Crocodile attack project could help save lives in vulnerable communities


Nile crocodiles

New research into crocodile attacks around the world could help communities better protect themselves from harm.

The most dangerous crocodiles are considered to be the Nile crocodile and the saltwater crocodile, together responsible for nearly 1000 recorded attacks between 2008 and 2013. Assembling accurate information, however, is difficult because attacks often happen in remote areas and are not always reported – particularly in many African countries. The actual number of incidents is considered to be much higher and is thought to be increasing, making this a serious issue for crocodile conservation.

Locals need to know where the local trouble spots are and when they should avoid them.

– Simon Pooley

Junior Research Fellow

A new project, set up by Dr Simon Pooley at Imperial College London, in partnership with an initiative based at Charles Darwin University, in Australia, will provide a means of visualising and analysing a global database of crocodile attacks. This will be accessible to communities around the world to help monitor attacks and provide valuable information about trouble spots and when to avoid them. Most incidents occur in developing countries with limited resources to prevent attacks or treat victims, and thus many lives are lost – both human and crocodilian.

Dr Pooley is a Junior Research Fellow in Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences, and he teamed up with the founders of the CrocBITE database, Australian crocodile researcher Dr Adam Britton and database compiler Brandon Sideleau, from California. They met when presenting their data on crocodile attacks at an international conference of crocodile experts, the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group, in Louisiana earlier this year.

“We realised that combining our expertise and resources could result in a database that could be really valuable, but one of the first steps we need to take is to set up some robust systems for the standardised collection, presentation and analysis of data online,” says Dr Pooley. By assembling long-term historical data on attack incidence, crocodile and human behaviour, and biophysical data in a useable format, Dr Pooley has already been able to start investigating explanations for why crocodiles attack people when they do.

He is examining three common assumptions: crocodiles are more likely to attack during the hottest times of the year when they are more active and more hungry; they are likely to attack during rainy seasons when they are more widely distributed and therefore more likely to encounter people; and they are also more likely to attack during breeding season when they are alleged to become more aggressive.

“These assumptions overlap, so can’t easily be individually tested,” says Dr Pooley. “But in a preliminary study with colleagues Dr Aidan Keane and Joshua Potter, by adding climate data and doing some data modelling, we were able to identify monthly-mean minimum daily temperature as the strongest environmental predictor of crocodile attack occurrence in South Africa and Swaziland”

For Dr Pooley, gathering relevant information about crocodile attacks into a useable and accessible format will not only provide a valuable resource for communities and conservation managers in crocodile territories, it will also fulfil a long-held ambition to make use of information put together by his father, crocodile expert Tony (A.C.) Pooley.

“The information my father put together covered 54 years from 1949,” explains Dr Pooley. “He had wanted to collate it all properly, but died before accomplishing that. As I started my own research I realised what a hugely important resource this database might be.”

The project is funded by an Economic and Social Research Council UK grant awarded to Dr Pooley by Imperial College London and will culminate in March 2015, with the relaunch of the CrocBITE website giving easily searchable information and educational resources that will be freely accessible worldwide.

Dr Pooley is working on the data visualisation dimension of the project with the London-based Information is Beautiful studio. Pooley, Britton and Sideleau are extending the existing CrocBITE database and Dr Britton will co-ordinate upgrading and development of this database. The interactive database and educational resource will be developed with user-feedback involving teachers and schoolchildren at African schools in Swaziland, and South Africa, where there have been 6 attacks so far this year.  It is hoped the information will used by communities and conservation managers to help inform and educate people about how to keep safe.

“In rural communities, it’s not practical just to tell people not to go near the water. But if we’re able to disaggregate the data by age and gender groups, what victims were doing when attacked, and so forth, then you can give a more focused outreach message,” says Dr Pooley.

“For example, most victims in South Africa have been boys who were swimming, whereas most girls and women were doing domestic chores or crossing the water, and most men were fishing. Locals need to know where the local trouble spots are and when they should avoid them. If local authorities understand where the trouble spots are, and what people were doing when attacked, they can take targeted action, for example by providing safe crossing places or bathing enclosures.”

The aim is to motivate local people, whether managers or the public, to explore and contribute attack data, and to recruit a network of people who can verify reports and act as local representatives for promoting and using the resource. If successful, Dr Pooley hopes the project could also serve as a model for recording data on adverse encounters between humans and other dangerous species of wildlife.


Laura Gallagher

Laura Gallagher
Communications Division

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