For the people who live in the Aopa and Mokaleleo villages around the swamp area, mentioning Rawa Aopa automatically brings to mind bokeo (the Bugis word for crocodile). Before Rawa Aopa became a national park area it was a common place for swamp crocodiles. These wild animals lived and bred in this area. And when they were flushed out by the fishermen who burnt the swamp grass they went to other places.

Some people think that the crocodiles that live around the big Southeast Sulawesi rivers come from here. Moreover, Rawa Aopa is a place where many rivers from the surrounding mountains end their courses. That’s why so manymyths about bokeo come from this place and, are to this day, kept alive.

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Mrs. Karate, an old woman whose husband worked as a canoe-keeper warned: “”You can’t take a canoe on Friday or bokeo will bite you.””

She told me the story of the crocodile’s victim, which took place many years ago. One day there was a fisherman who kept looking for fish on Fridays. He neglected his Friday prayers and didn’t go to the mosque until he reached his third Friday. “”And do you know what happened to him? His canoe was broken and his body has never been found. He was attacked by bokeo.””

“”You also can’t be arrogant and talk proudly about yourself because bokeo will find you and eat you,”” she added.

This belief has flourished with the Bugis, an ethnic group who hail from South Sulawesi. On the other hand, most of the indigenous people, the Tolaki ethnic group, have never cared for this belief. “”I think this beliefis created with the purpose of making people always obey their religion,”” said Membale, one of three forest-keepers whose duty is to guard the area.

Then I remembered Rasyid, an ex-chairman from Mokaleleo Village, telling me, “”It’s hard to find crocodiles nowadays. And if he sees you first, he would run away before you could look at him. It is different from the past when the flood was coming, and Rawa Aopa was engulfed by swamp water. You could see many crocodile eyes looking like a thousand fireflies when you crossed over the bridge with a lamp.””

Where are they now? I asked myself, trying to find an answer, until I metan old man, a “”crocodile dundee”” from the past called Husanan. He said that when he was a young boy, he spent his life hunting crocodiles. He has caught many crocodiles, maybe hundreds.

“”I went with two of my friends before the sun went down. We could go for two or three days, crossing the dangerous zone where there were probably many crocodiles. If we were lucky, we could bring three crocodiles home,”” said the grandfather of 40 grandchildren.

When hunting crocodiles he was able to obtain much more money than by fishing. So, he could support his big family — a wife and 14 children. He was never afraid of wild animals because he knew how to treat them. For example, to drive away a crocodile when you are crossing the swamp, you must slap repeatedly on the canoe. The noise frightens the crocodile and it will go away.

I remembered my experience when we were crossing the crocodile area downstream. That day was a rainy one. We were rowing against the stream. Suddenly, the bottom of our canoe scraped over something. We thought that it was a tree trunk, but it moved. “”Bokeobokeo!”” shouted my canoe-keeperas he repeatedly slapped the floor of the canoe. As we rowed away, I could see something swimming underwater, moving away from us.

Nowadays crocodiles at Rawa Aopa are probably afraid of humans, but we must still be careful. A plank with the picture of a crocodile is fixed to the front of the Rawa Aopa bridge. It is a warning to people around that behind its beauty and tranquility, this swamp is still dangerous and wild. (have been published on The Jakarta Post)