ASWAN, EGYPT // Alongside the pernicious fish smugglers and mercurial management policies, the fishermen on Lake Nasser also face a far more menacing threat: crocodiles. "The crocodiles eat so much fish every day. A big crocodile can eat 150 kilos of fish per day," said Tariq Mohammed, a Lake Nasser fisherman who said the preponderance of crocodiles is among the chief reasons for the lake's poor fish yield. "This is dangerous for the fishermen and they decrease the number of fish and cut fishermen's nets."
Lake authorities, however, say the crocodiles are more like paper tigers. The true threat to the lake's future comes from smugglers, what Olfat Anwar Habib, the general director of fisheries at the Lake Nasser Development Authority, called "human crocodiles". "As far as I know, the crocodiles are not a big issue in Lake Nasser because [they] don't have a bad influence on the fishermen," said Ms Habib. "It's been printed in the newspapers that the number of crocodiles in Lake Nasser is 8,000 or 20,000. This is a huge number. If there were this many crocodiles in Lake Nasser there wouldn't be any water. You could walk on crocodiles from one side of the lake to the other."
Threat or no threat, Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency has begun a three-year study of the Nile crocodiles in Lake Nasser, complete with radio monitoring tags to monitor the animals' movements. Preliminary reports from the study arrived at an estimate of about 5,000 crocodiles in the lake based on a survey of 25 per cent of the lake area. "The complaints are just a pretext for the fishermen so that the government will allow them to catch crocodiles so that they can earn money from the crocodile trade," said Mahmoud Hasib, the head of protected areas for South Said, the Red Sea and Aswan for the Environmental Affairs Agency. "They also say the crocodiles cut their nets, but so do the pelicans and cormorants. So the crocodiles, we can't say they are the only problem."
In the past 40 years, lake agencies have recorded only nine incidents involving crocodiles, all of which Mr Hasib blamed on human error. Even the fishermen acknowledged that crocodiles, while vicious, rarely attack humans unprovoked. Nevertheless, say fishermen, the crocodile population should be controlled, particularly since their numbers are probably growing. Crocodiles were frequently hunted for their skins until the 1950s, when they disappeared almost completely. But since a 1983 environmental protection law made hunting crocodiles illegal, many fishermen insist the beasts have made a more-than-healthy comeback.
In March, Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency successfully appealed to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) to reduce the crocodile's protection status from Appendix I to Appendix II - a change that could eventually open up the animal to limited hunting and trading by 2013. If trading is ever legally allowed, the requested annual export quota of 750 skins will hardly come as a major financial windfall to the fishermen of Lake Nasser. But it may ease their more immediate fears of being eaten.
"The government needs to catch these crocodiles," said Radi Abdel Al Ahmed, a Lake Nasser fishing boat owner. "They are dangerous for us, but if you don't attack them, they won't attack you." firstname.lastname@example.org