02/08/2011 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Quest for the Lord of the Nile, Part V

This is the fifth and final installment in the Quest for the Lord of the Nile series. Read Part IV here.


The next day I find myself at a Nubian village as Disney might have imagined. It consists of a series of families moved just downstream of the dam as Lake Nasser filled. They have recast their lives as tourist attractions, and their homes are filled with baubles and kitsch to hawk to the crucible of tourists who pass through each day.

Nailed above the doorstep to one home is a five-foot crocodile stuffed with straw, his teeth in a death grip around the neck of cormorant. Not long ago crocodiles were hung thusly as talismans to protect inhabitants from the evil eye, but now they are simply tourist draws.

In a neighbor's home I meet Ahmed, a watery-eyed man in a white turban who shows me a glass cage with a bamboo lattice top stuffed with adolescent crocodiles, folded and bent to fit into the cramped space. If crocodiles are relics and symbols of the savagery we mean to rise above these little reptiles defy that notion, their eyes fogged with discomfort and helplessness, their eyelids of mourning. Ahmed pokes one with a stick, and back it sends a disconsolate hiss.

These crocodiles, smuggled from the lake, are tourist magnets, until they become too big, when they are killed for their leather and offered to brokers and the shops in the bazaar. This is not the ecotourism that Dr. El Din imagined.

So, I ask what it would take to liberate one of the crocodiles. Ahmed says it is expensive and difficult to poach these "protected" creatures, and offers to allow the release for $1000 US. I counter with $500 and with little hesitation he agrees. So, he chooses one of the crocodiles, a relatively docile one of about three and a half feet in length, and hands him to me as he fetches a cardboard Aquafina box. I clutch the little monster with one hand tight around his bulging neck, the other gripped at his pitted tail, his power coursing up my arms. Then he thrashes his body about, driving his nose into my chest like a mallet to a tent peg, and I wrestle in terror not knowing if he is attempting to attack or flee. He snaps his 36 sharp teeth, and lashes his tail for a few awful seconds, but then calms, as though in trust, or waiting. I quickly drop him into the box, which I recognize in a flash as the same size and shape as the one in which Bill Olsen's legs were dumped along the Baro River. Ahmed quickly shuts the lid. Then to a remote edge of the lake we drive, to a spot safe from the blessings of civilization.

The shoreline has a pale, sun-sucked color, shadowless and uniform. We set the box on the coarse sand, pull back the cardboard and lift out the lucky crocodile, its cold scales like the heads of small nails. Gently we place him on the ground, careful to avoid a snap, and on the count of three release him. He seems uncertain. He skitters forth a bit, but then stalls a few feet from the water. The lake is making small lapping sounds, like a giant taking sips from a mug.

I give the little croc a boost with my boot, and he sculls along the hot sand, makes a little leap into the water, and begins to fin away to freedom. Watching his little ripple deliquesce it's hard to appreciate the antipathy for crocodiles, the human urge to rid the world of such life, though I well know this fellow would easily bite the hand that frees him, and in a few years time would hesitate not a lick to swallow me whole. Yet, in some way we must know there is a complexity, indeterminacy and interconnectedness to all living things, and that it is a mistaken belief that humans are apart from Nature. We have for millennia sought dominion over all wildlife, but by eliminating a natural torment, altering a balance that has preserved since the morning of mankind, as did the dams with the Nile, there are results unforeseen, consequences that could raze that which was meant to be safeguarded in the first place. Once you mess with equilibrium, like opening an Egyptian tomb, the essence is liable to crumble, and the world may well turn out to be a more dangerous place for all our efforts to tame it.


Me about to release baby Sobek into the Nile, Photo by Laura Hubber

Ahmed extends a gap-toothed smile, the wrinkles of his face cracking like a windscreen hit by a stone. He lifts his hand and waves to the departing crocodile, who melts away into the green water. The sublime question is his post-deliverance fate. He may be recaptured and end up in another cage. He may be hunted. He may hunt a fisherman or more. He may become the magic glass into which our fears pour in and mythic beasts step out. Or, he may simply live a long and prosperous life, becoming once again a reason for tourists to come to Egypt, to be awed once more by the original Lord of the Nile.