Crocodile in Puerto Vallarta Marina. (Photo credit: Brian Noseworthy)
Of all the wild creatures in Mexico, few stir such strong emotions as the crocodile. Those emotions, ranging from awe to dread, have been very much on display recently in Puerto Vallarta, the Pacific resort city in the state of Jalisco.
Puerto Vallarta, to be sure, is not the only Mexican coastal community where land development has closed in on crocodile habitat, bringing people in ever-closer proximity to the reptiles. The trend is apparent in oceanfront communities including Manzanillo, Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa, Cancún, Altamira and Tampico, to name a few. In March, for instance, two crocodiles were found in unlikely places in the eastern state of Tamaulipas—one on a city street and the other sauntering through an industrial plant.
In Puerto Vallarta, however, public attention on crocodile encounters with humans has been particularly intense in recent months. The situation is so fraught, in fact, that the discovery of a corpse can bring condemnation of crocodiles even when the cause of death is unclear. Such was the case when a body was found last September in the Ameca River, a local watercourse that flows into Banderas Bay, the large, horseshoe-shaped estuary that Puerto Vallarta fronts. The body was spotted on Sept. 4 being pulled through the water by a crocodile. According to some accounts, the man had been seized by the reptile while fishing. Other accounts, however, had it that the man had been murdered—possibly in connection with a drug-trafficking dispute—and dumped in the river, where the reptile then snatched it.
Authorities have not announced the cause of death or even whether an autopsy was performed, but the incident nevertheless touched off sensationalist media coverage. In one bizarre public expression of concern, a dead crocodile was hung from a tree with a message urging authorities to get rid of the “disgusting” animals. Concern spiked again in December, when video of a large crocodile lumbering through a car dealership in Puerto Vallarta’s Marina district went viral on social media.
Experts worry that untrammeled land development is forcing crocodiles out of their habitat, boosting the odds of encounters that, in turn, fuel public fear and hostility against the reptiles. The process undermines legal protections that crocodiles are afforded under national law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites)—and humans, according to scientists, are to blame.
“People insist on fishing or swimming even if there are warning signs,” says Rafael García de Quevedo, head of biological sciences at the University of Guadalajara’s University Coastal Center (CUC) in Puerto Vallarta. “This has literally provoked attacks, regrettably.”
Crocodiles are found in various coastal areas of Mexico—on the Pacific side from the state of Sinaloa south, and down the Atlantic side from just south of the Rio Grande River in the state of Tamaulipas. The most common species along the Pacific coast is the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), while along the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean coasts the Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletti) predominates, with the common caiman (Caiman crocodilus) found in the southern portion of the state of Chiapas.
Present on the planet for some 240 million years, crocodiles have long figured in Mexican cosmology, iconography and culture. CUC scholar Fabio Cupul says both the Aztecs and Mayans respected the creature as a vital part of Mother Earth and as a link between the mortal world and the afterworld. In modern times, the characters of Wally the Gator and Crocodile Dundee, not to mention media personalities such as the late Steve Irwin, taught vast numbers of people about crocodiles and their role in nature, Cupul says.
Mexico’s crocodiles once were hunted extensively for their skins, especially the Morelet’s species, but environmental regulation and Cites restrictions have boosted the outlook for their survival. Now the worry is that pressure on their habitat is putting them more frequently in the path of humans—a recipe for attacks and a possible hardening of public attitudes toward the reptiles. The website CrocBITE, which documents crocodile attacks worldwide, lists 22 attacks on humans from 1994 to 2018 in Puerto Vallarta and on the Nayarit Riviera—a stretch of coastline just north in the state of Nayarit. The majority correspond to the current decade. They include two fatalities, one disappearance and three cases in which victims lost limbs. Also among them were three successive, non-fatal attacks—in 2008, 2010 and 2016—on trespassers at the Puerto Vallarta Marina Golf Course. In yet another of the 22 incidents, in 2007, a man allegedly stealing sea turtle eggs on the banks of the Ameca River was attacked by a crocodile and reportedly had to have the lower portion of his left arm amputated afterward.
Chances of adverse human encounters with crocodiles increase in the rainy season, when the creatures are on the move. Though usually found in fresh waters, American crocodiles near Puerto Vallarta swim in the saltwater of Banderas Bay during the rainy season as they head to connecting rivers and upstream habitat. Typically, the long-snouted creatures feed on fish or birds. Sometimes more than 13 feet (four meters) long and weighing upwards of 900 pounds, the crocodiles can live a century. But hatchlings face long odds thanks in no small part to their predators, which include birds such as egrets and herons. Of 100 crocodiles born, just one typically reaches adulthood, says Pablo Hernández, manager of the CUC’s reptile center.
