‘World’s greatest crocodile hunter’ fails to catch ‘Sifis’

For two nights Olivier Behra stood on a boat, a torch in one hand, a rope in the other, waiting for Sifis, Europe’s increasingly famous fugitive crocodile, to emerge from the foliage of a lake in Crete.

When it did, the 50-year-old Frenchman – reputed to be the world’s greatest living crocodile hunter with the capture of more than a hundred to his name – readied to pounce.

“I wanted to jump on his back,” he said. “And at some point we came close but he was hiding in the vegetation and I couldn’t use the rope. When I managed to grab him in my hands he was just too strong. After eating all those chickens, frogs and snakes he got really fat.”

Since his surprise appearance in an artificial lake south of the island’s resort town of Rethymnon two months ago, the 1.7-metre-long reptile has been the cause for merriment and concern in equal measure.

Authorities, fearing the animal may one day escape the reservoir, enlisted the help of the French Crocodile Dundee. “It was clearly abandoned after being held in captivity but now we have made capture a top priority,” said Vangelis Mamagakis, who heads Crete’s waterworks division. “It may have become a tourist attraction but we can’t have crocodiles on the loose.”

But Sifis – so named by ardent admirers who have assumed he is male – appears to be taking his liberty seriously. To date the crocodile has outwitted all attempts at “arrest”, including traps laden with bait. Tourists, who have rushed to catch a glimpse of him, are also thought to have aided his time on the run in the form of food.

“The lake is rich in birdlife and I think he is very happy there,” said Behra, adding that in all his years chasing crocodiles this was the first time in Europe he had ever heard of one being spotted outside a zoo.

As such, Sifis was not just a local tourist attraction but a phenomenon, too.

“Once, back in the mid-eighties, a crocodile was found in the sewage system of Paris and moved very carefully by the fire department to the zoo,” he said. “But I have never heard in Europe of a crocodile being released in nature.”

The renowned herpetologist said while he could not be certain of its gender (despite referring to it as a male), he was sure the animal at large was a Nile crocodile.

“They have big ears, so you have to be silent when trying to catch them,” said Behra who has sustained “many small bites” in the years he has spent capturing crocodiles in Africa and South America. “My hope had been to blind him [with the torch] and then immobilise him by putting the rope over his head.”

The Frenchman has now advised that traps be improved, with the addition of floating cages and the removal of wildlife from the reservoir.

Acknowledging that the reptile had won a reprieve, he also said he would be back if Sifis wasn’t caught soon.

“OK, it’s got a few more weeks in a nice lake with lots of birds,” he said. “But my plan is to be back in October to continue the operation if it’s still there.”

A burgeoning social media campaign – the crocodile now has its own Facebook page – in support of leaving the creature in the lake would not deter efforts, local officials said.

“We realize this Sifis is a major tourist attraction,” said Mamagakis, ruling out the existence of a second reptile in the lake. “Television crews from as far away as Japan have come to film him. Because of that we are devising ways of making him happy in an environment that can be appreciated by the public.”


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