The 'Croc Whisperer' Saving Jamaica's Crocodiles One at a Time

Thanks to rampant poaching, Jamaica's crocodiles are facing extinction—but not if Lawrence Henriques has anything to say about it.

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Jun 14 2016, 4:00am

All photos of Lawrence Henriques by author

"This is Harry," Lawrence Henriques says, gesturing nonchalantly at the eight-foot crocodile lounging just a few feet away in a shallow, murky brown pool. "Dirty Harry. He lost an eye."

Henriques, 60, is slender and shirtless, with a half-crown of thin white hair and round professorial glasses. A hand-rolled tobacco cigarette dangles from his mouth as he introduces several more of the 30 American crocodiles who live inside enclosures at his sanctuary near a popular waterfall in St. Mary Parish, in northern Jamaica. Over there is Sylvester, an undersized five-year-old; over there is Hope, who gets fed by hand on account of her broken jaw; over there is Doris, a "psychological disaster" who was rescued after her partner was shot in the head.

Henriques squats on the ground next to Harry, periodically stroking the reptile's back while he talks, as relaxed as if in his living room. "These guys are basically pussy cats," he says. "Harold, you want chicken?"

American crocodiles, typically slightly smaller and less aggressive than their cousins along the Nile, are found in South Florida and throughout the Caribbean. The species holds a particular cultural significance in Jamaica, where one has appeared on the national coat of arms since the symbol was first created in the 17th century. But over the past few decades, unchecked development has destroyed the animals' habitats, overfishing has depleted their food sources, and, in recent years, a surging demand for crocodile meat—thought by some to improve male virility—has fueled rampant poaching.

The government has so far not shown much interest in investing in protection efforts, so Henriques—who swims with crocs in the wild and uses only his bare hands or a rope to catch the animals—has dedicated his life to saving the species.

"He's a tremendous resource," says Brandon Hay, a biologist with the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, a Jamaican conservation group. "He's the croc whisperer."

Henriques's paternal ancestors, Jews from Portugal, emigrated to Jamaica around the late 1600s and eventually established one of the country's largest and most prominent extended families. Henriques's grandfather, a business tycoon, was the world's first importer of Ford cars; Henriques's father served for years as head of the Jamaican Railway Corporation and was later appointed trade commissioner. As a kid, growing up in Kingston and later London, where his father was posted, Henriques was always fascinated by creatures, frequently catching and keeping animals like snakes and tarantulas.

"My mother was a cat person," he says, "but I loved creepy crawlies. I just loved creepy crawlies."

On a gap year after high school, Henriques joined a military expedition in Belize, as the mission's "photographer and poisonous animals man." He then went on to study biochemistry at Imperial College London, and in his early 20s, he returned to Jamaica and took a job in the citrus industry. But once back in Jamaica, he also quickly adopted another role: amateur crocodile rescuer.

Henriques's first rescue happened unexpectedly, while he was driving on a country road and noticed a small croc, just two or three feet long, lying by the roadside. The animal appeared to be in trouble—it was way too far from any water source—so Henriques parked his sedan, picked it up around its middle, and "threw it in the back of the car."

Soon, he was setting up enclosures around his house in which to rehabilitate crocs and taking regular trips to the bush, where he became dismayed at the toll development and fishing was taking. He contacted government officials, who pretty soon were inundating his work landline with requests that he come and remove a croc that had wandered into someone's yard or, once, into a muddy pig pen. "But my bosses were tolerant, so I'd go and rescue crocs," he says. "I destroyed three or four company cars."

Over the years, Henriques rescued hundreds of needy or vulnerable crocs, keeping and caring for them in various sanctuaries he set up. He established an intimate bond with the species, learning the animals' personalities and quirks ("Never startle a crocodile," he says. "They sleep soundly.") and returning recuperated animals to the wild whenever possible.

But by the late 1990s, when he was nearing 40, Henriques was torn: He was recently divorced, with his children and stepchildren scattered. He felt pulled back to London, where his mother lived. So he gave up his beloved crocs, trading a rugged life in the bush for a busy London chemistry career and a weekend Ferrari.

He missed the crocs. Over a decade later, when Henriques's mother was in failing health, she encouraged him to return. "Your heart has always been in Jamaica," he says she told him. "Go back with my blessing... go on with your animals."

Henriques returned to Jamaica in late 2009, buying his current property in St. Mary Parish. While in London, he says, he had heard reports about new threats to crocodiles in Jamaica, but once he was back, he realized how dire the situation really was: Many animals were emaciated from lack of food, and others had been maimed or murdered by poachers.

No hard figures exist, but Henriques estimates there are maybe 700 crocodiles left in all of Jamaica, down from at least several thousand a few decades ago. Even in the past year, says Hay, the biologist, the poaching seems to have gotten worse. Instead of calling the authorities, Hay says, often fishermen or villagers who come across will try to profit from selling it on the underground market, where a kilogram of meat can fetch $35 a pound, according to the Associated Press.

"They could give them to us," says Hay. "But we don't, of course, pay."

After sitting for several minutes with one-eyed-Harry, who was rescued after being caught in a fishing net, Henriques jumps up to start a feeding. He walks over to his spartan kitchen—Henriques and his girlfriend live at the sanctuary—and pulls out several pieces of frozen chicken from a box on the floor. After warming up the chicken in the water, Henriques makes the rounds through the various enclosures, tossing out meat, talking to his crocs the way you might talk to pet dogs.

"Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy!" he scolds when Gertrude begins hissing. "You all right, girl?" he says in a soft voice to Elizabeth, rubbing off the algae from her snout. "You want to go back to sleep?"

Besides saving and looking after individual crocs, Henriques's larger aim is to change the paradigm of conservation in Jamaica, where the crocodile, despite its protected status, is still largely feared or reviled. He's eager to entertain visitors to the sanctuary, which isn't a tourist attraction, he stresses, but can be an educational opportunity—one of the few places where Jamaicans can actually get close to crocs in a controlled environment and, hopefully, begin to appreciate them.

But Henriques isn't optimistic. Considering how prevalent poaching has become, he doubts if he'll return any animals into the wild anytime soon, and he's worried the population decline has become irreversible—which he sees as a national tragedy.

"If you lose the croc—you lose the species—you lose your largest land animal," he says. "And you lose your heritage... It's part of us."

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