Pukpuk – crocodile hunters (Sepik, Papua NG, 2015)


Going down the Sepik River, with my hosts, we had a short stop in a village. There, tucked under the roof of the haus-wind (the community’s gathering place), I saw a pile of crocodile skins. Pukupuk means crocodile, in PNG Pidgin.

It was my second trip to West Sepik, staying with the locals, recording their legends and joining them on daily activities. I heard many stories about crocodiles, pukpuk spirits and pukpuk monsters. I saw pukpuk skulls under porches, teeth on necklaces, carvings, paintings and men with ritual pukpuk-skin scarring.

I took my stuff from the canoe and I remained there for two weeks.

Manu, a young guy from the family I lived with, and his father were hunting and trading crocodile skins. The money, sometimes the only income for a community living on sago and fish, was used for buying small things for the house and most of it was saved in order to buy an engine for their dug-out canoe and to pay the school and boarding fees for Manu.

The skins collected by a “bisnis-man” from East Sepik go to Singapore and KL, where they are sold for prices unheard of on Sepik. During the last years, the price for crocodile skins dropped on Sepik, even though the crocodile population decreased. At first, it sounds good, as it might slow down crocodile hunting. But wait. For most of the stuff the locals sell, like coffee or gold, they get a few times less the prices their neighbours in Indonesia would get, whilst everything they buy in PNG: cigarettes, batteries for torches or boat engines cost way much more. Moreover, there is an increasing pressure over the indigenous to give in their lands to palm-oil plantations (mainly Malaysians and Filipinos) and gold mining companies (mainly Australians). In 2015, going from Vanimo to West Sepik, it took me longer to reach the Sepik’s forests than in 2012. For hours we only passed through palm-oil plantations. What used to provide a life for small local communities became a source of development for foreign companies. And with over 80% illiteracy and no trace of development brought by the government, there are not many options for indigenous people anyway.

I post here photos I took with Manu and his family.

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