on my visit were mostly about 6′ long or smaller – it appears their size is restricted here by the size of the pool.
The body of the adult Nile crocodile is a grey-olive colour, with a yellowish belly, while the juvenile is more greenish or dark olive-brown, with black cross-banding on the tail and body, which becomes fainter in adults. They are supremely adapted aquatic predators, with a streamlined body, a long, powerful tail, webbed hind feet, and long, powerful jaws, ideally suited for grabbing and holding onto prey. The eyes, ears and nostrils are located on top of the head, allowing the crocodile to lie low in the water, almost totally submerged and hidden from prey. A special valve at the back of the throat allows the mouth to be opened to catch and hold prey underwater without water entering the throat. In addition to a good sense of smell and excellent night vision, the Nile crocodile also possess sensory pits in the scales along the side of the jaw, used to detect movement and vibrations in the water. They are said to be extremely aggressive although the ones at Katchikally all seemed very quiet with the exception of one female whom I was told to steer clear of as she was guarding her eggs.
In general, the male Nile crocodile grows larger than the female and the largest crocodile here is a male known as “Charlie” (I’m told he was named after a British film maker who made a documentary about the pool some years ago and was the first person to touch him) who is popular with visitors as he tolerates them touching him while having their photograph taken. Indeed when I encountered my first crocodile basking in the sun my guide immediately asked if I wanted to stroke him. He was about my size, and looked quiet enough with a friendly welcoming grin on his face, but as you can see from the picture I kept a little distance off…..just in case! The custodian claims to know each animal individually and said this one was about 18 years old.
Males attract females by bellowing, slapping their snouts in the water and blowing water out of their noses (must try that some time!). Size matters and the larger males tend to be more successful. About two months after mating the female lays about 50 or 60 eggs in an underground nest and then guards them for the three month incubation period, only leaving the nest if she needs to cool off. The sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest during the second month (males can only be born if it falls in a narrow range between 89.1°F and 94.1°F ). Before hatching they make a high pitched chirruping sound which alerts the mother to open the nest and she may also help crack the shells by picking them up in her mouth. The hatchlings are about a foot long and are guarded by their mother for up to two years although many don’t survive but are eaten by other crocodiles.
The entry fees for visitors to the pool help pay for the feed – a diet of fish (together with bullfrogs which also breed in the pool), and also cover entry to a small museum documenting local history and customs and which includes a display of ceremonial masks and costume, musical instruments, household and farming implements, and old photographs of the area. Surrounding the pool is a small area of mature woodland which provides a pleasant shady walk and looks out onto the Bakau womens’ garden before leading to the pool itself complete with half height concrete block cubicle to preserve the modesty of those who wish to bathe in the pool water, and of course a small craft/gift stall where amongst other things you can buy a crocodile tooth necklace.