The mystery began when a planter spotted a small crocodile near a canal in March 2011. Jenny Ketterlin Eckles, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Miami-Dade College ecology professor Chris Migliaccio spoke about a West Nile crocodile loose in South Florida.
Off the back roads of Miami-Dade, an unsolved mystery lingers amid quiet farmland.
It began when a planter spotted a small crocodile near a canal in March 2011.
But it wasn't just any croc. It was one that belonged on another continent.
"We really don't know what happened to it," said Jenny Ketterlin Eckles, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We might not ever know what happened to it."
Eckles and other wildlife experts made numerous efforts to capture it. Last year she spent 40 hours over two months searching for the missing croc, but no luck.
"We were not able to get close enough to it, it was very wary and it was just simply too scared of us for us to get too close," Eckles remembered.
How the croc got loose is anybody's guess.
"This likely came from somewhere in captivity in South Florida, but it's under investigation and we're still not positive yet on the source," said Eckles. "The average size can reach close to 20 feet ... they live in rivers mostly fresh water areas."
That mystery concerns Miami-Dade College ecology professor Chris Migliaccio.
"They are very aggressive and they are man-eating animals," he said.
As a species, Nile crocs are blamed for killing at least 300 people a year in Africa - dwarfing attacks by native American crocs and alligators.
"American crocodiles are really chill," Migliaccio added. "If this <Nile croc> isn't taken out of the environment, over time as it gets bigger it's gonna seek larger and larger prey," Migliaccio added.
But Eckles sees the lone fugitive as no cause for alarm.
"I wouldn't say that crocodile is going to grow up to be any more dangerous than any other alligator that is in that canal system," she said.
When it comes to hunting the foreign reptile, one South Florida man can claim singular success.
University of Florida wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski caught a Nile croc at the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead in 2011.
At nearly four feet, the Nile croc he caught and kept is about the same size as the one that's still missing. He figures the two might even be siblings.
"We really don't want any non-native species in the wild, but especially Nile crocodiles," explained Wasilewski. "This is a small one and we don't have to worry we have years before we worry, but it is a concern."
Nile crocs can legally be kept in Florida under certain enclosure guidelines. While state officials perform annual inspections, they don't tally the exact number of the species.
"We do know that there's not a large number that we would be concerned about escaping in South Florida," Eckles said.
She explained the current missing croc is one of three known Nile species spotted in South Florida, which the FWC is investigating. The other two Nile crocs were captured.
"I think that these animals should be microchipped," suggested Migliaccio. "So that you can maintain an inventory control, so that if the animals do get out in the wild, at least you can track down who's got them, then hold the owners responsible for this."
Eckles doubts a Nile croc could reproduce like pesky pythons, but no one wants to give the invader a chance to cause ecological damage.
By now, most wildlife experts acknowledge the young Nile croc could have met its demise in the form of a bigger, hungrier alligator.
But if it's still out there, everyone wants it caught.
"It's one more than we need," said Wasilewski.
It's a crime to release non-native wildlife in South Florida. State officials allow the surrender of an exotic animal with no questions asked, by calling 1-888-IVE-GOT1.
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