MANILA, Philippines – A southern Philippine town plans to hold funeral rites for the world's largest saltwater crocodile and then preserve its remains in a museum to keep tourists coming and prevent their community from slipping back into obscurity, the town's mayor said Monday.
The 1-ton crocodile was declared dead Sunday a few hours after flipping over with a bloated stomach in a pond in an eco-tourism park in Bunawan town, which had started to draw tourists, revenue and development because of the immense reptile, Mayor Edwin Cox Elorde said.
"The whole town, in fact the whole province, is mourning," Elorde said from Bunawan in Agusan del Sur province. "My phones kept ringing because people wanted to say how affected they are."
In a news conference Monday, Elorde fought back tears as he recalled how the town took care of the crocodile not as a beast but like an "adopted son."
Guinness World Records had proclaimed it the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity last year, measuring the giant at 20.24 feet. The reptile took the top spot from an Australian crocodile that measured more than 17 feet and weighed nearly a ton.
The crocodile was named Lolong, after a government environmental officer who died from a heart attack after traveling to Bunawan to help capture the beast. The crocodile, estimated to be more than 50 years old, was blamed for a few brutal deaths of villagers before Bunawan folk came to love it.
The giant reptile has come to symbolize the rich bio-diversity of Agusan marsh, where it was captured. The vast complex of swamp forests, shallow lakes, lily-covered ponds and wetlands is home to wild ducks, herons, egrets and threatened species like the Philippine Hawk Eagle.
Wildlife experts were to perform an autopsy as early as Monday to determine the cause of its death, Elorde said.
Bunawan villagers planned to perform a tribal ritual, which involves butchering chicken and pigs as funeral offerings to thank forest spirits for the fame and other blessings the crocodile has brought, Elordie said. A group of Christians would separately offer prayers before the autopsy.
The rites would be held at the eco-tourism park, where the reptile had emerged as a star attraction, drawing foreign tourists, scientists and wildlife reporting outfits like the National Geographic to Bunawan, a far-flung town of 37,000 people about 515 miles southeast of Manila.
The crocodile's capture in September 2011 sparked celebrations in Bunawan, but it also raised concerns that more giant crocodiles might lurk in a marshland and creek where villagers fish. The crocodile was captured with steel cable traps during a hunt prompted by the death of a child in 2009 and the later disappearance of a fisherman. Water buffalos have also been attacked by crocodiles in the area.
About 100 people led by Elorde pulled the crocodile from a creek using a rope and then hoisted it by crane onto a truck.
Elorde's town wanted to launch a new hunt for a larger crocodile, which he said he and other villagers saw lurking near a river shortly before Lolong was captured. But he said the town needed to get permission from wildlife officials, who have banned such hunting expeditions amid an ongoing survey of the crocodile population in Agusan marsh.
Philippine officials had planned to construct a road to the park to accommodate the growing number of tourists, Elorde said, adding that he planned to have Lolong preserved and placed in a museum so Bunawan villagers and tourists could still marvel at it.
"I'd like them to see the crocodile that broke a world record and put our town on the map," he said.