body-container-line-1

Ivory Coast's 'sacred' crocs pull in the crowds

By Magatte GAYE and Emmanuel BARRANGUET
Ivory Coast Yamoussoukro boasts some 300 caiman crocs from the days of president and father of the nation Felix Houphouet-Boigny.  By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)
THU, 01 FEB 2024 LISTEN
Yamoussoukro boasts some 300 caiman crocs from the days of president and father of the nation Felix Houphouet-Boigny. By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)

A scrawny chicken squawks loudly as it flies through the air to be snapped up by the "president's caiman crocodiles" in one of the Ivory Coast capital's most popular and traditional attractions.

Cleopatra is said to have collected holy crocodiles and the Ivorian nation's capital Yamoussoukro boasts some 300 from the days of president and father of the nation Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

He died in 1993 and the beasts today rival on the tourist trail with the city's monumental basilica of Our Lady of Peace, a replica, but even bigger, than Saint Peter's in Rome.

As Ivory Coast is staging the Africa Cup of Nations at the moment, plenty of visitors turn up to see the daily feeding frenzy.

A bang on the railings rouses the animals who advance up the banks of the lake to gobble up chickens.  By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP) A bang on the railings rouses the animals who advance up the banks of the lake to gobble up chickens. By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)

Ousmane Ka, who has travelled from Senegal to support the Lions, says he's "taking the opportunity for a bit of tourism, especially to come to see the famous caiman lake" next to the presidential palace.

"It's a chance for me to see them come out and be fed with chickens people threw in," he tells AFP.

A bang on the railing rouses the reptiles who advance up the banks of the lake to gobble up the chickens.

"It's quite a story," says Guy Michel Goumezo, an Ivorian visiting the capital, where the celebrated Houphouet-Boigny was born.

"Just behind" there, he points. "It was his village (N'Gokro) and at the same time his house, where he built the presidential palace."

People sacrifice animals to the reptiles at the 'caiman lake'.  By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP) People sacrifice animals to the reptiles at the 'caiman lake'. By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)

The estate where "The Old Man" as the former president is affectionately known, lived is today surrounded by an imposing wall and guarded by the caiman and crocodile filled lake.

The elderly recall how occasionally the president himself would feed the animals.

Warden eaten by crocs

For Marie Akou, who lives in the capital, the caiman lake has "real significance" for the Baoule community, one of the nation's leading ethnic groups.

"By Baoule tradition, you can come and stop by the lake and explain your problems, your wishes, and the lake can sort them out for you," she says.

Augustin Thiam, a great-nephew of Houphouet-Boigny, also speaks of the site's "mystical" quality.

The capital's governor says the lake has a 'mystical' quality for the Baoule community, one the the nation's leading ethnic groups.  By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP) The capital's governor says the lake has a 'mystical' quality for the Baoule community, one the the nation's leading ethnic groups. By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)

"Sometimes I sacrifice animals to them, chickens, bullocks, sheep. Other members of my family do it as well," says Thiam, the governor of Yamoussoukro.

The crocodiles "have bathed in this water which for the Baoule of Yamoussoukro is sacred," he adds.

And when one of the crocs dies, "we give it a human burial".

From the Great Hall of the Houphouet Foundation, the governor recalls the history of the place.

It was Mali's president Modibo Keita who offered the first crocodiles as a gift in 1961, a year after independence.

Mali's president Modibo Keita offered the first crocodiles as a gift in 1961.  By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP) Mali's president Modibo Keita offered the first crocodiles as a gift in 1961. By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)

The governor warns: "The town's lakes are linked to each other, the crocodiles get through when they are small and they are in all the lakes."

No one risks taking a dip in Yamoussoukro's lakes.

And since "old Diko", who used to feed the crocodiles, was tragically eaten by one in 2012, "the other wardens no longer come," the governor admits.

body-container-line