The croc that captured city's imagination

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 June, 2004, 12:00am

It had seemed that Hong Kong people would have to learn to live with the presence of an elusive, potentially dangerous, saltwater crocodile on the fringes of one of the city's densest suburbs. But now the saga of the crafty croc appears to have come to an end.

The croc's exit from its Yuen Long hunting grounds was far from dignified. Wrapped in netting and hoisted into the back of an Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department van, it showed little sign of resistance. This was a different image from those of recent months, where it seemed to be taunting its would-be captors - sunbathing atop traps or moving into and out of them at will, snacking on chicken or whatever was left out as bait.

The capture was probably inevitable, considering the danger it posed to nearby communities. It might have been a weekend diversion for some families, but the attitude would have become a little less whimsical if the crocodile reached anything near its full potential. Knowing this, the AFCD kept up its daily patrols and positioned its traps accordingly.

The interesting - even instructive - part of the way it ended was that it happened only through collaboration between a number of different groups. The AFCD laid and maintained the trap, whose design was refined after input from Australian crocodile hunter John Lever and mainland croc experts, while it was a local fisherman who dealt the final blow, securing the crocodile by throwing his nets over it. Goodness knows, the creature had proven far too wily for any of the hunters working on their own. In the end, it was a bit of imported know-how, a smidgen of local administration and a dash of indigenous brawn - a recipe that has served Hong Kong well in other areas - that did the trick.

As for what will be done with the croc, the AFCD has the right idea. It looks as if the animal will head to the Kadoorie farm and wildlife centre, and eventually to the wetland park now under construction in Mai Po. Say the word crocodile and most Hong Kong residents will think of handbags and wallets, not aquatic predators found in tropical and subtropical climates. The public fascination with the animal over the past seven months - and the likelihood that it was smuggled here to be kept as a pet - showed clearly that there is room for more ecological awareness.

The media frenzy over the efforts to catch the croc may have provided a welcome diversion from the gloom of economic malaise, infectious disease outbreaks and divisive political battles, but it also put the spotlight on some frighteningly polluted waterways within our own borders. It also attracted an amazing level of international interest. As handbag material, the crocodile may have an easily calculated value - up to US$9 per square inch, to be exact. But as a publicity agent for Hong Kong, and now the centrepiece of an environmental education programme, it is priceless.