Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015


in the 1970s, crocodiles in India were on the verge of extinction. Surveys conducted with the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature ( wwf) , Bombay Natural History Society and the New York Zoological Society indicated that almost 90 per cent of these reptiles had been wiped out. Crocodile hunting, construction of dams and pollution of water bodies were cited as the main reasons for their dwindling population. It was estimated that there were not more than a few thousand crocodiles in the 1970s. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers have risen to between 10,000 and 15,000.

India is home to three crocodile species -- mugger ( Crocodylus palustris), saltwater crocodile ( Crocodylus porosus) and gharial ( Gavialis gangeticus). Mugger are freshwater crocodiles and are rarely known to attack humans. They have a unique survival ability and can live in streams, lakes, reservoirs, rivers and even sewage-treatment ponds. They grow to about three-and-half-metres and can be identified by their wide snout and irregular back scales.

Saltwater crocodiles, also called 'salties', are found in the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary in Orissa and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Unlike the mugger , salties have sleek and even rows of scales. They grow up to seven metres. They occasionally attack humans or livestock. This makes salties an unpopular reptile.

Aptly-named because they have the longest of all crocodilian jaws ( ghara means pot in Hindi), gharials are fish-eating crocodiles and were once commonly-found in the Ganga, Yamuna and other large rivers of northern India. Growing to over five metres, gharials are not known to attack humans. Today, they are found only in the Chambal river, where close to 2,000 survive, though some of them can be found in parts of Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
The importance of crocodiles Crocodiles are important because they control predators of commercially-valuable fish and their presence actually enhance the productivity of rivers and lakes. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the largest population of wild crocodiles in south India is found in the lake with the highest fish yield: Amaravati reservoir in Tamil Nadu. Crocodiles also improve the genetic quality of fish by selectively feeding on sick and injured fish.

Before 1972, crocodiles could be hunted and there was little or no control on the killing and export of skin except in some well-managed sanctuaries. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, listed the three crocodiles on Schedule II, the highest order of protection. Over the years, some conservation programmes have yielded positive results.

One of them is the Crocodile Research Centre at Dangamal, within the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, in Orissa, which has given saltwater crocodiles a new lease of life. In 1974, a report prepared by H R Bustard, a wildlife management expert who was involved in wildlife management in Australia, said that their population was only 25. The crocodile conservation programme uses the 'rear and release' technique to increase their population. During the monsoon, the mother crocodile guards her eggs for a period of 80 to 90 days to ward off predators like the water-monitor, fish cats and cats. But, while the female is away in search of food, the researchers collect the eggs. A clutch comprises 20 to 80 eggs. They are then reared in captivity and released into the wild after they attain more than one-metre size. So far, 1,150 young saltwater crocodiles have been released in the creeks. In addition, 75 juvenile saltwater crocodiles have been given to projects in other parts of the state, says Sudhakar Kar, a crocodile researcher from the Orissa forest department.
The road ahead While the estimated total population of crocodiles in India is about 10,000 to 15,000, in the state of Florida in usa -- which is about the same size as the state of Tamil Nadu -- there are an astounding three to four million alligators. In Zimbabwe, the Nile crocodile population is in hundreds of thousands. The same is the case in Botswana, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. All these countries have something in common: they did not stop conserving their crocodile resource as India did. Instead, they initiated a carefully-structured sustainable use programme.

The process of ranching (collecting eggs from the wild and returning a percentage and culling the rest) and farming (actually captive breeding) crocodiles is worth millions of dollars and in some countries, like Papua New Guinea, much of the profit goes directly to indigenous communities. In India, there is no interest in the crocodile resource and field personnel in wildlife departments know very little about habits, ecological value or conservation/management techniques.

The way things stand in India today, the only crocodiles that have a chance to survive are the ones in captivity or those which reside in well-managed national parks or sanctuaries. But even these are vulnerable. Outside protected areas, indigenous people, who have no incentive, will not tolerate crocodiles. But if India learns from Zimbabwe or Papua New Guinea, this is how it could be: as an acknowledged resource, a crocodile egg collection programme could be restarted and this time a percentage of the offspring should be distributed to qualifying applicants to start small, medium or large crocodile rearing centres.

One way to increase their population would be crocodile farming by tribal people like the Irulas of Tamil Nadu. The Irula Snake Catchers' Cooperative is now notable for producing life-saving antivenom serum for India -- the only sustainable use of wild animals we know of in the country. The Irulas are also expert rat catchers and could feed their crocodile on rats thus saving farmers' crops, producing meat for their own consumption and harvesting their valuable skin for export. The incentive to protect crocodiles and their habitats can only be kindled if both the authorities and the people living nearby are convinced of the value of these big unpopular reptiles. Or else, we would not have any option but to sit back and watch while sedentary bureaucrats, guided and pressured by tunnel-visioned experts, drag our remaining wildlife over the point of no return.

With inputs from Ashis Senapati in Kendrapara, Orissa

Rom Whitaker is a herpetologist and lives in rural Tamil Nadu

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