I suppose the title should be, “Painting Among Crocodiles,” since I didn’t use them as painting tools. Instead, I paint pictures of them and their habitat. Last winter, I spent nearly a month in Everglades National Park as Artist In Residence. One of my stated goals was to paint and draw the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), not to be confused with the American Alligator (Alligator misissippiensis). Both exist in the park, which is the only place in the world where you can see the two species in one place.
The crocs prefer brackish water and can tolerate salt water, having salt removal glands. The alligators stick to mostly fresh water. So, the place to see crocs in the Everglades is in the mangrove areas, and in Florida Bay and the Keys. They are not hard to find in the Park. Flamingo usually has a few on voluntary display, hanging out near the boat docks and canoe rental area. You can also see them in Eco Pond and Nine Mile Pond. It was in Nine Mile Pond where I had some up close and personal encounters with them.
I had paddled around in Nine Mile Pond in my inflatable kayak, on my own and with a ranger-led group, and had scouted out a few likely scenes to paint from the kayak. I had seen at least one large American crocodile basking at the water’s edge, but he wasn’t in the vicinity of where I was headed to paint. Not that I especially fear these crocs, but I have a healthy respect for any predator several times my size.
So I loaded up my gear and shoved off, headed to a nicely formed mangrove tree not far from the parking lot. As I rounded the corner near the subject tree, I surprised a large croc that had been basking at the base of my tree. He disappeared with a thrash and splash, and I figured he was gone. I pulled into the channel near the tree, tied off the boat and set up my easel.
After I had been working for awhile, I heard the sound of a large animal drawing a deep breath just behind me. I turned quickly to look over my left shoulder, and caught a glimpse of the croc’s head diving under the water. That was followed by a powerful thrust and splash from the tail, which rocked me in the boat. Hmmm….
No, I don’t really believe the croc was stalking me. I had been sitting very quietly painting in my boat, and the croc probably surfaced nearby completely unaware of me until I turned my head and startled him. If he had really been stalking me, I believe my sudden movement would have stimulated an attack rather than flight. The only time a croc made me nervous was the day before when I was scouting Nine Mile Pond. I spotted a big croc basking and approached to get some photos. I kept a respectful distance between myself and the croc, especially since he was bigger than my boat. Even so, I seemed to upset him, and he launched himself into the pond with a huge splash. He surfaced out in the middle, and I took some photos of him swimming around. Eventually he seemed to take notice of me again, but this time he seemed curious and began to slowly close the distance between us. This time I backed off and headed for other waters.
Crocodylus acutus does not have a reputation as a maneater, but it is still a powerful predator, well equipped to dispatch a soft, pink meal like myself. In my white inflatable kayak, I suppose I looked like a big marshmallow with a pink, chewy center. There are places in the world where I wouldn’t dare paddle around in such a flimsy craft with my body so close to the water. Saltwater crocs (Crocodylus porosous) and Nile Crocs are both very large species that would attack a mammal my size without hesitation. It’s been suggested that acutus just doesn’t normally have large mammals in it’s diet, so we don’t appear to them as a prey item. Nile crocs, on the other hand, have been filmed grabbing wildebeest and zebra by the nose, and tossing them over their back into the water. A well known kayaker and trip leader was taken by a Nile croc, right out of his kayak in the Zambesi River. Saltwater crocs have been notorious as maneaters as well, taking people in southeast Asia and Australia with some regularity.
Of course, alligators get to be huge predators as well, and they do have a record of attacking folks occasionally in Florida. These are usually situations where humans have tempted gators beyond their natural aversion to eating people. Falling into the water near an alligator’s mouth is one way to stimulate a feeding response, another is to splash around among the gators in an area where people feed them. As more wild lands turn into suburbia, gator-human conflicts become more common.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been distracted by other pursuits, doing art, entering shows, etc.
Some personal news:
Since the last time I posted I’ve been to Turkey. We went to visit our daughter there, and saw a bit of the country while we were at it. It’s a fascinating place both in terms of its culture and history, and in its natural history. Watch for an upcoming post about Turkey.
My scratchboard art was accepted into two shows that were juried this summer: “Crocodile Dreams” will be exhibited in the 50th annual show of the Society of Animal Artists, “Art and the Animal,” opening at the San Diego Museum of Natural History September 4 – October 31, 2010; and in the online exhibit, “The Art of Conservation,” sponsored by Artists for Conservation. AFC will also be showing my scratchboard drawing, “Three Young Salties.” A catalog will be published in addition to the online exhibit.
In my last post you saw my closest approach to abstraction, paintings that are comparatively, a form of relaxation for me. Here is the anal opposite, a large (11×14), highly detailed scratchboard drawing. I’ve been working on these crocodiles a long time. That is, the drawing has been sitting on my drawing table for a long time. I do have a lot of scratching time on it, but as my attention span shrinks, the drawing to sitting time ratio has decreased.
The image is two large crocodiles, probably hybrids between Crocodylus porosus (the Saltwater Croc) and C. siamensis (the Siamese Croc), with a Rajah Birdwing Butterfly. I’m working from photos that I took in Thailand, at Uthen Youngaprapakorn’s Samutprakan Crocodile farm. The crocs were dozing in the the dappled light of trees, with butterflies using them as basking spots. The butterfly is a species from Borneo, where it could encounter porosus.
I expect this to be my submission to the Society of Animal Artists’ 5oth Anniversary show this year.
I had one scratchboard drawing, “New Guinea Crocodile,” in this year’s “Art and the Animal,” the annual show of the Society of Animal Artists (scroll down to “Shows This Summer” for an image). I was honored with the “Patricia A. Bott Award for Creative Excellence.” Thank you, SAA judges!
