Solomon Islands was literally shot into the international arena in WWII, when soldiers like JFK crash landed amidst its thousand islands and the Battle for Guadalcanal. However, it was the civil war referred to as the “The Tensions” from 1998-2003, which have a greater bearing on the daily life of the average Solomon Islander today. During this period, GDP decreased by about 24%, and tens of thousands of people were displaced in a country that has just over half a million people. The unrest was brought to an end when the government asked for assistance from The Pacific Islands Forum which deployed The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a peacekeeping force led by Australia and New Zealand.
One of the projects RAMSI launched was the collection and confiscation of all arms from Solomon Islanders. Many of which were relics from WWII, or other ancient wars of the past. Violence was effectively curtailed, but people were also left scratching their heads, as guns were also used for tasks like hunting, requiring people to revert to traditional methods used before the infusion of modern arms.
I met a man on the Island of Isabel that reflected the deep cultural traditions, which have since mixed with modernity. He was a priest, businessman, and local crocodile caller. He ran a diocese that also doubled as a hostel for travellers, and was from a tribe that prided themselves in their ability to speak with crocodiles. They worshiped the reptiles, and claim that crocodiles never attack those from their tribe, even though maulings around the rural regions of the country are fairly commonplace. He told me he had seen a crocodile, the week before in front of the hostel, and sternly commanded it to never return. So I could swim if I wanted. My friend from Honiara, and I both politely declined.
Locals say the saltwater crocodiles of the Solomon Islands grow over 25 feet long and eat sharks. In In the northernmost province of Choiseul, the skill of crocodile calling has not been honed, and the locals say a few people, usually children, fall victim to the beasts every year. Traditionally, people in this area lived up in the dense jungle of the islands, to protect themselves from things like tsunamis, and head hunting parties from neighbouring islands. However, the missionaries helped bring peace to the area, and now almost everyone lives down on the shore. This means more interaction with the ocean, and the beasts that patrol it.
Many relics of tradition still exist in this remote region. There are about 30,000 people living on the island, yet not even one road. Transportation is done by dugout canoe, or one of the few boats with an outboard motor on the island. However, other cultural practices like hunting with spears, and weaving fishing nets from local plants have died out.
The locals explained that when they wanted to catch a crocodile, they would paddle out in a canoe at night and wait at the mouth of a river that was flowing into the ocean. They would bring the trunk of a banana tree with them and wrap it in entrails from animals, and then gently float it out in the water and wait. Suddenly, a crocodile would jet up from the depths, jaws gapping and snap them shut around the banana tree trunk, thinking it was a large wounded animal.
However crocodiles can only powerfully shut their jaws, and have almost no muscle to open them again. A person can hold a beast’s jaws shut with one hand. The banana trunk is just the right consistency so that the animal’s teeth sink in deep, but do not break it in half. The crocodile is then stuck on the surface of the water, unable to free its mouth from the trunk. It slowly drowns, while men would shower it with spears.
A few months before I arrived in the area, a child was taken from the village where one of our guides had family. In the recent past the men would set out with guns to go kill the marauding beast, but today that is not possible, since no one has guns anymore. He told a hilarious story about the men of the village dusting off rusty spears and sneaking up the river at night to an embankment where they saw a large crocodile. Judging this was the man-eater they slithered closer on their bellies and with a war cry leaped up and thrust their spears at the crocodile.
Every single one missed, while the men retreated in fear, and the crocodile slipped into the water. They were forced to acknowledge that the preceding generations with guns had robbed them of their ancient crocodile killing skills. They were forced to take a boat the major town in the region where they had cell phone coverage, and call in RAMSI to execute the crocodile. RAMSI sent in sharpshooters on a helicopter, and shot a couple crocodiles from the air without even landing, and left.
Many traditional practices are still recent enough in the memories of Solomon Islanders that they can relay them; however they are also distant enough in the past that they can only be described. The benefits of modern infrastructure and the ensuing comforts have been slow in arriving for many reasons, including a slew of unstable governments, and a very ethnically diverse population dispersed over a difficult geography. For now, the Solomon Islanders have an uneasy choice of relying on the Crocodile Callers of their past, or the sharpshooting snipers of neighboring developed nations with no real alternative between them.