Armchair Safari – The Man-Eating Crocodiles of West Africa

armchair-safari-crocodiles-book-coverTre-Hardy’s book, “The Path Of A Hunter,” has as many big elephants as any book around. But it is the many other great trophies that he hunted with zest that show what an enthusiastic all around big game hunter he was.

One day when he was up north, villagers sent word about being terrorized by enormous crocodiles. Could he come to kill them? Tre-Hardy–you don’t have to ask him twice. Soon he headed for their battleground where the crocodiles were indeed large. After the croc drowned its victims and buried them to rot, it then bit the corpses into chunks and swung the chunks around so that they fell into its throat. Why? Because the croc has no tongue to help it swallow.

The village that asked for my help, back in 1956, was literally paved with crocodiles. At daybreak, I was up early to assess the situation and we headed in the direction of a place described as a favorite of a very large man-eater. I ordered a couple of cows placed along the bank and, anticipating a long wait, settled into this weed-infested area. It was a weed that camels like but my rear end did not. I kept the .375 loaded with full metal jacketed bullets and had several soft points cradled on my lap. Soon dozens of crocodiles were cruising near my cows but they were smaller crocs, unable to carry the cows away.

crocodile-closeupI remained on watch in the wretched weeds and under a scorching sun from 5 a.m. until 4 p.m. after which I got up, stretched my stiff legs and called my men. We discussed our bad luck while walking back to the village. No sooner had I finished a cool, refreshing drink than the children starting screams that the big croc just came out of his house. I ran to them and arrived just in time to catch a glimpse of his gigantic head. The croc dove when he saw me. I saw down to wait and five minutes later the head of the croc surfaced once again, and he dove again before I had a chance to shoot. He repeated this maneuver several times, perhaps he took a liking to my cows. But I was calculating as well. After 30 minutes of hide and seek, I let the croc have a soft point in the nape of his neck just where the minute cerebellum lies. All hell broke loose as he dove, showing me his enormous body. A fantastic column of water splashed over the river. What an animal!

Unfortunately, I did not hit him in the head and he dove into the water. As we talked about the situation, I suddenly noticed a croc on the other wise of the river…MY croc. The villagers became quiet while I got into a canoe rowed silently by two natives. We approached slowly, trying to remain hidden behind the rock where the croc disappeared. As I cautiously approached and stretched my neck to peer behind the rock, I saw the croc, 15 feet away, monstrous and Jurassic. Because of the 300 grains of lead lodged in his skull, his teeth chattered. It is one thing to see a croc dead lying in the sand. But it is quite another to watch one alive, ill disposed, and more of all standing on all four legs not too far from you.

Armchair-Safari-crocodilesCandidly, it was with a certain dread that I took aim again, but with all that pressure, I missed him cleanly…too low. My bullet hit a small rock that partially protected the crocs head. He jumped sideways, lashed through the air, and dove again into the river. Although I felt better on higher ground, I knew that this monster could move as fast as a torpedo, even in shallow water, where his legs paddle and push on the bottom at the same time. Even with a big gun, you feel a bit helpless.

Night was coming on. We paddled a few hundred yards upriver when suddenly the local people started to scream and gesticulate, drawing my attention to another sloping rock. To no avail, I didn’t see a thing. We paddled some more and suddenly there he was, not 10 feet away his big body half flatted against the rock and half submerged in water. At point blank range, I blew up whatever was left of his brains. We harpooned him with a spear but at that moment, the croc moved his legs and sunk into the river. We tried to pull him out, but he clung to the rocks on the bottom. Twenty minutes later, his belly surfaced. We tied a rope around his snout just in case this “dead” crock had a dangerous nervous reaction or had one last trick in store for us.

armchair-safari-man-eating-crocWe headed back to town where I saw 30 young women all lined up and dressed up in their best gowns. The Chief then said, “You got us (sic) rid of this terrifying crocodile that has eaten quite a number of your people. …Therefore, I gathered all the maids of our village of age to get married. …Have your choice.” Ah, that caught me off balance. What a dilemma: if I accept the offer, my wife will claw my eyes out. If I decline, the people are offended. Thinking quickly, I told them that my number one wife was as mean as a black snake and I could never bring home a number two wife without telling her first and getting her permission. I told them that instead, as was the white man’s custom, that we sacrifice a sheep and we all dine together that night. Thank God, they agreed.

And that was the precise moment when a gang of kids ran into camp showing me another EVEN BIGGER crocodile…. He was like a U-boat, nearly 20 feet long and must have weighed 2,000 pounds. Thinking I might not get closer, I tried a long shot from where I was standing and of course missed the target. After all, the target was no larger than an apple. My next task was to try to hit that apple as it drifted downstream 200 yards away. I did not have scoped rifles in those days. I was pretty hard on rifles so the scopes didn’t remain properly sighted for very long.

Still disappointed not to have shot the U-boat of crocodiles, I needed to return to my (number one) wife. My truck arrived in the middle of the night and the next morning I prepared to cut up the crocodile. We soon found the remains of a sheep and a beautiful ankle bracelet worn by the Peul women. Everyone stood around watching, somber as if a grave had been opened and no one would eat the meat.

crocodiles-on-river-bankIn the following months, I killed a few more crocs, one as large as my first one, but none like the monster. I learned that contrary to what people usually believe, a croc cleanly killed will turn on its back and remain paralyzed for a few minutes. Then its nervous system is such that it turns back on its belly and drives. If it is not speared before this time, it is lost. I managed to get these two animals ashore.

A few days later, one of the crocs had eaten the daughter of the man who acted as my guide. The man took me to where the croc thrashed and devoured her. Over and over again the man described the horrid scene. Making all this noise caused the croc to investigate and he came out to have a look (that croc has guts). That is when I let fly a bullet that killed him instantly. That cheered the father. We pulled the croc 15 feet from the water. Suddenly everyone started shouting again. I turned to see a ghost emerging from his grave: the croc turned around and was headed back to the river whose location he knew perfectly well! He even brushed past my feet before I grabbed the .375 and shattered his head at point blank range.

Outside of Africa, people seem not to be aware of the toll they take on human life. I still think of the one that I missed. A large croc can be the heaviest African animal after the elephant.

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