As far back as 1978, India's so-called "snake-man", ROMULUS WHITAKER, the man who played with reptiles as if they were spaghetti, demonstrated that conserving wildlife did not necessarily mean robbing local people of a livelihood When the government banned the export of snake skins in 1976, the Irula tribals of the Nilgiris were deprived of their traditional means of livelihood. By forming the lrula Snake Catcher's Cooperative, which milked snakes for their venom and released them back into the wild, Whitaker proved his point. At 51, his enthusiasm undamped after 27 years of dealing with the indolent Indian bureaucracy, Whitaker is now out to convince policymakers that we need a fundamental shift in our planning to save our wildlife. People have to have a reason to conserve wildlife - and what better reason than the prospect of financial gain? Energetic, practical and not without a sense of humour, Whitaker talks to ANJU SharMA about the benefits of farming crocodiles in India.
When and why did you begin breeding crocodiles?
Serious efforts at breeding crocodiles started at the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975-76. Being a herpetologist (a person who studies reptiles) in those days meant that you stopped thinking about esoteric studies and started thinking about what you can do for an endangered species.
Crocodiles lend themselves very naturally to captive breeding. We started out with 80 crocodiles and now we have about 10,000. At about the same time, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stepped in to help India start a crocodile breeding programme in several states. The state forest departments started breeding programmes along the same lines. It has been a successful programme and all the restockable rivers in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have been stocked.
How did the local people react to the restocking?
There was a lot of resistance everywhere because people were afraid that the crocodiles would carry away their cattle. One person gets taken by a crocodile and it's curtains for the project. It doesn't matter if 50,000 people get quashed under lorries - they're not going to ban lorries. Peoples' lobbies in the Andamans and elsewhere actually stopped restocking programmes - no matter how valuable they are for the aquatic ecosystem.
In most cases, 90 per cent of the time the people had no historical knowledge of a person or a cow being attacked. It's like the snake thing. Crocodiles are not cuddly and furry and the general impression is that if its toothy and reptilian, its bad.
Have any crocodiles been reintroduced in the recent past?
None. The last reintroduction exercise was some years ago. The efforts launched by the government to save the crocodiles are dissipating due to popular opposition. The crocodile projects going strong in the mid '70s to the mid '80s are just gone. What do you do? You're not allowed to kill them, you're not allowed to export them and you're not allowed to release them. The crocodiles in the government rearing centres have either been given away, released or allowed to eat each other.
The forest departments don't have money to feed them properly, so the soft option is to let them die of starvation. The eggs have to be squashed because you don't want more baby crocodiles to feed. And I think that's the approach that some of the departments are being forced to take.
How do you suppose local people can be made to accept crocodiles?
Make the crocodiles valuable. The dynamics of money runs the world. We no longer have the time to fight this fact or say revolutionary things about how nasty it is.
I attended a meeting in Buenos Aires in January on the sustainable use of wildlife. The CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) people from Zimbabwe were an eye-opener - it gave me such confidence that we could also get something done over here.
In Zimbabwe, commercial ranching and farming of crocodiles has created a situation where the utilisation of wildlife as a natural resource benefits both conservation and rural development. The Zimbabwean crocodile industry earned $2.6 million in 1989! Rural communities are paid by crocodile ranchers for en collection rights in their area. The farms also provide local employment.
There have been good reports from other countries as well: from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, South Africa, the US and Australia. All these countries are making tremendous profits while conserving the crocodile and its habitat. In the '60s, the Florida alligators were protected as a species.
Today, there are more than a million alligators in the wild in Florida and a million-dollar industry based on them. The same people who used to drain swamps to rear cows for MacDonalds now prefer to conserve the swamps for the alligators.
In India, crocodiles have not made a positive impact on people so far. There's so much against the animals because there has not been my consideration for the local people at all. We bave achieved very little through our preservationist stance.
What do Indian policy makers have against crocodile farming?
The basic argument is that the so-called "wildlife farming" of one species means that my number of people are going to come and say - "How about farming this pheasant and how about that deer?" But if anybody else wants to farm wildlife, they've got to have good data to convince legislators and scientists that they can do it.
Advances in crocodile husbandry in the last years have been phenomenal. At the Crocodile Bank, we have data on 10,000 animals. If anyone were to question us on the technology of rearing crocodiles, we could give them all the answers, as good as the best chicken farmer could provide about his trade.
Another argument I've heard is a standard one: if you allow crocodile farming, who's to say which is a farm skin and which is a wild skin? I've been a UNDP and FAO consultant for about 15 years for 7 projects in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Bangladesh. We did work out procedures to circumvent the possibility of poaching in these countries.
Would you say that crocodile farming should be reserved only for tribals?
Well, crocodile farming is ideal for the Irulas. They have an incredible skill in catching rats. They could rear crocodiles for their own protein needs and export the skins. If the Irulas are given cows or pigs or chickens to rear, it might fail as there is no tradition to back it up. But there is a tradition in crocodiles. These people have caught, killed and eaten crocodiles for a long time. Here they have the chance to go back to wing a natural resource.
You don't even have to feed the crocodiles every day. You want to go visit relatives in Thanjavur for 2 weeks, your crocodiles will be just fine. Imagine the same for your cows given to you under the government dairy scheme.
Do you think that crocodile skin prices will crash if crocodile farming becomes common?
No. We've had a look into this. As vice-president of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, I have a feel of the things that are going on. There have been some market fluctuations which have been influenced by lobbies opposed to wing wildlife products. But I think that even these lobbies are coming around to the fact that local tribals are really dependent on natural resources and unless the international market supports them, we could lose the animals.
Would you say that the government's hesitation to allow wildlife farming is also partly due to a fear of their own incompetence to handle the situation?
Well, I didn't say that (laughs). But it's true. I guess we're a conservative country and our politicians are worried about their own necks. They don't want to get into something that is unpopular.
But again, in the case of crocodiles, when we're talking about the 3rd and 4th generations in captivity, we're no longer talking about wildlife. It's tame life - we're talking about domestic animals now. What's the big deal? We've had domestic birds and smelly mammals for so long. Now we have these nice clean reptiles as domestic animals. What's wrong with that? Crocodile meat is low cholesterol, high protein and it tastes great!
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