Meet SA's 23-year-old Crocodile Dundee: 'I've got 70 crocs and counting!'

By Jaco Hough-Coetzee
09 August 2016

Marelize (23) gave up her law degree to care for the beasts when her dad died – and she's never looked back.

One generally inherits material things when a loved one dies – such a holiday home, a farm or money.

Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

This was not the case for 23-year-old Marelize Pienaar from Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. When her father, Dries, died two years ago, his 65 crocodiles became her responsibility.

It definitely wasn’t easy. “There were many nights of worrying, crying and praying,” says Marelize where we’re chatting in the Rock View Lodge, a guest house on a game farm about 20 km outside of Nelspruit. This is where the crocodiles are kept.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse Koloti

“It was a difficult time. Not only was I struggling to deal with my father’s death, I had to care for the animals at the same time. I also didn’t know where to find food for them because my dad’s chicken supplier suddenly started giving his carcasses to someone else.”

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

She also had to quit her law degree studies in Potchefstroom in her second year and move back to Nelspruit to care for the animals and support her mother, Lize.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

But Marelize doesn’t regret any of these sacrifices. She feels her dad would’ve wanted it this way, says the brunette.

This morning Marelize is just doing a routine inspection of the crocodile camps. Crocodiles don’t eat in winter, so she doesn’t have to feed them now. She stops behind the guesthouse in a double-cab bakkie that belonged to her dad.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

The name “Dries” is written on the back of it in silver letters. She’s wearing carefully applied make-up and is dressed in jeans and a feminine blouse – but the blouse is soon replaced with a more practical T-shirt before we walk down to the first camp, about 30 m from the guesthouse.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

She says her dad bought his first 10 crocodiles seven years ago when she was still in school. Her dad made a deal with Paul Viviers, the owner of Rock View Lodge, to keep the animals on his farm as tourist attractions. At the time of Dries’s death there were 65 crocodiles and Marelize has since bought five more small ones.

Crocodile farm

We find six juvenile crocodiles baking themselves in the winter Lowveld sun in their 7 x 5 m camp. They’re all younger than two years and the largest is easily 2 m long.

She’s worried that the children of guests who stay at the lodge are throwing stones at the young crocodiles, Marelize says, eyeing the enclosure, “Because sometimes I find stones in the camp.”

Then she notices that a wire meant to keep a wooden platform above the water of a pond has come loose and a piece of wire is now hanging in the water. “It can hurt the little guys if they get snagged in it,” she says, climbing over the fence.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

She moves cautiously, but it doesn’t look as if her presence bothers the crocodiles. Then one suddenly lifts its head and hisses. Marelize freezes, watching him carefully.

“Don’t bite, chum,” she soothes. She takes the wire from the water and fastens the platform to the crossbar again. Just as cautiously she moves back to the fence and climbs over. She says her caution is the reason she’s never been bitten. Then she dons a pair of thick rubber gloves.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

She takes a frozen chicken from the bakkie, chops it into pieces and throws a chunk into the camp. Only one moves closer while the rest continue their winter snooze.

While we’re driving to the large camp about 2 km from there, Marelize tells me crocodiles only really eat for about nine months of the year. In winter some of them don’t feed for up to three months, but she’ll sporadically chuck some chicken into the camps anyway just to be sure none of them got hungry in the meantime.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

In the large camp the rest of her 70 crocodiles are sunning themselves next to the dam. The largest is a tad longer than 3 m.

“Come, guys! Foodie!” Marelize calls. Here and there a lazy eye opens. She says in the summer months when they do eat they’ll waggle toward her when she calls. “I think they recognise my voice, because they don’t really respond to anyone else’s,” she says.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

That time of year her crocodiles chow about 1 000 chicken carcasses a month. Two years ago this was one of Marelize’s biggest problems when their original supplier suddenly withdrew. After a lot of tears and much begging a disheartened Marelize finally found another free-range chicken farm which was willing to donate chickens that had died of natural causes.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

But it’s not just tough times. There’s also been laughter, she says and smiles. She was about 17 and they didn’t know much about the crocodiles’ habits yet. At that stage her dad would chop up the chicken for the little ones on a tree stump in the camp and then chuck the pieces in a bowl. One day he and Marelize’s eldest brother, JP, entered the camp not knowing that the baby crocs were particularly hungry that day. When her dad put the bowl down, the crocodiles attacked it. Father and son took one giant leap onto the tree stump where they were trapped, screaming for Marelize to help.

“They were literally clinging to each other!” she remembers. “I had to scatter the little guys with a stick so the two men could climb out.”

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

She would like tour groups travelling between Pretoria and Nelspruit to stop at the farm for guided tours. But she’s unsure of how to market something like that, and there’s also the time factor that needs to be considered…

The crocodiles don’t take up all of her time. After closing her law textbooks and packing up her bags two years ago in Potchefstroom, Marelize resumed her law degree through UNISA this year. She wants to be a state prosecutor, she says.

PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti PHOTO: Omkgopotse (OJ) Koloti

Marelize is also an animal rights activist and works half-days at the animal rescue organisation Pro Life Rescue, where she’s involved in everything from office admin to physically rescuing abused and neglected animals. She says she’s come across many instances of gross neglect in the field, before she states emphatically, “I’m f***ing nuts about animals!”

Even with so much on her plate, this young woman says she won’t give up easily. The crocodiles were her dad’s dream, and she’ll make sure it stays alive.

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