Crocodiles are Our Twins: Recognizing Animals as Persons

By Andi Alfian

Picture 1. A crocodile believed by the Bugis to be one of the human twins.

In 2020, a group of Bugis people in Makassar City, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, discovered a crocodile emerging from the Tallo River, which they believed was their collective relative, and the incarnation of their ancestors. In the Bugis community we use the word kembar (Bahasa) or twin (English) to express the belief that every Bugis person born into the world has a twin animal, usually a crocodile. That is why they typically go to rivers to throw away eggs to greet their animal twins. In this instance, the Bugis took the crocodile, cleaned it, gave it a shroud, and performed traditional ceremonies to welcome it. This event generated various responses from different people. Some in the Muslim community criticized the Bugis people’s beliefs as heretical, while others argued that their practices were outdated and no longer valid. Some even went so far as to label it an unreasonable or irrational religious practice. Overall, this event sparked debate and discussion about the intersection of ancient beliefs, cultural traditions, and contemporary perspectives.

The belief of the Bugis people in Sulawesi about crocodiles as their twins, as the incarnations of their ancestors, is contained in I La Galigo, the sacred book of the Bugis people, which UNESCO proclaimed the longest book of literature in the world in 2011. In I La Galigo, the universe consists of three layers: Botting Langi, which is the upper world or the sky; Buri Liung, or the underworld, which includes rivers and oceans; and Ale Lino, or the middle world, which is the earth. According to I La Galigo, when Batara Guru or Tomanurung, the first human being and the son of Patotoe, the god of heaven, descended to Ale Lino or the middle world, Patotoe also sent the ruler of Buri Liung or the underworld, named We Nyili Timong, to meet him. The two world rulers eventually married and gave birth to humans inhabiting Ale Lino, the middle world, or the earth.

Through this cosmogony, the Bugis believe that humans are tasked with maintaining the balance of nature or the balance of the three worlds, Botting Langi or the sky, Buri Liung or the ocean and the river, and Ale Lino or the earth. Crocodiles are representations of the inhabitants of the underworld or Buri Liung. Because the forerunner of humans is a combination of the upper world or Botting Langi and the underworld or Buri Liung, the Bugis believe that what inhabits Botting Langi or the upper world or the sky and what inhabits Buri Liung or the underworld or the ocean, are their twins. These inhabitants, including crocodiles, are part of their humanity.

The Bugis’ unique relationship with crocodiles is reflected in their language. Different Bugis communities use different words to refer to crocodiles in their mother tongue, which reflects their beliefs and values about the natural world. For example, in the Bone regency, the Bugis call crocodiles To ri Salo and Punna Wae, meaning one who inhabits the river and owner of the water. In the Luwu regency, they refer to crocodiles as Ampu Salu, which means one who controls the river. In the Maros regency and other districts, crocodiles are called Patanna Je’ne or the owner of the water. In some other Bugis communities, crocodiles are associated with the word Nenekta’, which means our grandmother. These various ways of referring to crocodiles demonstrate that the Bugis view animals, including crocodiles, as persons and as an essential part of the natural ecosystem. The Bugis also see themselves as guardians of Buri Liung, the underworld, including rivers and oceans, and their relationship with crocodiles reflects this belief.

Sadly, the beliefs and perspectives of the Bugis people towards crocodiles began to diminish during the colonial era, especially starting in 1907, when the Dutch colonial government conducted crocodile hunting activities in Sulawesi. As explained by Eko Rusdianto, crocodile hunting was widespread, with the Dutch colonizers even recruiting and paying native people to catch crocodiles. As a result of these activities, the number of crocodiles in Sulawesi decreased significantly, causing a decline in the Bugis people’s respect and beliefs toward the animals.

Picture 2. Tossi Fischer, a German national crocodile hunter, sitting on the crocodile he caught.

Something similar happened in Palu, Central Sulawesi, around 1957, when a German crocodile hunter and shooter, Tossi Fischer, killed many crocodiles with golden bullets. As a result, the crocodile population in the Palu River slowly decreased and even became extinct due to being hunted and consumed by many colonizers. These incidents demonstrate how colonialism has had a detrimental effect on the relationship between indigenous people and their environment, as well as their traditional beliefs and practices.

These problems were exacerbated by the influx of religions the colonialists brought to Sulawesi, such as Islam and Christianity, which uprooted the local practices and beliefs of the Bugis by labeling them deviant, misguided, and in need to be saved. Gradually, the relationship between the Bugis people and crocodiles (and nature in general) began to fade, and the Bugis, over time, partook themselves in further polluting the rivers. Before colonization and the spread of the doctrines of new religions in Sulawesi, the Bugis people maintained their relationship with the crocodile, the ruler of the rivers, so that the rivers should not be polluted.

Picture 3. This installation artwork is titled “Memori Sungai sebagai Halaman Depan” or “A Memory of the River as a Front Yard,” exhibited at the Makassar Biennale 2019. Read more about the 2019 Makassar Biennale in an e-booklet here.

As stated by several artists and historians, the Bugis people, in the past, built houses around the river in ways that made the river their front yard as a tribute to the river and the crocodiles that inhabit it. However, since colonialism and monotheistic religions came, some Bugis people slowly abandoned their beliefs, building houses with their backs to the river. The river that used to be the front yard has now turned into a river as the backyard.

The dominant way of thinking inherited from colonialism has significantly impacted how the Bugis treat animals today. Exploiting crocodiles and other animals for commercial gains, such as skins, meat, and other parts, has become a common practice, with little regard for their importance to indigenous communities. It is essential that humans move towards a more sustainable and ethical relationship with the natural world. By questioning colonial paradigms and exploring alternative ways of thinking and living, such as the traditional Bugis ways, we might address the roots of the environmental crisis and work towards a more just and equitable future for all beings.


Andi Alfian is an M.A. candidate in Religious Studies at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. He is also the founder and director of Sekolah Anak Muda (@sekolahanakmuda), a non-profit movement based in Makassar, Indonesia, that holds public discussions over social and ecological issues related to youth and indigenous peoples. He is researching indigenous philosophies relating to ecological solidarity in some indigenous communities in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. His main research interests are indigenous philosophies, environmental ethics, religion and gender, and indigenous development.

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Photo  credit: Picture 1: © Mappiwali. Picture 2: © Komunitas Historia. Picture 3: Free download from online publication.

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