The CUC’s García de Quevedo agrees with other local experts’ estimates that American crocodiles in the Banderas Bay region number about 200-250 individuals, including babies and juveniles. The estimate indicates a decline in overall numbers, given that the region’s last official census, in 2012, reported 250 animals over one meter in length. “We know some of the crocodiles have been killed,” says Hernández, who argues a new census is needed.
The Mexican Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa) says it investigates crocodile incidents in the Banderas Bay region with the Mexican Navy, the CUC, Puerto Vallarta’s municipal government and Nayarit state authorities. Captured animals are usually released into the wild in more remote areas. Authorities also post warnings in hopes residents and visitors will respect crocodile habitat.
But as hotels, condominiums and subdivisions devour crocodile habitat in the region’s growing metropolitan area, crocodiles are becoming increasingly concentrated. “There’s no space for more crocodiles,” says Armando Escobedo, a crocodile expert at the CUC who has studied the reptiles in Mexico and Central America. The view is shared by García de Quevedo, who says development in places where seasonal wetlands once existed has forced the reptiles to find habitat wherever they can.
Accordingly, crocodiles find refuge at the Marina Vallarta, a boating center in Puerto Vallarta, and in nearby golf course ponds. A bustling area of boat slips, condos and commercial outlets, the marina features a sculpture of a fierce looking crocodile. A real crocodile of more than two meters in length regularly passes part of the day below the marina’s waterfront boardwalk. The wait staff at a restaurant fronting the reptile’s hangout have dubbed the crocodile “Pancho del Rancho.” Server Luis Palomera regards crocodiles as dangerous, but adds: “If you don’t go into their habitat, it’s not a problem.” Regularly, “Pancho” attracts a gaggle of excited children and adults taking photos of him with their cell phones. Says Canadian visitor Brian Noseworthy: “It’s a tourist attraction, man.”
A variety of animal species are threatened by the relentless development occurring in and around Puerto Vallarta. María Valencia, a biologist with Puerto Vallarta’s municipal government, recalls seeing many now-rare casquito turtles (See "New—and rare—turtle species discovered in Puerto Vallarta" —EcoAméricas, August 2018) when she was growing up 16 years ago. But she worries about a disconnect between contemporary youth and nature, as evidenced by a recent survey she helped conduct in which children reported little firsthand contact with animals such as crocodiles.
Escobedo says that if crocodiles disappear, other species will suffer, too. He has documented how different species of turtles, lizards and snakes lay their eggs in crocodile nests. Says Escobedo: “If we conserve the crocodile we are also conserving other species.”
Among the most important local areas of crocodile habitat is the Estero El Salado Natural Protected Area, also in Jalisco, a 417-acre (169-hectare), mangrove-fringed estuary wedged between a convention center, commercial businesses and Puerto Vallarta’s huge cruise-ship terminal. Esperanza Anguiano, an estuary tour assistant at El Salado, calls the site “the lungs of Puerto Vallarta,” describing how mangroves not only act as barriers to hurricanes and flooding but also as a highly efficient carbon sink.
According to reserve staff, 45 wild crocodiles currently live in the protected area, including five adults and 40 juveniles and babies. El Salado also functions as a sort of crocodile hospital, with staff taking in injured or sick animals and attempting to nurse them back to health in an outdoor tank. Jaime Torres, El Salado’s manager, says the facility has handled about 20 crocodiles annually during the last five years—an increase over previous years, likely due to habitat loss and a resulting increase in cases of humans crossing paths with the reptiles. At least five crocodiles were killed locally last year in the Banderas Bay region, he adds. Crocodile deaths in some cases are the result of accidents, such as cars striking the reptiles, and in others are caused by intentional stabbings or beatings.
Although El Salado is essential for crocodile conservation, Torres says the nature preserve, low on the state government’s priority list, has been limping along without a budget for the past three years. If it weren’t for the fees visitors pay for small-boat tours of the estuary, Torres says, “everything would be closed.”
Meanwhile, the pressures of encroaching development are ever-present. In March, a massive sewage spill inundated El Salado. Torres says the incident did not result in crocodile deaths, though it pointed up the need for ongoing water-quality monitoring.
