The truth about Sarawak crocodiles

Desmond Davidson

The crocodiles are revered by the Iban, who believe they are the spirits of their dead relatives. – Pixabay pic, June 16, 2024.

THE Iban’s deep reverence for the crocodile is the reason no one from Sarawak’s largest ethnic group would kill the reptile, no matter how much of a menace it becomes.

Crocodile meat will never be eaten in an Iban home. 

That’s because they believe crocodiles are their dead relatives who have transformed after death, archaeologist and crocodile expert Ipoi Datan said.

He said the Iban believe in Ribai, the river god who is the guardian of the crocodiles.

The Iban, who traditionally live along the waterways of Borneo, see the river as a source of life that provides them with food, transport, and a means of communication.

Therefore, it is essential to honour Ribai for prosperity and safety in the waterways.

In Sarawak, there are only two species of crocodiles – the more common Crocodylus porosus, better known as the saltwater crocodile, and the freshwater Malayan gharial, or false gharial.

The Ibans also believe if they kill a crocodile for whatever reason, this reptile is reputed to have the power to exact revenge.

One popular tale that has been told through the ages, which Ipoi shared, is that of a man who, after “offending” a crocodile, went to live as far away from the river as possible to avoid the crocodile’s revenge.

The man took his family to live high up a mountain where he believed no crocodile could reach – or so he thought.

During one strong windy day, a heavy object stored in the attic above the son’s bedroom fell on the boy sleeping below. The blow on the head was such that it killed him. When the family looked at the object, they discovered that it was a drum covered in crocodile skin!

Avoiding attacks

Ipoi, a Lun Bawang in Lawas, said the Dayak in Kalimantan, across the border in Indonesia, would tie a leaf of the Croton plant at the bow of their boat when travelling on the river to ward off crocodile attacks. He said this was a sign to the crocodile that the people in the boat are friendly and are not out to harm them.

Another popular belief among the Sarawak Dayak is to have a fish hook tattoo, preferably on their calf, to ward off crocodile attacks.

“The belief is that the people with the tattoo have some special powers which would make the crocodiles not attack them,” said Ipoi, who holds a PhD in ethno-archaeology from Universiti Sain Malaysia.

For people living in crocodile-infested rivers, Ipoi has some simple tips for them if they are to avoid becoming a victim of the reptile.

“Don’t be a creature of habit. Don’t go to the river at the same time every day and to the same spot, whether to bathe, draw water, or do laundry. And don’t go fishing at night.”

As a rule, Ipoi said, avoid going to the river before 6am or after 5pm. That’s the time, he said, the crocodiles are out hunting for food.

He explained that monkeys, the crocodiles’ favourite, go to the river to drink early in the morning, and humans doing their activities in the river at those hours are often mistaken for monkeys.

Ipoi said the high number of people who are attacked when fishing at night is a good reason to avoid going to the river at night. The majority of recent attacks have shown the victims are foreign plantation workers who supplement their food by catching fish.

Ipoi said crocodiles might be dreaded, cursed, despised, revered, respected, and held in awe in equal measure, and that humans have to learn to live and co-exist with them.

“The crocodiles have been around for a long time. For 230 million years. They have outlived the dinosaurs. So obviously they are here to stay.” – June 16, 2024.

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