Ian McGee, Series Producer February 10, 2012

Kick-Ass Crocs

Behind the Scenes of Built for the Kill

I don’t care how hot it is, there’s no way I’m ever going for a swim in an African river. In fact, you’d have to drag me down to the water’s edge. In Africa, the water ain’t safe. The water belongs to the crocodile. And after working on the crocodile episode of Built For The Kill, I now know way too much about what crocs are capable of.

They are, without doubt, the ultimate aquatic stealth predator—possibly because they’ve had a lot of practice. The blueprints of crocodile design are 100 million years old. Once crocs killed dinosaurs, and they use the same weapons today, so what chance would I have standing in the shallows? A big croc is over 16 feet long and weighs nearly a ton. Its head is enormous, about 20% of its body weight, and most of that is mouth. The jaws slam shut with incredible force and 66 interlocking teeth pierce flesh, and hold fast.

So far so scary; but what really freaks me out is this: crocs are clever. They’re the most intelligent reptiles on the planet. They even have a complex social life. Every animal knows its place in a hierarchy where big bulls rule. The largest male dominates a stretch of river: he’s first to feed, first onto the best basking beach, and is number one with the ladies. But even the biggest male uses co-operation as a weapon.

Zebras may look harmless, but their hooves are lethal. A kick to the head could mean a broken jaw and a slow death, so crocs are careful. They spend days waiting for a herd to commit to crossing their river. As the current drags the zebras downstream, several crocodiles work together, covering the crossing from different angles. Experienced hunters let large animals go by and target foals.  As one crocodile holds tight, another helps pull the zebra underwater to drown it. Even feeding requires teamwork: by twisting against each other, they tear the corpse apart.

Before I started working on this show, I thought the two deadliest predators in Africa had an understanding: the lion rules the land, and the water belongs to the crocodile. But I quickly discovered where land and water meet is actually a battle ground. Lions and crocodiles are ancient enemies, deadly rivals. On land, the biggest crocs have little to fear from even a pride of lions, and woe betide the king of the jungle if he puts a paw in the water.

So, if lions and dinosaurs have had their butts kicked by crocodiles, there’s no way I’m standing in a swimsuit by the banks of the Nile. You’ll find me in the hotel pool.

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