Tourists to Thailand are often aghast when they attend a crocodile show and a trainer actually puts his head inside the wide-opened mouth of the reptile. You can almost hear the crowd breathe a sigh of relief when the crocodile does not clamp down on the trainer’s head.
At the show I attended when I first came to Thailand, some of the trainers appeared to be just kids, perhaps 12 or 13-years-old at the most.
Akraphol Wannawate is a 32-year-old trainer who has worked for seven years as a crocodile trainer at Samphran Elephant Ground & Zoo in Sam Phran district of Nakhon Pathom province. He says his wife still warns him to be extremely careful every morning before going to work. His parents also worry.
His job consists of training the reptiles for shows, and also performing some dangerous acts with the creatures during the show, including putting his head and arm in the crocodile’s mouth.
The media made much of a recent incident in which a trainer’s head was bitten during a show at the Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm near Bangkok, the world’s largest crocodile farm. The trainer needed stitches and medical treatment, but survived the incident. But it did raise questions as to how dangerous this job really is.
The crocodile farm in Samut Prakarn has over 100,00 crocodiles, including the world’s largest – measuring six meters long (over 19 feet) and weighing 1114.27 kilograms (2,465 pounds).
Akraphol says at first he was afraid, but the more he played with the crocodiles, the more connected he felt to them.
“It first took me more than 10 days to get myself familiar with crocodiles,” he remembers. “And when I knew them and they knew me, we could start training for the show.”
Akraphol’s co-worker Samrit Maiboran started working as a crocodile trainer when he was just 15. Now age 29, he says at first it was a real horror.
He admits, ”And you really have no idea when you will be attacked by the crocodiles. The important thing is you need to make the animals feel familiar with you and with the acts before you put them out for shows. Otherwise, you will only get hurt.”
On weekdays, there are three shows per day. But on weekends, there are five to cope with more visitors. On long weekends, the trainers may perform six or seven shows per day.
In each show, the trainers perform six or seven dangerous acts, including inserting their hands and their heads in a crocodile’s mouth, putting their hands down its throat, and lying on its back.
The crocodiles used for the show are all freshwater males over 15 years old. Females are only kept for mating and are not usually trained for the shows.
Eight crocodiles are kept in the performance area, and each is trained to perform specific acts. None are allowed to perform more than one act per show. Samrit says that though the shows may look extremely dangerous to the audience, if the crocodiles are well-trained and the tamers make sure they are ready before they perform a show, the chances of an accident are actually very low.
So what is the most important thing a trainer can do to avoid an accident? Samrit says, ‘There is no better way to protect ourselves from crocodile bites or attacks than watchfulness and cautiousness. During every show, all I need to do is to focus on what is right in front of me and follow steps as trained. There must not be even one second that crocodile trainers lose their concentration. Otherwise, they open doors to injury or even death.”
He adds that, after all, the shows are a form of entertainment for the audience. And though the trainers cannot guarantee 100% that no mistakes will take place, if they follow their safety precaution protocols the risk is minimal, and they just want the audience to relax and enjoy the show. Image/Bangkok Post