Habitat Loss: Evon Hekkala & Stan Stojkovic

In this week's episode, an ecologist must confront a man-eating croc, and a criminologist receives a letter from a convicted murderer.

Part 1: Ecologist Evon Hekkala travels to Madagascar to help protect a village from a man-eating crocodile.

Evon Hekkala was born just outside of Fossil, Oregon, population 200. How she ended up living and working in NYC and traveling around the globe studying wildlife is all a bit of a big crazy fluke, set in motion by a mixture of really good, bad parenting and the naive ability to never see her own boundaries. Now she spends her time teaching and researching at Fordham University and the American Museum of Natural History where she and her students explore a century of change in the wild world of animals.

Part 2: Criminologist Stan Stojkovic receives a letter from an incarcerated man who killed two people when he was a teenager.

Stan Stojkovic, PhD is Dean and Professor of Criminal Justice in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). He has been a faculty member within the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare for the past 33 years. He received his Ph.D. in social science (with cognate specializations in criminal justice and criminology, public administration, and philosophy) from Michigan State University in 1984.

Stan Stojkovic's story was produced as part of a partnership with Springer Storytellers. Find out more at www.beforetheabstract.com/


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Evon Hekkala

Several years ago, I found myself at an airport in Madagascar and I was surrounded by several bags of cash and several guards. And I was on my way to go and capture a giant man-eating crocodile.

Before I tell you about the crocodile thing, I actually didn’t have anything to do with crocodiles before this. I was actually going to study lemurs in Madagascar as a graduate student at Columbia University.

I had this great plan that I was going to understand more about the behavior of humans, by studying the interactions between species of lemurs because they were early primates.  

So I set off on this trek across Northern Madagascar and it was this hundred and fifteen, hundred and eighteen kilometer trek across Northern Madagascar.

I was absolutely convinced that I was going to discover this hybrid zone between these two species of lemurs and that was going to help us understand what was going on with lemurs, with social behavior and interactions.

This was my PhD project at Columbia University. It was this grandiose plan and I set off on this trek. And as most people know, things don’t go as we plan them to.

I was about two days into this trek with eight guys from Madagascar who spoke Malagasy and one guy who spoke French, and I spoke pretty rickety French.

I fell down a mountainside with this sixty-pound backpack, and I tore my meniscus and almost dislocated my hip. But I was like, I’m going to do this, so I just kept going.

People on the way were telling me, “Well, actually, the lemurs aren’t here anymore because we ate them and we can’t find them anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find them and they were our favorite lemurs because they were the biggest ones and protein is hard to come by.”

Actually having met a lot of these Malagasy families on my way, families of six would get by on maybe a cup of rice or two a day, and so you couldn’t really begrudge them a little bit of protein even though it made me incredibly sad about the lemurs that I planned to go study.

In the end, I finished the trek with my torn meniscus and my hopes crushed and no lemur samples, and a much greater respect and understanding of the people of Madagascar.

I had to come back to my dissertation committee at Columbia University and tell them that I completely failed. I did not successfully achieve this goal, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.

My committee, they were kind of gentle. They actually said, “Well, we have this bag of blood samples from a hybrid zone. It’s not lemurs exactly—it’s crocodiles. Would you like to do that for your dissertation instead? Because you’re really running out of time.”

I was like, Oh, well, crocodiles. Lemurs, cute furry beautiful glorious lemurs. Crocodiles. 

I said, “Well, actually, when I was in Madagascar, I happened to notice that there were all these crocodiles as well.”

They have this really interesting relationship with the people there and plus I had heard that they were actually kind of unique and might be a separate species, which that could be cool.

So I told my committee, “I would like to do the hybrid crocodiles if maybe I could actually go back to Madagascar and also study the crocodiles in Madagascar,” because I’d actually really fallen in love with Madagascar.

My committee said, “Oh yes, we’ll humor you. If you can get back to Madagascar in the next three months and get some samples of Malagasy crocodiles, then sure. That’s great. But otherwise, just keep working on these hybrid crocodiles.”  

And I said, “OK, great.”

The next week, I thought, OK, I’ve got to start researching crocodiles. How am I going to get back to Madagascar? I had no money, I had no plan. I don’t know anything about crocodiles.

I get this phone call at the graduate office at Columbia. And the secretary says, “There’s a phone call from National Geographic for you.” And I was like, “That’s not for me,” and [she was] like, “No, it’s for you.”

I answer the phone—this was landline time. There was this woman and she says, “Hi, I’m with National Geographic Television and we’re doing this new program called Out There. It’s a show about how actual scientists do research. We are working in Madagascar on this other episode, and it just so happens that there are these crocodiles that started eating people in the lake beside where we’re working.”

