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Croc on the loose reaches top of hit list

- Associated Press - Sunday, December 2, 2012

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — State wildlife officials have given their agents a rare order to shoot to kill in the hunt for a young and potentially dangerous Nile crocodile loose near Miami.

The Nile crocodile, which hails from Africa, can jump higher, move faster and grow to nearly 20 feet — several feet longer than its American cousin — and has a nastier temperament. Although the American crocodile stays near salt water such as mangroves and estuaries, the Nile crocodile prefers fresh water, making it more likely to come into contact with humans and domestic animals.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials said they know of only one Nile croc on the loose, but biologists said at least two others have been caught in the same area. The commission is investigating where the croc came from, although it likely escaped from a facility or a local breeder, probably as a hatchling.

"They get big. They're vicious. The animals are just more aggressive and they learn that humans are easy targets," said Joe Wasilewski, a reptile specialist and veteran wrangler. The American croc "is a gentle animal, believe it or not. That's their nature. They're more fish eaters. They don't consider humans a prey source."

The Nile croc at large is a little more than 3 feet long, not dangerous yet. Still, federal wildlife officials have dispatched a team to kill the animal before it becomes a problem. Wildlife officials have tried to capture it with a noose or harpoon, but now realize that their only chance to kill it likely will be with a rifle, said Jenny Eckles, nonnative wildlife biologist with the state conservation commission. Only state agents are authorized to kill the animal. If it is caught alive, it will be euthanized.

It's a proactive step in a state plagued by exotic nonnative species such as the Burmese python, which has overrun the Everglades and upset the delicate ecosystem. Florida has more invasive amphibians and reptiles than anywhere else in the world, and the pet trade is the No. 1 cause, according to a University of Florida study.

No biologists think the Nile crocodile is the next Burmese python, but the python population, which some researchers say has grown too big to eliminate, has made them cautious.

"If we don't want to have another Burmese python problem, the term is 'early detection and rapid response,' and that's what we're doing here," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology.

His team has spent more than 1,000 hours and endless nights searching by boats and on foot in the canal where the croc was last seen, hoping to spot the red-light reflection of its eyes. But Mr. Mazzotti said someone captured the reptile in March and let it loose, so the animal is now wary of humans.

Wildlife officials approved killing the crocodile about the same time Hurricane Isaac skirted the state in August. The storm probably sent the crocodile into hiding and it hasn't been spotted since, Mr. Mazzotti said.

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