Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
LAKE NASSER, EGYPTIf they’re small, you use the bulk of the boat to hustle them into the shallows, then snag them by hand, Mahmoud tells me. He should know, having spent the past decade poaching the scaly beasts around the southern city of Aswan.
If they’re medium-size, perhaps the length of a kayak, he says (he won’t tell me his family name because of the illegal nature of his work), you noose them with barbed wire traps. And if they’re monsters—up to 18 feet of whiplashing tail, bristling teeth, and relentless aggression—you dazzle them with a spotlight, entangle them in fishing nets, and subdue them with a shot to their exposed underbelly.
“There’s not a crocodile I can’t catch, or a hunting ground I don’t know,” Mahmoud bragged. “I’ve made my life doing this.”
Mahmoud hunts the Nile crocodile, the world’s second largest reptile. Found across much of sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in large lakes and rivers, it’s renowned for its ferocious behavior. (Read why Nile crocs are bigger and badder than alligators.)
The Nile crocodile’s fortunes have veered from one extreme to the other over the millennia. From an object of veneration in some ancient Egyptiantemples—and even the namesake of an entire city, Crocodilopolis—the species was extinct along the lower Nile by the 1950s as people encroached on its habitat.
The Aswan High Dam, finalized in 1970, created Lake Nasser, and with it a 250-mile-long croc-friendly mecca in Nubia, Egypt’s sparsely populated south. The species began recovering.
Now, thanks to a dwindling tourism industry and an unstable political system, the pendulum has swung back the other way as people look to make a profit off illegal sales of the reptile.
High prices for crocodile skin, meat, and penises—used as an aphrodisiac across East Africa— have attracted some professional hunters, even as larger numbers of impoverished local people try to muscle in on the trade.
On top of that, some lake fishermen are killing crocodiles to stop them gobbling up their catches of Nile perch and other fish, such as tilapia, environmental officials say. (Read about how tiger eyes and crocodile penises are hot on the black market.)
According to Mahmoud, smugglers are exporting record numbers of crocodiles—perhaps up to 3,500 eggs and hatchlings and a few hundred adult live crocs a year—abroad mostly via Egyptian ports, mainly to the Arabian Gulf.
The Egyptian government’s last large-scale survey of lake crocodiles, in 2008 and 2009, estimated the population at anywhere between 6,000 and 30,000. Its historic numbers are unknown.
Even with limited resources, Egyptian environmental officials have seen the species’ numbers decline precipitously in their 60-mile study area of Lake Nasser’s shorelines.
“The population was down by half between [2008 to 2009] and 2012, and then from [2015 to 2016], it was down again,” says Amr Hady, a researcher in the Crocodile Management Unit of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, which was established to watch over the lake’s largest residents.
“The habitat is the same, the pollution is the same. It’s because of the hunting,” Hady said in his Aswan office, where a small mountain of confiscated crocodile carcasses—all seized from the city’s airport and ferry port since 2013—gather dust in the corner.
If Nile crocodiles disappeared from Lake Nasser, the environment would suffer. Vociferous consumers of dead fish, insects, rodents, and invasive marine species, the reptiles occupy a key role in Lake Nasser’s ecosystem.
Moreover, part of the country’s heritage would disappear with it. The beasts were once so synonymous with Egypt that crocodiles often served as its symbol during the Roman era, says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.
It’s illegal to hunt Nile crocodiles in Egypt, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as least concern, while noting its population is falling in many countries.
In 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that monitors global wildlife trade, downgraded Egypt’s Nile crocodiles from the highest level of protection.
This means that some trade in the species is permissible once a quota is agreed, but many hunters have interpreted this as legalizing their activities, Hady says.
“People always do what they must to survive—they make money where they can,” says Abdelhalim Tolba, whose family is heavily involved in the illicit and legal wildlife trade in Egypt. He estimates that his relatives illegally take at least 500 crocodiles from Lake Nasser every year. (Read an exposé of the world’s most notorious wildlife dealer, from National Geographic magazine.)
“Right now, the crocodile is very much in demand.”
People in the Aswan area, just north of Lake Nasser, have long dabbled in small-scale crocodile poaching, but it wasn’t until the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011 and the ensuing chaos that hunting really took off.
Political instability and the specter of terrorism have tanked the tourism industry, hurting local economies that have long depended on foreign dollars. Hotel occupancy in Aswan fell by more than 70 percent between 2010 and 2015, says hotelier Hussein Mohammed, proprietor of the Suheil House. Guesthouse owners and tour guides have been struggling.
Many appear to have resorted to hunting crocodiles to make ends meet, for example by offering illegal hunting trips on the lake, promising skins as souvenirs. “You have to understand, they’re desperate,” Mahmoud says.
Meanwhile, villagers on the Nile’s west bank have been illegally raising crocodiles as tourist attractions. In some upscale lodges and hotels, staff occasionally offer guests hatchlings as gifts.
