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Ghana's Paga village invites guests to ride crocodiles

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

There is something strange going on in the small village of Paga in northern Ghana in West Africa. It appears to defy the laws of nature, and certainly the laws of fear.

Most of the outside world is unaware of the special -- but bizarre -- relationship that exists here between humans and crocodiles, animals that anyone with an ounce of common sense would run from.

But the people of Paga swim joyfully and wash clothes in the same village pond that 110 crocs use as their home -- and their dining room.

No one seems to know how long the crocodiles have lived in the pond, or how they got to this land-locked area. But Yahaya Ahasan, the head crocodile keeper, told ABC News that no one from the village has ever been harmed by the crocs. That's extraordinary, considering that crocodiles are notoriously nasty if you get in their way, or if you resemble food.

But Ahasan said the crocs don't feel threatened by humans here. "We believe that they are the souls of relatives of this town," he said. "They are sacred animals, so we don't hate them, we don't kill them, we don't harm them."

So young men fish knee-deep next to what may look like logs, even though these logs have very sharp teeth.

Peaceful Crocs in Turbulent Region

One secret to the coexistence may be that the crocs here are some of the best-fed animals on the planet. They have lots of frogs and fish to snap at or gobble up in the water.

And for 10 specially trained crocs, there is a steady diet of tasty live chickens. The chickens are paid for by tourists who come from around the world to sit on the crocs backs, pet them and wag their tails, which could well slice them in two if not attached to a creature so happily digesting a bountiful buffet of birds.

This remote part of northern Ghana is a region with a long and eventful relationship with the Western world. Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa where Europeans came to trade in gold and slaves.

In addition to tourists, Ghana welcomes hundreds of visiting American students. One of them, Sarah Barkan, from Pennsylvania, is here to study African culture. Barkan has come to Paga to see the crocodiles. As she picked up a live croc tail, she told ABC News, "I feel a little iffy. We'll see how it goes."

Just about then, her croc spotted something and ripped himself free of her grip and started running toward the water's edge. It turned out that Barkan's crocodile had seen another, smaller croc walking toward a chicken and wasn't about to let the bird go to the tiny croc.

So the big guy chased the small guy into the water. Barkan had seen enough of an angry croc to know she did not want to take advantage of the standard offer to sit on its back. "I don't think he wants me on his back, and the feeling is mutual," she said. Still, this young American woman had seen a rare African natural ritual up close.

It may seem cruel to sacrifice all these chickens, but the people of Paga point out that if the crocodiles didn't have this feathered fast food, they would kill the town's livestock, enter homes looking for food, and even mistake small children for supper.

Besides, according to the the handlers, the crocs have earned their keep because they helped pay for the village day care center through money raised from the hundreds of tourists who visit each month.

So, the show goes on every day, or at least when visitors drop by. The villagers can swim in peace, the tourists are thrilled, and judging by their special smile, the crocs seem quite content with the arrangement. The chickens? Perhaps not.

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