By mid-morning, it seems, every creature in this sleepy seaside town is stirring. Women gut fish in the market, dogs and goats forage through piles of garbage — and crocodiles float casually in the Black River, warming their blood in the soothing sun.

It’s showtime for Michael Griffiths.

With his boatload of tourists watching agape, he stands on the bow and splashes a chicken breast in the murky waters. An eight-foot crocodile cautiously inches forward, lured from a mangrove shelter by the promise of the tasty morsel. Cameras start clicking. But in a flash the beast is gone, spooked by the engine of another boat.

Griffiths, who leads such tours five days a week, had a close call a few years ago when a crocodile sank its teeth into his wrist, causing a bloody scare and leaving serious scars. But now, he says, “We have an understanding. I give them a little bit of food and they don’t eat me. Sometimes I pet them on the head, you know, to let them know I care.”

Not always were Jamaica’s saltwater crocodiles so coddled.

They were once so plentiful along the island’s south coast that their image crowns the country’s coat of arms and is stenciled onto bumpers of Jamaica Defense Force vehicles.

But they were hunted regularly by visitors and locals alike until 1971, when the government declared them a protected species. Still, even today many younger crocs are killed — most chopped and clubbed to death — and some fear they may disappear altogether as a result of developers encroaching on their habitat. There are still smaller communities of crocodiles elsewhere in Jamaica, although exact numbers are unavailable.

Pushed Out of Nesting Areas

Decades-old efforts have stalled to make a national park of the 125-square-mile wetland, 40 miles southeast of the resort of Negril. Government officials say the plan is still alive, but with the economy stagnant and the population growing, all options must be considered.

Plans include draining part of the area — which once provided logwood used to make a blue dye for the robes of English lords — for rice farming and peat mining.

Experts estimate that at least half the original wetland has already been destroyed — pushing the crocodiles out of their prime nesting areas close to the coast.

Meanwhile, the 20-odd tour boats that traverse the river regularly appear to have complicated relations between the reptiles and humans.

“You’ve got humans building in what was once crocodile habitat and the boat tours that are feeding them,” says Ann Haynes-Sutton, an environmental consultant who studied the region. “Once you start feeding them, crocodiles learn not to fear people.”

Not Kinder Nor Gentler

The lack of fear can breed recklessness, even on the part of a crocodile type generally gentler than the more-feared Nile crocodile, she said.

Last year a 14-foot crocodile named “Lester” grabbed an elderly woman off the river bank as she was fishing with her two young grandsons. She drowned. More recently, a crocodile began eating a terrified family’s goats and dogs — until they erected a fence.

“One cause of the ‘problem crocodiles’ is that people are in the crocodile’s backyard, not that crocodiles are in people’s backyards,” says a report by the British-based Crocodile Specialist Group. In addition, it says, baby crocs born into a restricted habitat “disperse into settled areas in search of living space.”

Still, the report says, “the interaction between crocodiles and people in Jamaica is often quite remarkably benign in both directions. We spoke with several rural people who were quite unconcerned about large resident crocodiles near their homes.”

“I say if a crocodile can live with man, then let it live,” says Desmond Ebanks, a 39-year old fisherman. “But if it quarrel and fuss with man, it should be killed.”

The tourists, at any rate, like to keep their distance.

“The crocodiles are neat to look at,” says Greg Preston, a 63-year-old retiree from Longview, Texas. “But I’m not putting so much as a little toe in that water.”

IF YOU GO: Tourists pay $15 for a boat tour. To charter a local fishing boat for a lengthier expedition costs $37.50–$50.