The worst thing we've ever seen
Endangered crocodile starved by a stomach full of 82 plastic bags.
Wildlife rescue and rehab is a tough gig. It may look like fun at times - we get to go and rescue injured animals, nurse them back to health, and send them on their way with smile and a wave. But what about the animals that don’t make it? The ones that make you question what more you could have done, or the ones that suffered at the hands of the fellow people you share these streets with?
Two weeks ago we had a call about a croc in distress. One of the crocs that frequents a popular, yet illegal croc feeding area was in trouble. Pushing 12 feet in length and weighing several hundred pounds, this American crocodile was a sight to behold and admired by many who had the pleasure of sighting him. Sadly, that’s not the animal we found when we responded to this wildlife emergency call.
Beached in the mangroves, we found a sick and dying animal that resembled a bag of bones rather than a crocodile. Where powerful muscles once were, his skin was stretched taught over his deathly emaciated body and clung to his protruding bones. As our eyes traveled down his tired body, we found a wound we could smell from 15 feet away - his tail had been torn off by another crocodile, only 1/3 of the length remained and was badly infected almost to the base of the tail.
We set about catching him, with the goal of assessing his overall health to see if there was anything that could be done to save his life, but once we got a closer look it was clear he was too far gone. In Chris’ decade of working full-time, hands-on with wild crocs, he’s never seen an animal in such bad shape. Though we never take a decision to euthanize a wild animal lightly, especially such a majestic old animal whose species faces endangerment, we all agreed the most humane outcome for this crocodile was euthanasia. With permission from the Belize Forest Department and veterinary advice, his immense suffering was ended peacefully with the help of Ingrid Lima of SAGA Humane Society.
After the animal’s passing, a necropsy was performed to understand what was happening internally along side his obvious external injury. What we found led to the very painful realization of what caused this crocodile’s untimely demise. Despite his extraordinary emaciation, his stomach was visually distended and felt firm. Upon making the initial incision in the stomach, our heart sank. We immediately saw plastic. One by one, we began emptying the stomach contents. When we finally finished, we had removed 82 - yes EIGHTY-TWO - plastic bags from inside the stomach. The ingested bags were compacted and prevented the intake of food, leading to his starvation and inability to heal. Over 70 of the bags were chicken bags, the kind neck and back are sold in. Though accidental ingestion of plastic bags has been documented during crocodile necropsies, eighty-two plastic bags meticulously folded into compact squares is no accident.
It’s no coincidence this animal was found in the vicinity where illegal crocodile feedings are reported on regular basis. On one occasion, we counted twenty-one adult American crocodiles in this lagoon, the reason for this unnatural concentration due to the easy food source being provided to them. American crocodiles are a solitary and territorial species in their natural state. Unless it is mating season, they are normally found spaced out across the island in their own individual territories. Being territorial, the crocodiles that live in the area where feedings occur regularly sport many wounds created by fighting with conspecifics, undoubtably due to the close proximity and disputes over food handouts - very likely the reason this poor animal lost his tail.
While feeding of wild crocodiles has been an issue on Ambergris Caye for years, it is now a real fear that that more vulnerable American crocodiles may die in this area because of this practice. Whether or not this crocodile was intentionally fed plastic bags, or whether they were “accidentally” ingested as they were not properly disposed of after the crocs were fed, this protected species lost his life due to a crime against wildlife. Though the tail wound was severe, his inability to heal came from starvation due to ingestion of eighty-two plastic bags. Had crocodile feedings not occurred in this area, this animal would not have lost his life in this tortuous manner.
We make a plea to the public, please do not support the illegal feeding of crocodiles. If you see illegal crocodile feeding, report it. Send photos and videos if you can so the perpetrators can be brought to justice. We must put a stop to this so we can preserve this keystone species and the future of biodiversity in Belize.
No animal should ever starve to death on a full stomach.