I seem to be doing well with scratchboard drawings (this is my second award from SAA for a scratchboard). Perhaps the competition is thin in scratchboard because few people have the patience for extreme tedium, uh, I mean detail.
Tomistoma Task Force Workshop Participants, Pattaya, Thailand, March 2008. That’s me in the blue shirt and white beard just off the tail of the croc.
In March of 2008 I traveled to Pattaya, Thailand to attend meetings of the Tomistoma Task Force, a sub group of the Crocodile Specialists Group. I was there to present my painting of Tomistoma for fund raising for the group. A print was presented to our host, Uthen Youngprapakorn, and I set up a small display of prints for workshop participants to peruse.
It was my first trip to Thailand. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to get out into the bush. I did get to see lots of crocodiles at Uthen’s three croc farms, at Pattaya, Utrairacht, and Sumaprapakorn.
Uthen has bred more Tomistoma schlegeli than any other facility in the world. I believe it was 700 offspring that he produced in 2008. He had a tank full of hatchlings on display during the meetings.
I’ll bet that nearly everyone there fantasized about stuffing one of these cuties in their pocket. A CITES Appendix 1 listing carries some hefty penalties for smugglers, so taking one home remained a fantasy. While there are many zoos that would love to display and breed these wonderful crocs, the difficulties of getting permits means that most offspring in Uthen’s farms become surplus animals. He apparently experimented with taxidermied specimens (for local sale, I suppose). Several of these were present in the meeting rooms. The leather from this species is useless because of boney ossicles in the scutes. Uthen remains committed to breeding Tomistoma. We can only hope that it becomes possible to use them for zoo breeding programs around the world, and to replenish wild stocks.
At the welcome dinner at Uthen’s farm in Pattaya, we were served Siamese Crocodile in our pad thai. Thus I again violated my personal taboo against eating reptiles and amphibians. I can’t say I enjoyed it. I enjoyed even less seeing intact C. siamensis feet floating in the pad thai tray. Some of the particpants posed for pictures while munching on croc feet, I suppose to shock their colleagues back home. At least the animals were not slaughtered for our benefit… it was surplus meat after the farm harvested skins. It was a great meal, though, and serving the croc meat in this context did not offend anyone to my knowledge.
While in Bangkok I visited the Weekend Market at Chatuchak where there is an extensive pet market. It is possible to obtain nearly any species there if you have the connections. I enjoy open markets in foreign countries, and this one was fascinating because of its size. The aquarium section took up several blocks, with fish of every description available there.
Many occupied rows of plastic bags lined up on the sidewalk. Other shops offered birds of all types (“No photo, no photo!”), reptiles of all kinds including deadly venomous species, mammals, etc. There was a fighting cock market as well, including several fights in progress. We wandered a warren of small shops and alleyways for hours, assaulted and seduced by the smells, sights and sounds. While it was interesting, it was also very depressing to see such a thriving black market in endangered species. However, it was heartening to know that there was a major bust of animal smugglers in this market shortly after my visit.
I snapped this photo before the shop owner chased me out, screaming, “No photo! No photo!”
Bangkok was just another big metropolis. Crowded, polluted and hot, I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. The temples were fascinating, the people were wonderful, and I enjoyed the food a lot, BUT, traffic jams and pollution suck no matter what country you’re in. At least these jams had the occasional elephant waiting patiently with the cars. The street market provided a repetitive display of tourist trinkets, and prostitutes called from massage parlor storefronts. I hope to get back to Thailand to see more of the natural attractions. I could see some tempting jungle covered mountains in the distance, and have seen the photos of karst towers at Phuket. Meanwhile, I had a great chance to get up close and personal with crocs. So far I have produced one scratchboard drawing as a result of the trip. It is a New Guinea Crocodile. See my website for a large version, prints available soon.
This is an account of our trip to Borneo (Sarawak, Malaysia) to search for Tomistoma, the False Gavial, in 2006
Our Trip to Bukit Sarang
In September of 2006, I traveled to the island of Borneo, to find and photograph the elusive False Gavial. Rob Steubing, herpetologist and “croc-ophile,” invited me to come to Bintulu, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) to get reference material for painting a Tomistoma, and to give a wildlife art workshop for local students. Rob is the president of the Tomistoma Task Force (TTF), a group of herpetologists working to conserve and study this disappearing croc species. The idea was to publish prints and make available the original for sale, to benefit the croc through the TTF. Sarawak is almost exactly on the other side of the planet from my home in Cincinnati. After 23 hours in various planes, we arrived in the surprisingly modern airport at Bintulu. After a
day taking care of business, we headed out to the bush and Rob’s field station at Bukit Sarang in the interior. We traveled by boat and canoe for hours, eventually running low on water as we got farther upstream. We had
to get out and drag the boats for awhile, all the while having our resident croc expert warn about Saltwater croc attacks in such conditions. Although the guy just in front of me stepped on a submerged, 2-meter long water monitor lizard (Varanus salvator), scaring the crap out of himself, we enountered no salties. At Bukit Sarang, we looked for Tomistoma day and night, both by boat and on foot in the forest. We even checked an underground river, seeing croc tracks in the mudbanks inside the caves. The idea of meeting a hungry saltwater croc in one of these dark passages was like something out of a horror movie. Despite having no luck finding crocs at Bukit Sarang, we did encounter lots of interesting stuff along the way. Eventually we got our photos of Tomistoma at Jong’s Crocodile farm outside of Kuching. The breeding adults lived in a large natural enclosure, and Rob and I were able to climb in with them to get some great shots.
Back in Bintulu, I did the art workshop for the Bintulu school district. Each school in the district chose one or two students and a teacher to attend the workshop. Some were from town, and some were from villages far upstream, making their first trip to the city. They were all great, and I did my best to give them an introduction to what I do, how I do it, and why. I had a lot of fun since they were such good students, and they treated me like a rock star.