The Gujarat government is concerned about the fate of tourists at its newest tourist attraction, the Statue of Unity. So it is doing something unprecedented: it is relocating almost 500 mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) away from two ponds near an airplane-landing site near the statue.
At one level, this seems like a preemptive managerial move, the sort hardly ever seen in terms of encounters with potentially dangerous animals. Governments have been known to turn a blind eye to the presence of wildlife, as the Centre did when it planned to construct railway lines through the Melghat tiger reserve, fully aware that trains have been known to kill tigers.
In a similar instance, it has planned to land aircraft in the Chilika wetlands. The million+ migratory birds that visit the site could easily jeopardise the vehicles, and the vehicles in turn could disturb the birds as well. And as has often been the case, infrastructure plans made in haste will also adversely impact people around the area.
Yet the muggers’ removal, while couched in concern for tourists, is a problem in many ways. First, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, says only those animals that present a proven danger to humans can be moved. Crocodiles are protected under Schedule I of the Act, its highest provision. However, the hundreds of crocodiles in question have not proved to be a danger to human life yet. They only present a potential danger but the Act does not cognise that. This is like locking up all king cobras in a state because they can bite and kill people but haven’t yet. The translocation is straight-up illegal.
Blatant illegality: The Wildlife (protection) Act, 1972 allows an animal to be captured if it has become a danger to human life. The word 'has' is important. Capturing an animal because it's 'likely' to become a danger is patently illegal. https://t.co/VtuP2VQH5o
— LIFE (@lifeindia2016) January 28, 2019
Second: this is not good wildlife science. Gujarat has grappled with crocodilian issues of crocodiles for a while now. But moving hundreds of animals to a new site – identified in this case as the Sardar Sarovar dam reservoir – first requires that a carrying-capacity study be undertaken to determine how many crocodiles it can hold.
There is also the attendant issue of crocodile homing behaviour, not much of which is known about in India. In Australia, a saltwater crocodile had been moved 400 km away from its original habitat, and it made its way back in 20 days. Further, we do know that the Indian muggers are territorial animals. They will fight with other crocodiles, including any residents, especially when put in one place. So can a reservoir sustain so many crocodiles? Will it have the adequate prey base? Or is this going to end up in mass mortality? Gujarat doesn’t seem interested in answering these questions, and perhaps that is even more galling.
Third: the authorities value the lives of tourists more than any other people who may be using, or will use, the Sardar Sarovar dam reservoir in the future, which will be full of potentially disoriented crocodiles. In the 1980s, muggers that had been moved to the Neyyar reservoir in Kerala ended up attacking many people who used the water source for drinking, washing and irrigation. One study also found that larger crocodiles attacked people more often.
Fourth: wild animals can’t be managed without understanding the animals’ behaviour. And Gujarat’s move is not supported by the science, and is dangerous and unethical. On this count alone, it should be blocked.
But we are far more stopping. A rash of administrative decisions across the country have focused on forcibly capturing animals with no proven history of violence. Traps have been set up in four villages of Farrukhnagar, Haryana, because a leopard was spotted there. In January, a leopard was baited and caught in Sumerpur, Rajasthan. Studies have also noted how leopards relocated within India have returned to their original territories and attacked people more often.
As far as the muggers go, Gujarat should try problem management in situ, instead of simply moving the issue to another site or using an administrative solution for a problem its administration was not designed to solve. A site at the feet of a statue for the Iron Man of India should at the very least demand a more scientific and moral approach.
Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist and tweets at @nehaa_sinha. The views expressed here are personal.