One man’s bid to save Burundi’s crocodiles from the cooking pot
In Burundi’s capital, Albert Ngendera has turned his home into a refuge to save the country’s declining crocodiles from being snapped up for dinner. But with 45 babies due in January, the crocs will soon outgrow their home
Hannah McNeish in Bujumbura
Wednesday 31 December 2014 16.07 GMT
People in Burundi are keen to tell you that it’s famous for having the largest fresh water crocodiles on Earth, reticent to admit they’ve eaten a few and sad to say that they have disappeared from the shores of Lake Tanganyika and are clearing out of the Ruzizi river due to over-poaching.
In one of the world’s poorest countries and Africa’s hungriest, crocodiles were munched and pillaged during a 12-year civil war that ended in 2005 but did not end poverty.
It was during this time that Albert Ngendera, who like many Burundians ate crocodile, decided to snap up 12 baby crocodiles and save them from the pot by putting them on his porch at his home in the capital Bujumbura.
“I had dogs before – about 10 – but dogs have no benefit. They’re there for security but nothing else. These animals, they’re nice to look at,” he says, crouching next to the small pen where his scaly pets lounge around all day and enjoy the odd dip in small ponds.
Four crocodiles died from poisoned food that neighbours threw over the fence, perhaps remembering the beast that put Burundi on the map for wildlife as well as war 10 years ago: Gustave. This 20ft-long, 2,000 pound heavy croc allegedly gorged himself on hundreds of villagers.
National Geographic spent years searching for “the largest, most fabled crocodile in all of Africa – a demonic Loch Ness monster of incredible proportions and, according to legend, appetite,” but Gustave vanished.
Despite the setback, Albert’s croc stock is about to go through the roof, with up to 45 babies expected in January. So far, he has nowhere to put them, but he hopes that the land the government promised him will one day come through so that he can finally develop his wildlife park, complete with a restaurant where crocburgers are off the menu.
“People can just eat bread and fish, like Jesus,” he says, likening his home to Noah’s Ark as he shows off his collection of cobras, chimpanzees, tortoises and monkeys that he rescues by buying from hunters.
He’s never watched the Crocodile Dundee films, or seen the late broadcaster and wildlife expert Steve Irwin, but thinks “it’s not good to play with animals like crocodiles”, and learns from the South African conservationists he sees on TV.
Burundi’s president has called Albert in to discuss his dilemma, but getting land for animals in one of the most densely-populated countries on Earth is difficult.
At Bujumbura’s Musee Vivant (‘living museum’), star-crossed crocodiles Romeo and Juliet can only gaze at one another from tiny pens to avoid the pitter patter of tiny feet, while giant Lacoste – the shirtfront emblem of any self-respecting Frenchman – may as well be embroidered for all the pool space he has to wallow in.
The zoo relies on selling £3 guinea pigs and £7 rabbits for tourists to feed to the crocodiles to keep the place afloat.
The government lacks the funds to lock up the crocodiles, says Feruzi Mohamed, director general of Burundi’s environment ministry. “But even if we did, we wouldn’t enclose this species away from their natural habitat.”
Mohamed is relying on a law that threatens crocodile hunters with a six-month jail term and fine. But if Burundi really wants to save its crocs, it had better make it snappy or they will be immortalised only in legends.