In the past, local security services cracked down on illegal wildlife trafficking, even conducting shop-to-shop searches in Aswan’s downtown bazaar. But since the 2011 revolution, there’s been none of that.
The governor’s office, responsible for local administration, is loath to pick a fight over animals at a time of hardship, and the security services are preoccupied with other types of smuggling—drugs and weapons, for instance—and with foiling political dissent. (Read about unusual wildlife smuggling busts.)
“The police are not a big obstacle because they know that this is just good people making their living,” says Assad Tolba, Abdelhalim’s brother.
Because there are increasingly fewer and smaller fish in Lake Nasser, some fishermen reason crocodiles are to blame, and kill them out of revenge.
“They’re enormous, so obviously they have huge appetites,” says Abdullah Salem Abdelaziz, a fisherman who plies the lake’s northwestern reaches with his two young sons.
But that supposition, according to biologists, is misguided. The crocodiles actually have relatively small stomachs, and they mostly eat species unappealing to fishermen, such as catfish, says Sherif Baha El-Din, co-founder of Nature Conservation Egypt, a local nonprofit.
Some fishermen have also gone into the trafficking business, looking to supplement their meager earnings by selling a croc or two on the black market.
“You have fisherman who catch these things, and they just want to make an extra buck, so they put these things on the market,” says El-Din.
The problem could get worse as more fishermen from farther north and places like Lake Qarun, where pollution has eviscerated fish stocks, move south into the Lake Nasser area, El-Din adds. (Also see “Nearly 400 Rare Baby Crocodiles Saved From Becoming Purses.”)
As with the police in Aswan, marine authorities appear to be turning a blind eye, according to Abdelaziz.
“In the past they supervised everything,” he says. “They actually weighed your catch and checked to make sure you hadn’t caught small fish. But what happens now is that you can take anything—small fish, all the fish in the lake, crocodiles, and no one will notice.”
Some smugglers ferry live crocs across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia to be sold as household ornaments. According to Mahmoud, crocs have allegedly been hidden in shipments of frozen vegetable shipments out of the port of Safaga.
“The Saudis alone could take 10,000 a year if they were available,” Abdelhalim Tolba says.
Other smugglers send crocodile meat abroad, especially to Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. (Many Muslims won’t consume carnivorous animals due to their religious beliefs.)
Crocodile skins are big business. After skinning an animal, hunters soak it in saltwater, then leave it to dry in the dark, before selling it on to leather dealers, usually in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
“It’s a real art—it’s ruined if it sees any sunlight,” says Assad Ibrahim, a former hunter who now works as a tailor just off Aswan’s riverside boardwalk. (See pictures of the life-giving Nile.)
He once sold large skins for around $400 a pop, most of which ended up in China, he says. By the time they’ve been treated, and molded into clothing accessories, they can sell for up to $2,500 a wallet.
Then there’s the appetite for crocodile genitalia. According to Ibrahim, some Egyptians—and people in East Africa—eat the animal’s penis (the largest ones sell for more than $100) crushed up with honey and ginger, believing it will improve their sex lives.
The fate of Egypt’s Nile crocodiles depends on how authorities in Cairo respond. The Crocodile Management Unit is severely underfunded, with only two researchers on staff.
The small team has no access to aerial surveillance, which is necessary to properly survey Lake Nasser’s jagged 3,700-mile shoreline. “It’s a big issue, you often feel like you’re working alone,” Hady says.
Coordination among the dozen or so ministries and agencies responsible for managing the lake and its wildlife is poor, according to an agricultural official, who spoke off the record for fear of publicly criticizing the government. He says that enforcement of wildlife protection laws is so lax that some of those involved in the trafficking business genuinely appear to believe what they’re doing is legal—in particular due to the change in the species’ CITES designation. (Read “The World Has a Chance to Make the Wild Animal Trade More Humane.”)
And no one has yet come up with a plausible plan for what the hunters and smugglers could do instead. Jobs are scarce in rural areas, and so there’s little incentive for them to change their ways.
“Maybe 30,000 or 40,000 depend on [reptile dealing] as our main source of bread,” Abdelhalim Tolba says, and with large crocodiles selling for up to $1,200 each, it will be difficult if not impossible to staunch the illicit trade.
There are some signs of progress. In 2016, the Egyptian Ministry of Environment announced its intention to start raising crocodiles—in partnership with the army—on a farm a few miles from Lake Nasser. They’ll take eggs from the lake, incubate them, and then harvest a certain number of crocodiles every year for legal sale in skins.
With the lake’s crocodile population acting “as an open bank,” Hady says, both the authorities and local villagers, some of whom will be hired to work on the farm, will, in theory at least have a stake in protecting the wild population.
Egypt’s Nile crocodiles have come back before, and there’s reason to hope they can do it again.