Saturday, January 26, 2013
Escaped crocodiles -- a Carbon Based original
Even a professional worrier might have failed to predict what happened in the town of Modimolle in Limpopo province in South Africa, near the border with Botswana. The town is home to the Rakwena Crocodile Farm.
For the past week, rains have soaked the ground, and flooding has been widespread. Rising water forced the farm to open their cages to avoid a storm surge crushing the animals. Once floating free, some 15,000 crocs slithered into the depths of the swollen Limpopo River, no doubt ecstatically.
"Before there were only a few crocodiles in the Limpopo River. Now there are plenty," said one of the farm's proprietors. "We go catch them when farmers phone us." One turned up in a rugby field 75 miles away. Some nearby citizens climbed on their roofs to escape the flood and spotted crocodiles circling their houses, much in the style of countless New Yorker cartoons.
A later report says that many have been recaptured thanks to an effort from the police and the army, but more than half are still on the loose, like a mass reptilian version of The Fugitive. Their eyes glow in dark, according to one paper, so it's often easier to catch them at night. So far, no injuries or fatalities have come up in my news feeds. I'm sure everyone in Limpopo province and elsewhere downstream is checking twice before dumping the garbage or walking down to the soggy end of their yard.
My wife said to me, "I guess the crocodiles are really black swans." It's a safe bet that very few people -- maybe nobody -- considered the perils of a crocodile farm in a flood plain. Perhaps floods are rare in Limpopo Province, and maybe the farm has always been high enough -- until this week.
The farm's website says, "The Curio shop stocks a wide variety of crocodile leather belts, hats, purses, and rifle slings. Light lunches can be booked and tasty crocodile meat dishes are available." No word about treading carefully if you notice that all the cages are empty.
Charles Perrow in 1984 invented the idea of a "normal accident," also known as a system accident, which occurs when many small failures, accidents and mistakes suddenly coalesce in a big disaster. Perrow says that normal accidents come about when interactive complexity encounters tight coupling. Normal accidents are tough to predict because a situation with many moving parts -- like a nuclear power plant, for example --- prevents people from keeping track of all possible interactions.
I don't know how complicated the Rakwena Crocodile Farm's organization is, whether they have operating manuals, departments that don't communicate well with each other, and snarls of bureaucratic barriers that veil what's actually going on. Something tells me that a crocodile farm is not as involved as a nuclear power plant, and that its systems are not as tightly coupled. But a flood is a crisis for both.
First of all, a flood disrupts the power to an entire area and makes roads impassable. The emergency services are impaired at the exact moment you need them most.
Many nuclear plants are on vulnerable sites because they use nearby rivers as a coolant. But rising water can knock out operating electricity to the plant, and endanger the backup generators that keep critical cooling equipment running for the reactors and the pools of spent fuel. Floodwaters can breach retaining walls. This is what happened at the Fukushima-Daichi plant in Japan, resulting in major escapes of radioactive material and damage to the reactors.
If thousands of crocodiles reside on your property, you must have ready access to fresh water, or a very long garden hose. A flood could mean a major escape of powerful swimming predators. Not as bad as airborne particles of cesium-137, but still not anything you want to encounter on your morning constitutional.
We keep discovering that we inhabit fragile structures. Climate disruption adds new layers of complexity, and stresses everything in ways we haven't experienced before. Our arrangements often turn out to be much less flexible and resilient than anyone predicted. (I hasten to add that climate change isn't the culprit behind the crocodile escape.) The precise cause is less important than a danger growing in plain sight, with no one able to take effective preventive steps.
Or maybe we are underestimating the reptilian ingenuity of crocodilus nilotikus. Somewhere, caged reptiles brood, watching with slitted yellow eyes and dream of freedom, much like the main character in John Crowe Ransom's poem, "Crocodile," which ends:
Full length he lies and goes as water goes,
He weeps for joy and welters in the flood,
Floating he lies extended nearly a rood,
And quite invisible but for the end of his nose.
A statue of a crocodile at the Neptune Fountain in 1951, on Marx-Engels Platz in Berlin