Friday, May 20, 2005

cooking up the urban crocodile story

Croc hunters tracking a myth
by Ed O'Loughlin, 21 May 2005

The Yarkon and Ayalon rivers meet in Tel Aviv's concrete underworld of highway overpasses and grimy storm drains, and it is here that a strange drama is played out each night.

Outnumbered by journalists, two reluctant rangers from Israel's Nature and National Parks Protection Authority launch their small boat on to the toxic waters and putter upstream into the darkness, torch beams probing for eyes gleaming from the scum.

In recent days, Tel Aviv has been gripped by an outbreak of one of the world's most enduring mind viruses - the legend of the urban crocodile.

Despite its own scepticism, the parks authority says it feels obliged to ease public fears following a number of reported sightings in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

Hillel Glaffman, head of stream monitoring, says Tel Aviv winters are too cold for crocodiles, "but we can't take any chances, so we have to go out and search the banks. I think if nothing is found in the next few days there will be no further searches."

The Nile crocodile, its salt water cousin and the North American alligator are among the very few animals that will readily hunt people for food; little wonder that they haunt the imagination.

This urban crocodile story was cooked up by the elusive American author Thomas Pynchon (himself something of an urban legend) for his 1963 debut novel, V.

Despite having "fiction" stamped all over it, the story took a life of its own and has since been misapplied to scores of cities around the world.

In fact, there is nothing particularly far-fetched about the Tel Aviv sightings. Crocodiles lived wild in the region's coastal swamps as recently as a century ago and two years ago a large feral crocodile was pulled out of the River Jordan, where once they were plentiful.

Last year a number of hatchlings were stolen from a crocodile ranch and handed out as presents to Israel's thriving gangster fraternity; some of these young crocodiles have since turned up in streams.