THE PALESTINE CROCODILE.
THE question of the existence of crocodiles in Palestine has always interested zoologists. Many have been sceptical, especially as to their existence in modern times. During 1918 members of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force were amused by the appearance, from week to week, in the Palestine News, the organ of the Force, of an advertisement offering " any price within reason " for a pair of Palestine crocodiles, alive and in good condition. The advertisement was taken by most to be a jest. Yet the evidence against the sceptics is very strong and continuous through many centuries.
Palestine contains two rivers with claims to be considered " crocodiliferous " ; to which rivers, as I hope presently to show, a third stream may be added. All three rivers flow into the Mediterranean, in the short strip of seaboard, scarcely more than fifty miles from north to south, between Haifa and Jaffa. Putting aside all Old Testament references to " leviathan," and taking account of profane writers only, we find that the crocodile's existence in the Nahr-ez-Zerka, continuously during over two thousand years of recent history, cannot be questioned. The Nahr-ez-Zerka, or " Blue River," gathers a thin stream out of the marshes of Samaria, and runs into the sea, three miles north of the remains of Caeiarea, and twenty miles south of Haifa and the northern end of Cannel. Throughout its course it is a marsh, with a trickle of water pushing through. Some of the guide-books remark that the scenery at its mouth reminds one of the Nile. But then the guide- books say anything. They tell us, for example, that Hermon is snow-capped throughout the year, whereas in 1918 the first snow appeared on November 14th, and the huge winter snowfields were a tenuous cloud, far up in heaven, before April had finished. This is not " throughout the year," nor even
" for the greater part of the year "—the guide-books' utmost concession to fact—and the late Dr. MacKinnon, from his
thirty years' experience of Damascus, told me that November to April was the normal period of snow on Hermon, though in the deep ghylls and clefts, out of sight, enough renting to cool the sherbet of the Damascene, remains, even, from snowfall to snowfall. But this is a digression. Egypt has a river, and the Caesarea seaboard has a river, and there are crocodiles in both ; therefore, to the Fluellens who put together our guide-books the scenery of Egypt and that of the Caesarea seaboard are similar. The Zerka strains through a jungle of reeds and papyrus ; its course is through wide pastures furrowed with rushy ditches ; and, by its mouth, the sandy wastes behind old Caesarea are full of marshland and of lentisk-thickets. Three miles above its mouth the ancient city of Crocodilopolis stood, the modern hamlet of Miamas. Both Strabo and Pliny mention the presence of crocodiles in this brook ; and it has carried continuously, from their day to ours, the name " River of Crocodiles." The Crusaders, knowing nothing of Strabo or Pliny, gave it the same name, for the best and most tragic of reasons, because men who bathed in it —for by its mouth, where the First Crusade crossed, it is a respectable watercourse, even though not exactly reminding one of the Nile (the Roding at Wanstead would be a nearer comparison)—were taken by crocodiles. A crocodile was killed in it in 1877 ; and again, in 1902, by one of the German colonists from Haifa. Plenty of people now in Haifa saw the hide of the one killed in 1902. But Tristram's evidence clinches a case where evidence is abundant. In his Fauna and Flora of the Holy Land, published by the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1883, after referring to Pliny and Strabo, and to Pococke's witness to the capture of crocodiles (in the eighteenth century) in the Zerka, he tells how he offered a reward, and a crocodile, eleven and a half feet long, was brought to him in Nazareth. Previously he had found many crocodiles' footprints in marshes in Samaria, by the Zerka's headwaters. The skull is before him as he writes, and he says : " When I look at my crocodile's head, brought home by myself, and read the long disquisitions written in various languages as to the possibility of the crocodile inhabiting Palestine, I feel that.an ounce of fact is worth a ton of theory." Further, Arab goatherds told him that the Zerka crocodiles were well known to them, and that they often carried off their kids when they went to water. He adds that doubtless the Zerka crocodiles are very few and on the verge of extinction. I may add that the Zerka is still often called the Nahr-el-Timsa, or " River of Crocodiles."
