Earlier this week a surprising story hit the wires: the head of Indonesia’s Anti-Narcotics Agency said that he’d like to build a special prison to hold the nation’s drug offenders. The surprising part? He’d like to surround it with crocodiles.

Wait, what? Does Commander General Budi Waseso secretly want to be a Bond villain?

Why crocodiles? According to Waseso, via local news site Tempo, it’s because they, unlike human prison guards, can’t be bribed to look the other way while an inmate escapes. “I will look for crocodiles of the most vicious kind,” he said (that's a rough translation). 

Think of the scheme like this: it’s Alcatraz, only instead of being surrounded by the San Francisco Bay, it’s surrounded by a gang of menacing crocs.

Assuming that the former Chief of the National Police Criminal Investigative Unit is serious – and news agencies are reporting it as if he is – it seems like a fantastically bad idea, for many reasons. For one thing, it probably won’t work. For another, it stands to wind up fairly poorly in terms of the crocodiles’ own welfare.

We reached out to some herpetologists to get their take on Waseso’s nefarious plot.

Dave Steen, Auburn University herpetologist and popular twitter-er, points out that, to start with, crocodiles (unlike guard dogs) are not domesticates. They’re wild animals, and they’re “unlikely to distinguish between an escaping prisoner, a prison official, or a curious passer-by.” If they even try to attack a human in the first place, what makes anyone think they’ll preferentially target the prisoners?

“Although reptiles are not well-known for their intellect, recent research has suggested that crocodiles can be quite crafty, using sticks to lure in nesting birds and even hunting cooperatively to take down large prey,” Steen adds. “To expect these large and powerful animals to simply sit around while guarding a prison may be a costly error.”

Los Angeles Natural History Museum curator of herpetology Greg Pauly agrees. “Other than ripping some person's limbs off, what does a bunch of crocodiles do that a concrete wall doesn't do,” he wonders. “A moat of crocs serves mostly the same purpose as a wall, it restricts passage. Sure there is a door in the wall that a bribed jail guard could open, but there is also a bridge or boat across the moat to which a bribed jail guard could provide access.” Surely the inmates won’t be dumped into a facility surrounded by crocs, with the crocs left to fend for themselves? You simply can’t escape the human element.

Then there are issues of crocodile behaviour and biology. “In Indonesia, we are talking about saltwater crocs. They are territorial, so it is going to be challenging to get a high density of large crocs that don't seriously injure each other,” Pauly says.

Saltwater -croc _2015_11_12
Most other crocodilians are happy to share space, but the salties are territorial and less tolerant of each other. Image: OZinOH, Flickr

That’s a point on which biologist Adam Britton agrees. “At one extreme, if you select only the largest, most aggressive adult males, you'll create immediate territorial disputes. Fighting, injuries and deaths amongst your crocodiles would be high, greatly reducing the effectiveness of your plan.”

Suppose you chose smaller, less aggressive crocs instead, that can tolerate being around other individuals? While they can still give you a nasty bite, it probably wouldn’t be a big enough deterrent to foil an escape plot. Alternatively you could provision the crocs with enough food as a means of avoiding aggression. But then how do you keep the animals eager to go after an escaping inmate? “Picture dozens of crocodiles in the equivalent of a food coma,” Britton says.

Plus, in order to keep the crocodiles doing their job, you’d have to lock them in along with the prisoners. That’s because crocodiles and their kin can easily find their way home. Sometimes, Steen explains, gators and crocs are relocated when they turn up in high-tourist areas – but that’s only a temporary solution since "they are able to travel hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres right back to where they came from." 

Crocodilian biologist Vladimir Dinets, on the other hand, thinks the plan might just be crazy enough to work. “On Alcatraz, the inmates were told that the surrounding waters were full of man-eating sharks. These guys were almost all from inland states, didn't know anything about the Pacific, and were terrified, so there were almost no escape attempts."

So perhaps if the inmates in the Indonesian prison are city folk who know nothing about crocodiles, it’ll be sufficient to just pretend that hungry, man-eating monsters lurk beyond the walls?


Top header image: kin0be, Flickr