Gone crocodile hunting on the Nile

The Egyptian media is abuzz over a rare reptile sighting in Cairo. Our reporter joins the chase.

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Floating down the Nile's muddy waters on any given day are soda cans, plastic bags, swimming boys, tourists on faluka boats, and patches of marsh grasses with small birds hitching a ride.

This summer, a crocodile joined the flotsam and jetsam. Or so it seems.

In the two weeks since the crocodile surfaced, its lore has grown to Loch Ness Monster proportions. There are no photos – yet – but the Egyptian media is abuzz. All that's clear is that an animal from the crocodilian family – perhaps a native Nile croc or a foreign alligator – has made its way to the urban waters of the northern Nile, something Cairenes say hasn't happened in living memory.

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The officer in charge of the police patrolling the waterways in central Cairo confirms there is, in fact, a reptile in the river.

"The people are afraid, of course," says the officer, who asks that his name not be used.

Nile crocodiles have made a recovery in other parts of Africa since being hunted to the edge of extinction by the 1950s. But they are rare in northern Egypt, and especially in settled areas where people often hunt them for their prized hides – and out of fear.

"There's quite a number [of Nile crocodiles] in Lake Nasser [in southern Egypt]. There's no reason why they can't drift further northward from there. But they've not been found near Cairo just because of people pressure," says Charlie Manolis, chief scientist of Wildlife Management International based in Darwin, Australia, and the regional chairman of its Crocodile Specialist Group.

Indeed, the Nile crocodile has a long and storied place in Egyptian culture, dating back to the Pharaonic god Sobek, who was depicted with a crocodile head and human body. Cult worshippers built cities to him in southern Egypt, covering them with his image. That later inspired Greek visitors to the area to rename one of the cities "Crocodopolis."

The history and science of the Nile crocodile, in general, are easy to verify. But this particular specimen has quickly become the source of countless articles, news broadcasts, and rumors up and down the river.

In search of something closer to the truth, I went with an Arabic interpreter to Minyel Island. This little isle, in the middle of the Nile as it wends its way through central Cairo, is where the critter was first spotted. We were looking for an eyewitness. None were to be found. Still, there was no shortage of local "experts."

There is one crocodile, I'm told.

No, two: a male and female.

One is six feet long. Scratch that, 18 feet.

"It turned over a faluka [boat]... It was there by that bridge," states Mohammed Omar confidently, pointing to the nearby University Bridge.

But Ahmed Mustpha, a security guard at the floating restaurant closest to University Bridge, denies any crocodilian sightings or attacks.

"So many people were worrying about this crocodile. Even the restaurant owner was afraid," says Emad Mohamed, who works in the kitchen at the Happy Dolphin restaurant on the island. He says patrons didn't stop coming, but he noticed them edging their chairs away from the water. "Yes, we were nervous, but now it's OK."

Word is, the crocodile – or alligator – has swum downstream to the northern Cairo neighborhood of Maadi.

The Nile is not a natural habitat for alligators. They are native to the US and China. Gator snouts are wider and rounder than a crocodile's, with a top jaw that hides the bottom teeth. They are, according to the Crocodile Biology Database online, less tolerant of saltwater.

Be it alligator or crocodile, how did it end up in Cairo?

"It's a bit unknown with most crocodilians what makes them move. They do tend to be somewhat lazy animals and use the current to move them around" when they aren't hunting, Mr. Manolis says.

Some Cairenes suspect the crocodilian somehow slipped through the High Dam that created Lake Nasser near the border with Sudan.

Wrong, say others. It escaped from the Pharaonic Village – a touristy Plimoth Plantation type of recreation of ancient Egyptian life – in central Cairo. But employees there say the Pharaonic Village doesn't carry animals.

Wrong again, say still others. A man with a pet baby alligator was riding in a boat and dropped it into the Nile by accident but didn't tell anyone.

Whatever its origin, Ahmed Hussein is sure he knows where to find it. "I work next to the crocodile!" he says excitedly sitting on a brick wall on Minyel Island. "There is an island across from where I work [as a guard at the Pharaonic Village] and everyone says the crocodile is living there."

While his job is to provide security, he has no intention of tangling with the reptile. "No, it's not my job to kill it! I'll run!" he says, laughing.

As I chase this story, as elusive as my jagged-tooth phantom, one Nile river cop tells me the creature has already been caught, near Maadi.

But his boss, the unnamed officer, says no, it's still on the loose.

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