March and April traditionally offer plenty of opportunities for local travellers to explore the countryside and visit their favourite watering holes. The Breede River is a popular attraction and a lifeline to many farmers and hospitality businesses in the region. News reports that an unknown number of juvenile Nile crocodiles had escaped from a legal breeding facility outside of Bonnievale on 3 March 2021 therefore came as a shock.
“So many producers have started focusing on tourism in the last 10-15 years to supplement their farming income,” explains Van Loveren brand manager and Bonnievale resident Bonita Malherbe. “In many cases tourism has become the main source of income. The loss of this, on top of the losses that the alcohol bans entailed, leaves them in an extremely difficult position.”
Bonnievale is a tight-knit farming community, and guest house owners and proprietors along the river bank are always in touch, says Elzette Steyn, public relations officer at Weltevrede Estate who also wrote a Facebook post urging understanding. Almost every producer in the area has had to resort to some new or exotic crop for an alternative revenue stream, she says. “One of us started farming with crocodiles to secure an income for himself, his family and his workers. We’re all involved in these exotic farming practises to be able to stay in this town and area we love.”
Elzette, who lives next to the river close to the breeding facility, sees the escape as a freak accident. “Ever since those crocodiles escaped, the owner has worked ceaselessly trying to catch them. He’s been searching every day and as soon as it gets dark he starts a night shift because the crocodiles’ eyes shine at night. Think how tired he must be. Under how much tension his family lives. They know what the media’s negative reports are doing to our region. We choose to treat these people with grace.”
“I think the majority of people were scared at first, especially those with farms near the river,” says Ina du Toit, manager of Olifantskrans River Cabins situated on the river. “But the fact that CapeNature, the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the owner of the breeding farm patrolled the river every night, 5 km on either side of the farm, reassured most people. Unfortunately, there have been quite a few fake WhatsApps and photos on social media circulating that have upset things a bit.”
According to Bonita, some of the media coverage caused unnecessary panic and overreaction. “I’ve heard of cancellations as far as Swellendam. It makes no sense at all – it’s completely irrational.”
“Our guests called constantly in the days after the escape and had to be reassured,” says Ina. Fortunately she was able to assuage their fears. “There were one or two cancellations, but the majority felt they were safe with us. After all, we’re 20 km upstream from the farm and there are several low tide bridges as well as our weir that would break their speed.”
Elzette explains the crocodiles are regularly moved around between various camps, making it difficult to know how many occupy a particular section at any given time. The fact that an unknown number of crocodiles escaped makes it difficult to reassure people. “The problem is the uncertainty,” says Peter de Wet of Excelsior Guest Farm. “Even if you catch a thousand, people will say maybe there were a 1001. Some camping spots near the river have had 100% cancellations.”
Ultimately their ability to reassure visitors depends on the success of the rescue operation led by CapeNature. According to reports they had captured 76 crocodiles by Friday 26 March, of which 44 had to be euthanized. Crocodiles found on dry land or in the cages can usually be caught alive, but the river offers ample food and shelter so the crocs aren’t easily lured out to the cages.
Unfortunately those that can’t be caught usually have to be shot, explains Petro van Rhyn of CapeNature. “Although this extreme step is not ideal for CapeNature, it’s the most humane way because it’s an immediate death. The safety of the community is paramount and we really have no other choice because we don’t have time on our side. Where we’re able to catch them alive, they’re returned to the facility.”
Fortunately the escaped crocodiles are still young and won’t breed in the river. Other factors will determine how well they will survive, says Andrew McFarlane, animal handler at the Le Bonheur Reptile and Adventure Farm in Simondium. “If they’re the size being reported, of 1.2 to 1.5 m, they don’t need any artificial heating. At that size they should endure our winters just fine. As long as they can feed themselves, they can survive the next 50-60 years unless something takes them out.”
The chances of catching them are best during warmer months when the crocodiles are most active. “When it’s cold, there won’t be as many picked up in traps, but if there are any still left at the start of our next spring, they should pick up the last remaining ones,” says Andrew. “The good news is crocs aren’t very good at hiding for long periods because they come out to lie in open spots and bask in the sun. I don’t expect these guys in the Breede for the foreseeable future. CapeNature should be able to recapture every single one – it will just take time to get them all.”
An end in sight
“All the crocodiles we have caught so far have been caught or killed at a very short distance from the facility,” says Petro. “But CapeNature will only scale down the search once they don’t notice any more crocodiles during their night patrols.”
In the meantime, camping on the shore should be safe. “These crocodiles aren’t hungry and won’t go looking for food. There’s enough food for them in the river. However, we warn people not to swim.”
CapeNature has launched an investigation to see if the owner of the facility has breached its permit conditions. If this can be proven, steps will definitely be taken, says Petro. “The onus is on all owners of wild animals to ensure they remain in safe custody.”
Accommodation owners in the region are taking the risks into account and advising their guests accordingly. Meanwhile, Bonnievale’s community is braving the setback as only they can – with a little humour and a lot of optimism. “Tourism has suffered, but I think we’re winning this thing,” says Olifantskrans River Cabins proprietor Danie du Toit. This is Africa, after all.
“We just have to keep encouraging one another,” says Elzette. Once the scare is over, visitors will return like beachgoers to the ocean.