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Crocodile Leads the Hong Kong Government Around by Its Tail

The leadership has been embarrassed by its inability to catch the nonnative reptile.

March 18, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — It's been a tough 12 months for the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Hong Kong's leadership has fought disease, faced mass protests and watched its popularity tumble. And then there is the great crocodile caper.

As warm spring weather raises hopes among health officials that the territory may have escaped another outbreak of the pneumonia-like SARS virus, those climbing temperatures are stoking stress levels at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation: The wily Yuen Long crocodile is out there somewhere, and this year, officials had better have more luck catching it.

The stalking has already started.

"We've deployed staff to the site," departmental spokeswoman Susanna Ho said. "Every day, they plot the exact time and place of the sightings. We are preparing."

The crocodile's movements, she said, are passed to a reptile expert named Ho Chin-chiu. He led the latest in a series of sometimes bizarre attempts to capture the animal, first spotted in early November, in a foul-smelling creek running through the Yuen Long industrial enclave in northern Hong Kong.

He gave up in December, vowing to try again once warmer weather lures the creature into the open.

"He'll decide when it's the right time to come back," spokeswoman Ho said.

Just how the elusive croc made it into the heavily polluted waterway remains a mystery. Because crocodiles are not normally found in Hong Kong waters, some speculate that it was dumped there by someone who had bought it, only to find it was getting too big to keep at home.

The smuggling of exotic creatures is a lucrative business in the area. Three men were caught last month in Yuen Long after trying to sell 27 baby crocodiles and some turtle shells to government undercover agents for the equivalent of $2,500.

However the croc found its new home, it became an instant celebrity once discovered.

Saturation media coverage of efforts to snare the croc captivated Hong Kongers through late fall and even drew international attention as nightly TV footage showed the beast swimming lazily up and down the tidal creek, oblivious to its growing fame. Local tour operators made the creek a must stop -- despite its stench -- and families lined the banks on weekends to watch the action.

The hunt has been hard work. First, there was the government's own attempt -- a wire cage lowered into the water, baited with a dead chicken and pig entrails. The crocodile swam into the cage -- and back out.

Authorities then called in Australian crocodile hunter John Lever, who thrashed around the creek for more than two weeks before he came up empty-handed. Ho was the next to get the official call, but he too abandoned his mission, claiming that cooler weather had turned the croc into a recluse.

Before efforts broke off for the year, even a member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council had volunteered to go after the reptile with local fishermen. The offer was declined, and six weeks after it was first spotted, the Yuen Long crocodile withdrew for the winter.

Tung's critics joked that the spectacle symbolized his government's inability to get anything done, while those close to the chief executive seemed grateful for a lighthearted diversion from the drumbeat of accusations of more serious shortcomings.

Others saw the reptile as a positive omen for the territory. One reader from the territory's leading English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, noted in a letter to the editor that since the beast appeared, the local stock market had jumped and property values had rebounded.

Superstition aside, the government remains determined to catch the croc, mainly because they see it as a public hazard. For locals who live nearby, that capture can't come soon enough.

Chou Mei-ying, a young woman who lives with her family in a shanty only a few hundred yards from the creek, accused the government of not doing enough to resolve the matter.

"Whenever I think of the crocodile growing bigger and bigger, I get frightened," Chou said. "And when it gets bigger, it gets faster."

Chou also complained that tour buses and curiosity seekers had destroyed the area's relative tranquillity, turning the narrow lane leading to the creek into a traffic hazard.

Still, all signs indicate that capturing the crocodile won't be any easier this year. Accounts of those who have seen the animal since it first reappeared last month indicate that it has grown substantially -- to more than 6 feet -- over the winter. Last year's efforts are likely to have made it more wary of humans and thus harder to approach.

Light from nearby apartment high-rise buildings and the commotion of an expected media circus aren't likely to help.

"I originally thought it was going to be an easy catch, but it proved very hard," Lever said in a telephone interview from his farm in central Queensland, Australia. He said he'd "love to have another go" at capturing the Yuen Long crocodile.

"Every crocodile is catchable," he said. "It's just a question of patience, persistence and technique."

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