Wairaka, Uganda - Karim Oneyi was fishing on Lake Victoria when he spotted what he thought was a cluster of water weed. “All of a sudden, this thing seized my left hand and pulled me down,” he said.
A crocodile had snatched him into the water. “I struggled to free myself from the crocodile, but it held me, and we wrestled,” the 40-year-old said.
“I shouted for help, and people came. They beat it with oars and sticks until it let me go.”
The attack deformed Oneyi's hand in January 2006 and cost him his profession as crocodiles become not only fatal to fish and animals in Uganda's waters but increasingly to man as well.
Overfishing has depleted the crocodiles' food supplies, but human populations around fishing waters have grown, causing the reptiles to become man-eaters, said Peter Ogwang, director for animal control at the state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority.
It said crocodiles have killed more than 340 people over the past 14 years around the shores of Lakes Victoria, Albert and Kyoga and the River Nile. In 2013, the authority registered 31 human fatalities.
The real number could be higher, Ogwang said. “In many areas, crocodiles have stopped hunting for fish and look for human prey,” he said.
“They move in fishing waters and do not fear humans. Once a crocodile kills someone, others join and eat up the body.”
The number of crocodiles living in the wild in the landlocked East African country is not known, but about 600 of them have been counted in one area of Lake Albert alone, the Wildlife Authority said.
Oneyi was attacked on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, the world's second-largest freshwater lake. The palm of his left hand now arches upwards, and he has prominent scars on his chest and shoulder.
His younger brother, Zaake Kizito, was also attacked by a crocodile a few years later and left with both arms deformed. “These animals are very clever,” said Henry Nnyanzi, a fisherman who also lives in Wairaka, 95 kilometres east of Kampala. “They are very fast. They can only be seen at dusk, midnight and before daybreak when it is quiet everywhere.”
At risk are the many people who depend on the water for their livelihoods in the country that is one of Africa's top freshwater fish producers.
Its catch in 2012 was 403 000 tons, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Even on quiet afternoons when cool breezes from Lake Victoria fan Wairaka's rusty sheet-iron-roofed shanties, the residents' fears of crocodiles are palpable.
“This area has many crocodiles,” fisherman Anthony Makamba said. “I saw one (five days ago). It was in the papyrus. It was huge, and when I saw it, I shuddered.”
The authority has captured 79 killer crocodiles since 2004 and relocated them to national game parks. The largest of them, weighing a ton, was caught in 2005 after it was suspected of killing 83 people in 15 years in eastern Uganda.
On March 30, the authority's rangers caught an 800kg crocodile that was said to have killed six people in one year around Wairaka. The reptile, which had mauled a fisherman just a few days before the hunt was launched, was trapped using meat on a hook.
“We need financial resources,” Ogwang said. “... We need modern equipment to trap these crocodiles. We are currently catching them manually from the water, and we end up wounded.”
The authority's director for operations, Charles Tumwesigye, said the government is lending help. “We advise people not to swim or to fetch water from the lakes,” he said.
“We are sensitizing them on how to use bigger boats, better fishing gear and to alert the authorities immediately when they see a dangerous crocodile.” But fisherman Hamza Mugarya pointed a finger at the government as a source of the problem.
“Crocodiles eat people because there is little fish in the lake,” he said. “The government neglected its duty to protect the lake. Even seven-year-old children are allowed to fish.” - Sapa-dpa