Puerto Vallarta certainly is not the only place in Mexico where the increasing proximity of humans and crocodiles is producing attacks and controversy. Alejandra Buenrostro and Jesús García-Grajales, researchers at the Universidad del Mar in the state of Oaxaca, published a report last year that documented 25 “unprovoked” crocodile attacks in Oaxaca from October 2004 to April 2017. Such attacks, they wrote, create “political conflict between locals, conservationists, resource managers and policy-makers.” Buenrostro laments the fact that fatal attacks on children have “ended in massive killings of crocodiles.”
The Pacific Coast tourist center of Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa in the state of Guerrero has experienced ample crocodile controversies. A colorful resident known as Tamakún became a local celebrity of sorts by performing stunts with crocodiles to entertain tourists, even acquiring a video presence on YouTube. As in Puerto Vallarta, development has consumed crocodile habitat. “We’ve always lived with them without much risk, but there are more and more people,” says Cristina Rodríguez, secretary for the Zihuatanejo Society for the Protection of Animals.
Question of space
Rodríguez says that when crocodile habitat was more extensive, sightings of large specimens were unusual because the reptiles had plenty of room deep in the mangrove estuaries. But in recent years, reports of crocodiles swimming off popular La Ropa Beach on Zihuatanejo Bay have made national and international news.
CrocBITE reported seven non-fatal crocodile attacks on humans between 2010 and 2017 in Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa, including an attack on Tamakún while he was doing a stunt. Carlos Gutiérrez, president of a La Ropa neighborhood association and the operator of a restaurant bordering crocodile habitat, estimates 10 large crocodiles and 6 smaller ones currently live in La Ropa’s diminished, ribbon-thin estuary.
Hernández and Escobedo say the emergence of government-regulated crocodile farming in Mexico favors conservation. The industry appears to be taking root. Last year Conabio issued a report detailing best practices for crocodile farming, and a growing export market exists for the reptile’s skin, which is used to make pricey wallets, footwear, handbags and other products. Currently, only Morelet’s crocodiles are farmed in Mexico, but a change in the conservation status of the American crocodile is being sought so that this species can be farmed as well. Giving rural residents who might be inclined to poach crocodiles an economic stake in the reptile’s preservation would be crucial for conservation success, Hernández contends.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Mexico exported fewer than 200 skins annually from 1996 to 1999, and Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio) reports 7,708 skins were exported from 2005 to 2015. In 2016, 2,767 skins were exported. These statistics do not include small skin products, body pieces and live animals.
Makers of commercial products must obtain a production permit from Mexico’s lead environmental agency, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), and reserve 10% of crocodile offspring for possible reintroduction into the wild. The production permits—known as UMAs, their Spanish acronym—serve a variety of purposes. The CUC’s reptile center, for instance, has a UMA that allows it to raise up to 16 reptile species for conservation. The role complements the educational work of the center, which also gives tours to schoolchildren so they grow up familiarized with crocodiles.
Climate a factor
Aside from development-induced land-use change, global warming also looms as a threat to crocodile habitat in Mexico and elsewhere. In a 2008 study, Escobedo and other researchers postulated that higher temperatures could alter the gender ratio of crocodiles in favor of males since warmer weather generally results in the hatching of more male than female crocodiles.
To reduce the risks of crocodile attacks and destructive push-back against the reptile, conservation advocates are proposing more public education, improved habitat preservation and greater coordination among government agencies in handling incidents.
Although national and international law can come into play, local conditions must be taken into account in order to manage interactions between crocodiles and humans successfully, Oaxaca’s Buenrostro asserts.
A truce of sorts prevails for now in Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa, where locals are mulling the crocodiles’ future. Gutiérrez contends that La Ropa’s reptilian inhabitants should be moved to a larger wetland in Ixtapa, away from the tourist volume and noise.
For her part, Rodríguez argues that if they are moved, crocodiles will simply come back unless they are in some way confined at the new location.
Both agree that a cultural shift has taken place, one which might help counteract public fears that arise as crocodile sightings become more common. Says Rodríguez: “There are more people who defend animals now.”
In Puerto Vallarta, meanwhile, a task force consisting of CUC researchers, municipal authorities and other officials is working on a comprehensive crocodile-management plan. Says García de Quevedo: “We are all part of the problem, and you could be the solution.”
- Kent Paterson
Indexed photo: Crocodile in Puerto Vallarta Marina. (Photo credit: Brian Noseworthy)