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The lowlands of Papua New Guinea are home to both fresh and saltwater crocodiles, but their presence symbolises far more than a fascinating ancient reptile with a penchant for fresh meat.

Deep within the jungles of the Sepik region, crocodiles take on a mystical symbolism enshrined in the native culture and tradition of the Chambri and other tribes.

They are the Crocodile Men of Papua New Guinea, and their reverence of crocodiles is at the heart of male initiation and ancient culture.

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The Amazon of Papua New Guinea

Often referred to as the Amazon of Papua New Guinea, the Sepik River is the largest in the Asia Pacific region and home to some of the world’s largest fresh and saltwater crocodiles.

The region is largely unspoiled but in the late 1980s and 1990s, the resident crocodile population experienced a decline. This was partly due to the over-harvesting of crocodile eggs, which are a valued commodity among Sepik River tribes, but also due to natural events like fire.

A community initiative was launched to implement the sustainable harvesting of eggs, and the population decline has effectively been reversed.

An ancient connection

Throughout the East Sepik region, crocodiles hold a special significance in the lore and culture of the various tribes. Many share a spiritual belief humans evolved from these reptiles, becoming land dwellers when they migrated from the river.

The Crocodile Men of PNG

While the people of the region share a sacred reverence for the crocodile, few embrace it quite so entirely as the Chambri tribe. Renowned for their scars which closely resemble the look and feel of a crocodile skin, Chambri people embark on a unique ritual as boys transition into adults.

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After six weeks spent preparing, boys as young as 11 take part in a ceremony where elders cut the skin of their torso deeply with bamboo in a pattern resembling crocodile skin. The wounds are then packed with clay to ensure they remain raised.

The scars represent the bite marks left by a crocodile as it swallows the young man. He emerges from the ceremony, not a man but represents the crocodile. Meanwhile, the pain of the ritual is said to strengthen boys for the pain of life ahead.

The Sepik River Crocodile Festival

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On the first weekend of August each year, the tribes of the Sepik River celebrate the significance of the crocodile to this unique region. Held in Ambunti, the three-day festival highlights the importance of the crocodile to the culture, welfare, and history of Sepik.

Gudmundur (Gummi) Fridriksson, is the CEO of Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Ltd, overseeing the development of Paga Hill Estate, a world-class, master planned estate located in the heart of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gudmundur first arrived in Papua New Guinea over 20 years ago and is passionate about sharing PNG’s natural beauty and diverse cultures with the world. Find out more about Gummi Fridriksson on his website: http://www.gummifridriksson.com/and about the Paga Hill Estate development at http://www.pagahillestate.com/