I said, “Well, that’s interesting. Why are you calling me?”

And she was like, “Well, we heard you study crocodiles.”

I said, “I … oh, really? Yes, I do study crocodiles.”

She was like, “So, can we fly you to Madagascar and have you come and figure out what’s going on with these crocodiles that just started eating people, because they were never eating people before, apparently. We’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry about it.”

And I was like, “Hmm, I have like three months to figure out how to get to Madagascar and yes, I can do that. I can come to Madagascar.”

This woman, this producer, says, “And actually, can you bring us seventy-five thousand dollars because our field crew is out of money, and we need someone to resupply them, and the banking is not really very effective. And so it would be great to have someone bring them the cash.”

Actually, I’m just going to tell you. I think that they thought that they would … they didn’t care about the crocodiles. They just wanted me to bring the money.

Anyway, I was like, “I can do that.” Then she said, “Can you do it this Friday?”

And I was like, “Yes…?”

And it was three weeks before Christmas. I had no plans.

I found myself sitting at the Chase Bank on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for three and half hours, signing American Express traveller’s checks, if anyone remembers those.

You have to sign and then eventually countersign to show that… you know. Anyway, it was seventy-five thousand dollars that had been wired into my bank account, which, by the way, usually the government is a little skeptical about that when you are a graduate student. I had no idea.

Anyway, they wanted small denominations, so it was all twenty-dollar bills of American Express traveller checks.

So I set off. Oh, wait, but I should have been spending my time learning how to wrangle crocodiles. So I called a friend of mine who shall remain nameless and I said, “I have this gig and I actually have to handle some crocodiles,” and this person said, “Oh, yeah, I have some you can maybe come and handle.”

I was like, “Okay, today?”

And he’s like, “Okay…”

I trekked on to where the unnamed crocodiles would be, and I found these little crocodiles. I picked up a couple and then I was like, “I’ve handled crocodiles. Yay!”

Then on Friday, I got on a flight to Madagascar with seventy-five thousand dollars in American Express traveller’s checks.

As we all know, flights to Africa are frequently delayed, as are flights to La Guardia, and to and from La Guardia. I live near La Guardia so I could say that because it sucks, sorry.

Anyway, so I ended up showing up at the airport in Madagascar after about, I don’t know, twenty-four hours of flying, and the bank was closing. I should have said that National Geographic was very explicit that I had to exchange all the money at the bank, in the airport, because none of the other banks actually would have enough money in their accounts for me to exchange the money.

On top of that, they were like, We’re going to this really remote village in northwestern Madagascar, and they only take money that is in the currency equivalent to like fifty cents.”

I just want to step back and do a little math here, but seventy-five thousand dollars in American dollars is fifteen million nine hundred and something thousand dollars in Malagasy Francs, and they wanted small-denomination bills.

Actually, the airport [bank] was kind of like, “Well, were about to close, but we really like American dollars,” and so they stayed open.

That is how I found myself walking out of the airport in Madagascar with many, many, many giant bags full of cash, and some people that I hired to walk out of the airport with me to a bus to go and take National Geographic the money that they had asked me to bring, on my way to capture a man-eating crocodile… wherein I had lots of experience.

I get to the luxury hotel the National Geographic film crew had been staying in. They were really happy because I was able to pay their bill.

They said, “We are leaving tomorrow morning to go to this remote village and on the way we’ll tell you what the plan is.”

I was like, “Okay.”

And they said, “We should have maybe told you that the government wants to just kill these crocodiles that started attacking people, but the local people believe that these crocodiles are sacred, and these crocodiles are maybe their ancestors, and so maybe we shouldn’t mess with the crocodiles.”

And I was like, “Okay.”

Then we get to this village and let me just tell you that if you think it’s fun to have a National Geographic camera like ten inches from your face for twenty hours a day, while you try to interview a community of people about their family members who’ve been eaten by crocodiles, and their children who’ve been eaten by crocodiles, and people who’ve been dragged into this lake by crocodiles, it’s really not all you might think in terms of celebrity status and happiness.

It’s not a good thing, but there were also other complications that happened.

No one told me that this lake, the people who lived there believe that you can’t have any metal on the lake.

And so we had brought these boats so we could do these surveys of the crocodiles to try and figure out what was going on, and they were like, “No, you can’t. No metal can go on this lake. Metal can’t touch the lake. That will upset the spirit of the lake.”

And we spent like sixteen hours going to a small fishing village to try and rent these gigantic fiberglass fishing boats from the ocean, to bring them back to use for our surveys.

That’s okay, I can handle that.

Then they told me, “You have to buy and sacrifice a zebu,” which is kind of a really cute cow—the one with the hump and they were kind of small in Madagascar.

