We asked experts to explore the logistics of Indonesian Commander General Budi Waseso's plan to create an island prison for drug offenders that is guarded by up to 1,000 crocodiles, not to mention a few tigers and piranhas thrown into the mix.
In an interview published by Tempo magazine earlier this month, the head of Indonesia's National Narcotic's Agency (BNN) Commander General Budi Waseso outlined a seemingly batshit plan to create a special island prison for death-row drug convicts guarded by crocodiles. In Waseso's vision (which went viral), prisoners would be stranded on an abandoned island, where they'd receive regular food drops from a tiny corps of guards. But rather than leave the actual oversight of prisoners to human officers, who often take bribes from criminals and help to facilitate the drug trade in Indonesia, Waseso wants to create a perimeter of hungry crocodilians, who supposedly can't be bought off.
Many suspected that Waseso was joking. Tempo speculated that he'd lifted his idea from the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die. But over the last week Waseso and the BNN have made it clear that they're dead serious—the General went back to Tempo to say as much. BNN spokesman Salmet Pribadi on Tuesday stated that the plan was real as well.
Early last week, Waseso doubled down on the plan, outlining an even more elaborate animal guard system in an interview with rimanews.com. He explained that he'd like to use up to 1,000 crocodiles and claims to have collected two test subjects already. But the final number will depend, he said, on the island's size and whether or not he chooses to add flesh-eating piranhas and tigers into the mix. The tigers, he explained, could be billed as a conservationist bonus.
Even if Waseso insists this plan is real, it's still just a BNN proposal. It's yet to be approved by the Indonesian Justice Ministry, who views this project as a joke according to Reuters. But given Indonesia's draconian drug policies , you can't totally put something so extreme past them. President Joko Widodo's regime has executed 14 drug offenders by firing squad this year alone and slated 46 more for death within 2015 as well with little regard for backlash or legal concerns. At least 121 individuals, including 35 foreigners, are on death row for drug-related crimes—already primarily housed on the isolated Nasa Kambangan island. These inmates would be the new prison's residents.
The country is used to extreme narcotics punishments, and there's not much sympathy for drug-related inmates. So the relevant issue for the Widodo regime may be less "is this too extreme and bizarre" and more "is this actually going to work?" We talked to a few animal experts to get a sense of the plan's practical functionality.
According to Allan R. Woodward, a crocodilian expert at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, using crocodiles as guards could actually work under ideal conditions. Indonesia's home to the saltwater crocodile, perhaps the most aggressive species in the world, which is a good start. But you'd have to strike a very precise feeding balance, because a well-fed crocodile will not attack, while underfed crocs will just go at each other full force. However, crocodiles prefer wild, live prey, so a splashing human might still attract a bite.
Unfortunately for Waseso, Woodward thinks that you could potentially bribe a croc. "If they were hungry enough to attack something going in the water and you had a decoy" like a chicken or another prisoner, he said, "that could certainly work."
Woodward also thinks Waseso's figure of 1,000 is overkill. Given how territorial crocs are, and how big they'd need to be to do real damage (9.8 feet long at least), he'd recommend using a smaller population, dependent on the size of the island, to make things manageable. However, even if you just used 100 live crocs, they'd still require about 3,600 pounds of food per week to keep them happy and healthy, which would be expensive. And you'd have trouble finding that many large crocs in the wild, so you'd need a pretty robust croc farming community.
"It could work... It sounds like a good idea," said Woodward. "But when they get into the nuts and bolts of managing the whole thing, it's going to be a headache."
The two piranha experts we tracked down, Professor William Fink of the University of Michigan and Frank Magallanes , founder of the Oregon Piranha & Exotic Fish Exhibit, were less generous towards Waseso's recent extension of his animal guards program. First of all, piranhas are freshwater fish, so you'd need a moat on the island, stocked with other fish for them to eat. But like crocodiles, if properly nourished these supposedly fearsome fish will do little more than nibble a finger unless a human wandered into their nesting territories.
"I suppose if the prisoners had been wounded and were bleeding profusely the piranhas might go for them," said Fink. "But otherwise, not so much."
"You can condition them to eat anything entering the water, assuming they don't eat each other first," adds Magallanes. "But that would take years of constant feeding in one area."
Fisk and Magallanes wouldn't hazard a guess as to what it would take to maintain a piranha corps, but Fink points out that you'd need a ton of them in a restricted body of water for them to be of any use. And while the piranhas might breed in that environment, initially stocking them, feeding them just right, and doing so in a way that might train them as guards would be hard.
According to Dale Anderson, executive director of Project Survival Cathaven, and Professor Philip Nyhus, a tiger expert at Colby College, tigers wouldn't be as impotent as piranhas, but they're perhaps more problematic than crocodiles. You'd face the same issue of balancing starvation with satisfied docility, easy distraction via decoy food, and potential hostility towards each other if over-hungry or over-crowded. Then you run into the issues of how to keep them on the island—whether you let them roam free, restrict their habits, have vets nearby, or what.
It's hard to estimate how many cats Waseso could or would want to keep on the island without knowing how he plans to maintain them or the size of the island. But no matter the situation, you'd wind up spending a lot of money for something that wasn't even a surefire guard.
"There would be a risk to someone trying to escape," said Nyhus. "Would that be a guaranteed situation where the tiger would attack? No."
Anderson and Nyhus also decry the notion that Waseso might call this conservation. That term refers to maintaining wild populations and peacefully managing interactions with humans. This experiment would accomplish neither of those things, perhaps even doing the opposite.
"Everybody tries to throw in conservation because it sounds good," says Anderson. "Just having tigers isn't conservation."
IN A NUTSHELL
There is a snowball's chance in hell that Waseso's plans could work. But it would be an expensive and inefficient balancing act. Instead, he should just probably heed Fink's advice:
"Maybe it would be better if he just paid his guards more money..."
Follow Mark on Twitter.