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Crocodile wins hunter showdown

Lever during his hunt for the one that got away.
Lever during his hunt for the one that got away.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- There were crocodile tears as an Australian hunter admitted he had met his match in his much-hyped battle to catch an elusive reptile in Hong Kong.

After two weeks of riding boats, laying in wait, baiting traps and even launching harpoons, hunter John Lever on Thursday admitted defeat and bade farewell to the murky swampy waters of Hong Kong's Yuen Long district minus the beast and some of his pride.

Lever -- who has caught hundreds of crocs and runs a crocodile farm in Queensland -- was touted as a real life Crocodile Dundee and recruited after Hong Kong officials failed in their bid to catch the animal.

"I'm frustrated ... I think the croc has moved somewhere else and until it moves back into this area and is seen again there is not much I can do," a weary Lever said after the croc failed to show for the fourth night in a row.

The rugged white-haired 61-year-old found himself in a massive media spotlight with man and croc given celebrity status and their showdown dominating local news media.

The croc is believed to be an escaped pet or a reptile that made a break for freedom from a crocodile farm in mainland China.

Thousands gathered each night and day to line the slimy banks of the Yuen Long creek in the rural New Territories near the border with the mainland to watch the hunt.

It was the media glare, an excitable crowd that followed Lever's every move and the region's bright lights that forced the croc into hiding, the Australian said.

"My family have been teasing me saying my reputation is in tatters because I could not capture this little fella," Lever said.

But it is not all bad news for Lever and Hong Kong.

While Lever enjoyed all the creature comforts of a luxurious -- and expensive -- hotel, the croc caper has given Hong Kongers a much-needed respite from the economic misfortunes, SARS virus fallout and political frustrations that have afflicted the Chinese territory.

It has also unexpectedly put Hong Kong back on the international map, with some residents believing the weeks-long episode contributed more to the territory's attractiveness to visitors than the recent controversial Harbour Fest music festival.

"The global appeal of the croc and its story represents a true story and a wonderful opportunity. My advice is to urge the people of Hong Kong to seize a wonderful tourism opportunity that has a truly worldwide appeal," Lever told reporters.

"You should not let this one get away."

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