Actually, I was a vegetarian at the time so I was like, “Okay, I guess I can do that in the interest of this.”

Then they said, “And we have to have this thing called a Tromba ceremony.”  And the Tromba ceremony [is] where you call up the spirit of the lake to get permission to do the research. This one hundred-year-old woman who was quite lovely and spry, she… Everyone drinks a lot of palm wine, which if anyone’s ever tasted palm wine, is the most disgusting thing you’ve ever tasted in your life.

This woman is inhabited then by the spirit of the lake, which is wonderful. I had a background actually in anthropology, and so I really was enjoying this, but then I found out that the spirit of the lake is actually a man. And so I’m dancing with the spirit of the lake, who is embodied by this woman, but then it’s a very lecherous spirit of the lake and it’s also being filmed by National Geographic, and it was a little bit uncomfortable, just going to say.

All this being said, we did these surveys of the lake. We tried to figure out was going on and we weren’t able to actually capture the supposed man-eating crocodile.

And we actually brought in this guy from Kenya who was actually really good at catching crocodiles, in case we caught a crocodile, because there was this plan that maybe we would catch this crocodile on camera, and we would take it to the zoo at the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. The people would be happy because the crocodiles that are sacred to them would be protected, and the government would be happy because people weren’t being eaten by crocodiles. Great.

Well, we didn’t catch this crocodile. And so we ended up having this big party to say good-bye to the guy from Kenya, who was there to catch a crocodile, and we didn’t manage to catch a crocodile.

And the minute he left, and I’d had a little bit of Malagasy beer and a little bit of Malagasy palm wine, I get a bunch of people outside my tent going, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! We’ve caught this crocodile,” and I’m like, Great.

Okay, it’s just a little one, right?

No, it’s a really big one. 

I go with these people to the shore of the lake, which is about three feet wide, and there is this enormous crocodile on this little tiny rope, and I’m like, That’s actually a man-eating crocodile.

It was right where all the other people had actually been attacked by this crocodile and I’m like, That’s the one.

And I’m thinking, What am I going to do? I don’t have a crocodile wrangler, and I at that point weighed about one hundred and four pounds and I’m like, Very interesting.

And In the meantime, the entire village had come to see this captured crocodile, partly because they were like, This is the one, right? This is the one that actually ate people and attacked people and did all this stuff.

I’m thinking, Oh, great. Now on top of me being on camera with National Geographic, with lights in my eyes, these lights in my eyes, I have a giant crocodile and I have an entire village of sixty people holding babies and little children and they are all like, “So what are you going to do?”

I’m like, “Well, actually, as far as I understand, this crocodile represents the spirit of the lake and so I sort of defer to you all.”

They were like, “Well, it’s good to see the crocodile upfront and personal,” and I’m like, “Yes. Yes it is.”

It’s like fourteen feet long and about six feet from me, and I have like sixty people behind me with small children, and there is no way I’m going to be able to pull this crocodile… You do this thing when you catch crocodiles, which I’d actually learned from the crocodile wrangler. You pull and then they roll and they roll themselves up, and then you jump on them but usually, you need at least three large humans to jump on them, and to kind of know what they are doing, to catch them.

And so I was thinking, There’s no way this is actually going to be successful, because not only will I die but there’s lots of people with small babies and they’re going to die too.

I had a little conversation in my head and I was like, You know, I think this crocodile is important to everybody, and nobody really wanted it to be killed or removed. They were just pissed off that it had done bad things, and so we all decided to scare the crocodile.

Everybody on the shore was yelling at the crocodile and I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to harass it and then it’s going to decide it’s a bad idea to eat people.”

And so in front of National Geographic and the entire village, I leaned down and I cut this rope and let this crocodile go. I’m thinking, Oh, my God, it could actually now attack us.

And I’m thinking, And there’s babies and tiny two-year olds and humans and oh, my God.

Instead, it just flipped its tail and it dove and it got the hell out of there. It was like, Humans are evil.

I could end it there, but from everything we’d learnt from interviewing all these people, and talking with them about what had happened, we’ve realized there was some ecological things that they had changed about the relationship of the crocodiles to the community.

They’d started using nets on the lake and over-fishing, and they had changed the water flow in the lake and some things.

But we worked with them and we got the Peace Corps to put in some wells, and we put up these barricades to protect people so they could go down and wash themselves at the edge of the lake.

We did some education with some local communities. We got a small crocodile and we let kids touch it and pet it, and understand this is the natural history of crocodiles, and for ten years after we did all these things, no one was attacked by a crocodile.

All I can say is if you see the episode of National Geographic called Man-Eaters of Madagascar and you see me looking cranky and sweaty and tired and pissed off, I really, really was, but I’m also really glad I actually said yes when I answered the phone.