All you need is magic

March 28, 2014 06:22 pm | Updated May 19, 2016 12:19 pm IST - chennai:

Jack supervising a croc farm at Pagwe village, West Papua. Photo: Rom Whitaker

Jack supervising a croc farm at Pagwe village, West Papua. Photo: Rom Whitaker

Rom met Jack Cox Jr. in Papua New Guinea when the Food and Agriculture Organization hired them to work on a crocodile ranching project. Rom went from river to river surveying crocodiles, while Jack set to work convincing tribesmen along the river Sepik to stop hunting adult crocodiles.

Each clan had a totem animal, and it was taboo for members to harm or eat that species. Members of the crocodile clan thought of the reptiles as their siblings, and they didn’t need to be convinced. But the majority belonged to other clans such as cassowary, praying mantis, and hornbill, and tribal custom didn’t prevent them from hunting crocodiles.

Changing people’s minds is tricky business. In West Bengal, I’ve futilely argued the role of elephants in the ecosystem and left villagers unmoved. But when I mentioned the centuries-old tradition of worshipping the elephant-headed god Ganesh, they immediately made an emotional connection. Even though scientific facts sound perfectly logical, people tend to cling to tradition and religious practice.

Not surprisingly, conservation was a tough sell for Jack, especially since customary law didn’t prohibit hunting crocodiles. By living in a remote village for several months and helping villagers in their daily chores, Jack eventually gained their trust and succeeded in getting most of them to stop hunting crocs.

As always, there was one troublesome character. A hunter continued killing adult female crocodiles by setting hooks and nets at nests. No matter how hard Jack tried, he couldn’t change the man’s mind.

Soon after a public argument with Jack, the drunken hunter gunned his motorboat down the river. He fell overboard and was flailing when the driverless boat made a wide circle and hit him. He was knocked unconscious and drowned.

Villagers were convinced Jack had cast a spell on the recalcitrant hunter and looked upon him with fear and respect. Much to Jack’s discomfort, the story of his purported witchcraft travelled up and down river. Thenceforth, his word was law.

Jack later moved to Irian Jaya (now called West Papua) to head a similar crocodile project, relieved to start afresh in a new place with no mumbo jumbo clinging to him. Until another incident occurred.

He drove a colleague down the ghat road from Sentani airport to Jayapura one rainy night. A lorry coming from Jayapura took a bend too fast, and Jack swerved to the verge to avoid a collision. Softened by rain, the shoulder gave way. The vehicle tumbled down the 1,000-ft drop. The passenger door flew open as the vehicle bounced off the slope, and Jack’s colleague, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, fell out. The Jeep crashed through the roof of a hut in a shantytown on the edge of Jayapura, at the base of the hill.

Miraculously, the vehicle landed on its tyres. With the seat belt holding him in place, a shaken Jack sat upright, gripping the steering wheel tightly. When he gathered his wits and looked around, he saw a sleeping baby gently swinging in a hammock a couple of yards away. Jack felt himself all over; there were no broken bones, but he was severely bruised. His colleague was in bad shape. When rescuers found him, he had blood oozing out of his ears and suffered multiple fractures.

It seemed incredible that anyone could survive the spectacular fall with no major injuries. Then there was the baby, unhurt and still asleep. To the local dwellers, it could only be magic, and Jack was clearly not a man to be crossed.

Jack went to great lengths to explain how the seat belt may have saved him, but no one believed him. Rom urged him, “Use your reputation for croc conservation”. But Jack demurred. He just wanted to be an ordinary bloke fighting an uphill battle against all odds. And he didn’t want any supernatural shortcuts.

It’s a tricky business changing people’s minds.

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