The largest freshwater predator in Africa, the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is a formidable hunter with a great historical significance. They are widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where they feed mainly on fish – like their Indian relative, the Gharial. However, these reptiles are opportunists so will attack almost anything unfortunate enough to cross its path, including zebras, wildebeest, small hippos, warthogs, bushpigs, porcupines, birds, and even other crocodiles. Once they have made a kill, they will rip off and swallow chunks of flesh, using the classic “death roll” to tear off particularly stubborn bits of meat.
The Nile crocodile is possibly the second largest extant reptile in the world, after the huge saltwater crocodile. They can reach up to 6 metres in length, and weigh over 1000 kilograms in extremely rare cases. Though normally, adults don’t exceed 5 metres, and weigh around 500 kilograms. These crocs are quite sociable animals; sharing their basking spots and food with others. Their hierarchy is strict and determined solely by size and strength.
In the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, Nile crocodiles enjoy an annual feast. This reserve is famous for the annual migration of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, and wildebeest to and from the Serengeti every year, known as the Great Migration. During this migration, these mammals must cross the Mara river – a river that is home to hundreds of hungry crocodiles. As huge herds of desperate wildebeest and zebra charge through the river, the crocodiles relish in the free buffet. These crocodiles have adapted, ingeniously, to exploit the delicious meals on offer.
Not only are Nile crocodiles superb predators, they also have an incredible past. Modern crocodiles have been around for about 80 million years, and the fact that they are still here today is a testament to their wonderful ability to adapt. In Ancient Egypt, the Nile crocodile was seen as the biggest and most dangerous predator; feared by many. However, the Egyptian people also had some admiration for these creatures – the Egyptian deity Sobek was based upon the crocodile. Mummified crocodiles and crocodile eggs have even been found in Egyptian tombs!
These reptiles were hunted close to extinction in the mid-1900s, but local and international conservation measures have helped populations to recover in most areas. Thankfully, their status is looking secure. The Nile crocodile has an undeserved reputation of being a vicious and ruthless man-eater, however incidents between people and crocodiles are rare. It is estimated that 200 people are killed each year by the Nile crocodile, a minuscule number when compared to the 1.25 million people who die in road crashes every year.
Nile crocodiles are opportunists – they don’t actively hunt humans but will take an easy meal if presented with one. Crocodiles have been around far longer than we have. We should show them the respect they deserve.