Wildlife & Biodiversity

World Crocodile Day: Experts call for patience regarding human-croc conflict

Down To Earth speaks to experts in four prominent human-croc conflict areas; none support culling

 
By Rajat Ghai
Last Updated: Wednesday 17 June 2020
June 17 is World Crocodile Day. Photo: https://www.pikrepo.com/
June 17 is World Crocodile Day. Photo: https://www.pikrepo.com/ June 17 is World Crocodile Day. Photo: https://www.pikrepo.com/

Culling cannot be an option to reduce human-crocodile conflict in India, experts said on June 17, 2020 — the World Crocodile Day.

India is home to three crocodilian species:

  • The mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris)
  • The estuarine or saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
  • The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus)

The mugger is the most widespread, found in other South Asian countries too. The gharial is found mostly in Himalayan rivers. The estuarine crocodile is found in Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park, the Sundarbans in West Bengal and the Andamans and Nicobar Islands. It is also found across Southeast Asia and northern Australia.

The estuarine crocodile is infamous globally as a known maneater. The mugger is also known to be dangerous. The gharial is known to be a relatively harmless, fish-eating species. 

The crocodiles, in general, keep hitting headlines due to conflicts with humans, often resulting in the loss of life or limb. But does the situation warrant the culling of the animals? 

Down To Earth (DTE) spoke to crocodilian experts in four human-crocodile conflict hotspots in India: Vadodara in Gujarat, Kota in Rajasthan, Bhitarkanika in Odisha and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Vadodara, the third-largest city in Gujarat, has been described as an island of crocodiles in a human-dominated landscape. The shallow, sluggish Vishwamitri river that flows through the heart of the city, is home to over 200 muggers. Every monsoon, the media is rife with reports of crocodiles entering city localities and being rescued. There have been attacks on humans, fatal as well as non-fatal, in the city and the surrounding district.

“Please don’t make the crocodile the villain here. Attacks usually increase when humans approach river banks,” herpetologist Raju Vyas, who has studied the crocodiles in the region for two decades, told DTE.

“In 2019, there eight attacks in the whole of Gujarat — three fatal and five not. In 2017, there were 12 attacks and in 2018, 10. This year, until June 15, there have been four attacks, two of them fatal,” he said.

The population of muggers in the Vishwamitri within the municipal limits of Vadodara has increased from 250 in 1950 to 289 in 2020, Vyas said.

Gujarat and Vadodara would surely not reach a situation where culling would be required. “People here are very tolerant of these animals and will not harm them at any cost,” Vyas said.

Culling is something that Tapeshwar Singh Bhati would also never recommend. The president of the Mukundra Wildlife and Environment Society has written about the human-mugger conflict in his city of Kota in Rajasthan. The city is located on the Chambal river that is home to a large population of both, muggers and gharials.

“Crocodiles enter the right canal of the Kota Barrage and from there, enter fields and other small water bodies,” he told DTE. “Earlier, these fields were not present where they are now. But today, due to urbanisation and encroachment, there are people there and near the smaller waterbodies. This leads to conflict,” he added.

According to a research carried out by Bhati, 30 muggers were rescued from these areas in 2016, 19 in 2017 and 21 in 2018. “However, in 2019, the forest department and others rescued 67 muggers from human areas and relocated them. This means the population has increased,” he said.

“But I would never advocate culling. Our natural ecosystems are already losing species. And wild crocodiles are the scavengers of our waterbodies. We need them,” he said.

Bhati mentioned that there were people in Kota who had been calling for croc culls. “Bhawani Singh Rajawat, an ex-MLA from Ladpura, Kota has said in the past that he wants muggers killed. He also supports shutting down aid to gharial breeding centres on the Chambal and advocates more support to the sand mining industry since he says that sand will give one food but not gharials,” he said.

Rajawat mirrors Bob Katter and Ian MacDonald, politicians from the state of Queensland in Australia, who have advocated saltwater crocodile culls in the far north of the state to protect people.

Northern Australia, particularly a stretch of coast extending from Broome (in Western Autralia) to Rockhampton (in Queensland) is prime estuarine crocodile habitat. Croc attacks from the region usually make it to the headlines every year. And croc-culling is a political hot potato in the region as demonstrated by the likes of Katter and MacDonald.

However, CrocBITE, the global database of crocodilian attacks that was started and is run by Australian crocodile researcher Adam Britton, says that most attacks are not predatory in nature.

“We consider that crocodilian attacks on humans are largely preventable; the main cause of attack is a lack of awareness by the victim of the danger they put themselves in. After all, it’s safe to assume that nobody ever intends to be attacked by a crocodilian. This is why education and awareness are critical,” the CrocBITE website says.

There were 3 fatal and 1 non-fatal mugger attacks in India in the first five months of this year, according to CrocBITE.

DTE contacted Britton about whether the situation in Australia and India could be compared regarding crocodile attacks and culling. His reply is awaited.

Bhitarkanika and the Andamans

In India too, there is conflict between humans and saltwater crocodiles where the species is found.

“Of course, there is conflict. It would be wrong to deny that,” Sudhakar Kar, former senior scientist from the Odisha forest department, said.

Kar should know. He has been at Bhitarkanika since 1975, when a breeding and rearing programme was launched. “There were 96 crocs then. In 2020, there are over 1,757 — 620 hatchlings and 330 adults, including at least 100 males,” he said.

The conflict in Bhitarkanika is entirely the fault of humans, Kar said.

“There are six panchayats in the peripheral area, outside the park. But despite our constant advice, people from these villages go into the forest,” he said.

Between the full moon and new moon, when the tide is high, fish travel upstream from the sea into rivers and creeks. On their heels, people illegally enter these waterbodies in the protected area to catch them, Kar said.

People also go into the forest for collection of firewood as well as ‘Nalia’, a grass for basket making, that grows on creek and river banks. “Its collection is illegal. But people still do it. In such situations, you cannot blame the crocodiles for the attacks,” Kar said.

He said data over a 45-year period showed that 1-2 people were killed annually in Bhitarkanika in croc attacks.

“And you cannot compare Bhitarkanika to northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. They are vast habitats. The problems are also bigger,” Kar said.

Kar expressed the hope that culling would never happen in Bhitarkanika. “The area is protected and people have become aware and concerned. We only need their support,” he said.

Culling had been recommended a few years back in the Andaman and Nicobar islands by the forest department to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Denis Giles, editor of Port Blair-based newspaper, The Andaman Chronicle said.

“But culling is never a permanent solution. We need manpower, modern technology and funds to conduct a proper survey from Diglipur to Campbell Bay and find the true status of the population. We also need to geo-tag the animals so that we can monitor their movements. That way, we will know when they enter human habitations,” Giles said.

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