Guarding the Crocs
Romulus Whitaker looks musingly at the large crocodile that lies still on the ground. “These reptiles could be as docile as cats and dogs. But the person looking after it shouldn’t take his eyes off them as one never knows what they would do next, especially when they’re hungry,” he says, carefully running his hands over its rough skin.
Having studied the reptiles for nearly three decades, Whitaker knows their movements almost intuitively. He knows when they are hungry and when they could turn too dangerous to handle. In fact, all those working in the Madras Crocodile Bank along with him, have, over the years, learnt the different ways of handling crocodiles.
He believes crocs can be tamed like other animals, but it is just that a person needs to spend more time with them. The fact that these are the most feared and neglected animals, drew his attention towards them in the mid 70s, the time when he was setting up the snake park in Chennai.
“These aren’t the most attractive megafauna conservationists can use for their campaigns. During the 70s, their habitats were destroyed by human activities and they were facing the danger of extinction,” says Whitaker, citing reasons for him having got drawn towards crocodiles.
It was his concern for crocodiles and the need to conserve them that prompted him to start the crocodile bank in 1976. The efforts began with just a couple of muggers in a small pond, although the crocodile bank has now grown into a large reserve, a centre for research on all kinds of reptiles, and a gene bank for 14 of the 24 existing varieties of crocodiles around the world.
The campaign for the reserve gained momentum in the early 70s as the three varieties of Indian crocodiles, Gharials, salt water and Mars crocodiles, were on the verge of extinction. Whitaker says the Gharials, in particular, were almost wiped out from the northern riverside, which remained their habitat for several years.
“Through our surveys, we found there were just 150 of them left. As many of these crocodiles needed a proper environment to live and breed, we recovered the animals and maintained them in the bank,” explains Whitaker. The reserve has also been playing a vital role in educating children on wildlife and conservation-related issues, which also includes enhancing awareness about crocodiles. A few months ago, the bank conducted night time expeditions for children, along with a few Canadian wildlife experts.
Also threatened of extinction were the marsh crocodiles, whose habitat in the Sunderbunds, Mahanadhi delta, and in much of the west coast were completely destroyed.
Whitaker says encroachment of crocodile habitat by humans like the delta region, a place for intense agricultural activities, and deep riverbeds, where dams are constructed, resulted in the decline in their numbers. Aggravating the situation were the tribal people, who consider crocodile eggs as a delicacy.
Until 1984, The Crocodile Bank was involved in active re-population of some of the regions, bringing their numbers to healthy levels. In two decades, the population of the Gharials itself increased to 4000, making the Indian crocodile conservation project a model for reviving other endangered species.
“Currently, our focus is on sharing our expertise with our neighbouring countries, helping their crocodiles overcome difficulties in breeding. We also conduct educational programmes on conservation involving school children, and also help researchers on reptiles by offering our facilities,” says Harry Andrews, director of the Bank.
Apart from such programmes, children from schools in Chennai and elsewhere regularly visit the bank. The Bank authorities say they are allowed to see the crocodiles from a safe distance. They have built protective structures around the ponds, where the reptiles are kept. Children are allowed to touch the hatchlings and baby crocodiles that are less than a year old.
Taking children close to crocodiles even in the presence of an expert is a danger. Whitaker says experts like Steve Irwings wouldn’t have acted irresponsibly: “I’ve not seen the video footage and happened to see the still photograph of Steve, which isn’t adequate to comment on his actions. As a researcher, he must be aware of the distance upto which crocodiles can strike and so, wouldn’t have taken a baby too closely.”
In recent years though, the Crocodile Bank has to deal with a different problem. Their project in Kerala and Rajastan are one of the many, which trains locals to save themselves from attacks by crocodiles. The rapidly-increasing crocodile population has made the Bank and other organisations concerned about protecting the reptiles to change their approach towards the problem. Their message now is containing crocodiles for bio-diversity, rather than conserving them.
Capable of accommodating only 1000 reptiles, the Bank is overflowing with 2500 of them. The amusement parks that have mushroomed along the east coast road have also taken away a vital share of the tourist revenue, which, is presently, just about sufficient to maintain the reptiles.
Efforts to collect specimens from other countries are also running into difficulties, due to problems in domestic and international bureaucracy. Whitaker explains that obtaining permits and licenses from different regulatory bodies makes it hard to procure crocodile eggs.
“Firstly, we’ve to get a license from the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITE), followed by approval for foreign trade from the Indian government and clearance from the Central Zoo Authority. This not only makes the whole process slow, but also makes one wonder if this is the right way of carrying it out,” questions Whitaker.
He agrees that increase in the crocodile population has not brought safety to the animals as reserves around the country do not have sufficient money for their maintenance. As a result, crocodiles are released in areas with high human activities. The only way forward is to sell crocodile skins and use the money for conservation efforts. No one, not even Whitaker, knows when that could possibly happen.