I turn to the Mahon, the Nahr-el-Mouqatta, a far more considerable stream, which reaches the sea just north of Haifa., after traversing a desolate hinterland of sand and marshy jungle, full of reed-clogged pools that in the wet months throw out connecting arms to the river. Dr. Ewing in his article " Kishon " in Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible speaks of the " deep, muddy trench " of this last part of " the ancient river's** course, and adds that, according to rumour, it is infested with crocodiles, though the only observer in recent times who had claimed to have seen one was McGregor, author of The Rob Roy' on the Jordan. Dr. Ewing told me that he did not believe in the existence of either the Kishon or Zerka crocodiles. But in April of this year I was fortunate enough to come upon a first- class witness to the Kishon crocodiles. McGregor's account is well known, and he supplements it with the statement that he searched the banks carefully, after the incident of the crocodile thrusting its head out of the water beside his canoe, and found innumerable footprints. But his statement has never been sup- ported in print. However, in April, 1919, I was with Mr. Christie, who has spent most of a lifetime in the Holy Land, and is well known as a Hebraist and Biblical scholar generally. I mentioned McGregor's statement, and the common disbelief in its validity. He said : " I saw a crocodile in the Kishon. It was in 1894. I was riding from Acre to Haifa, and, as I came to the Kishon's mouth, a reptile about eight or nine feet long rose up from the sand and rushed into the sea. I was going to see Schumacher " —the famous German scholar—" and I told him that I had seen what I should have been sure was a crocodile, if I had not known that this was impossible. He said : ' It's not impossible. I have no doubt that what you saw was a crocodile. The natives all say they are found in the Kishon.' " The third river to which I referred at the beginning of this article is the Nahr-el-Aujeh, the finest watercourse of Palestine (nextto the Jordan), which runs into the sea a few miles north of
Jaffa. The people living on its banks insist that crocodiles occur in it : or, at any rate, have been seen in it.
In May of last year I managed to get a day on the Zerka and at Caesarea. Both sides of Miamas, the country is the best wooded in Palestine, with fine oaks and carobs, thymelaea, styrax, lentisk. Carmel has been cut about during the war, and they are carrying destruction further; but here one can get a glimpse of what Palestine has been. From the Arabs I got the assurance that the crocodiles were still there, but nearer the sea. No one had seen them, but every one had heard of them, and some knew people who had seen them. This was very unsatisfactory, and I think the Palestine crocodile is at last extinct. Yet it is proverbially hard to prove a universal negative ; and, unless one waded or swam every yard of those tangled last three miles of Zerka—for no boat could get through them—and, further, splashed through every ditch and piece of rushy ground, there would remain the doubt that still some patriarchal reptile was lurking in the papyrus. But to conduct a search of this exhaustive kind would require a scientific enthusiast such as hardly lives in these degenerate days.
Mr. Christie's Kishon crocodile which rushed into the sea seems to me to confirm my own theory as to the survival until recently of the Palestine crocodiles. Swimming in the sea off the Malay Peninsula is dangerous not so much because of the sharks as because of the crocodiles, which swim round, from estuary to estuary. And is not a crocodile on record as having emerged, Venus fashion, on to the shore of a Pacific island, nearly a century ago, after a salt-water swim of some thousands of miles ? I believe the Palestine crocodiles lived and bred in the Zerka, and occasionally in the Kishon, but, finding their marsh-home inadequate for a food-supply, since goats had attendants and wild pigs were wary, did their hunting in the sea at night. They could do this even now, though we have bridled Zerka with a railway bridge. And, fishing in the sea, they made their way to the Kishon swamps, and even appeared in the Anjeh. Thus the African crocodile managed to keep his one Asiatic habitat till into the present century.
EDWARD J. THOMPSON, M.C.