I entered the bedroom as Rom was packing for his trip to Port Blair, Andaman Islands, for a consultative meeting on the knotty problem of saltwater crocodiles in the archipelago.
“What are you going to propose?” I asked.
“That some crocs will have to be removed and held in captivity,” he replied.
“Oh, c’mon. We’ve argued over this before. The facility will fill up within months, if not weeks, and then what?” I argued. “Remember captive leopards being quietly released into the wild? If they do something like that, those crocs may kill people, and even more crocs would have to be caught. It’s counterproductive and will snowball.”
We had heard many unverified instances of leopards being freed because captive centres had run out of space or funds. Australia has a removal policy for some areas such as Darwin Harbour from where up to 250 crocodiles have been removed annually for the past several years. It’s an unending job. And still, the waters are considered unsafe.
Rom continued packing. We had dug our heels into our respective viewpoints since a visit to the islands in February. It’s indisputable that salties bit more residents and tourists, killing several, in recent years than preceding decades. Accurate, verified figures are hard to come by.
“Tensions are high,” he replied. “Something has to be done now to give people confidence.”
“Yes, make secure enclosures where people can wash and bathe, so they are out of reach of crocs. Teach them not to chuck fish waste into the river. Why catch salties?”
The rank odour of blood, scales and discarded tails carried by water currents beckons saltwater crocodiles, nicknamed ‘salties’, from afar. They learn to hang out at such spots like scaly stray dogs for any tasty scrap to fall in the water. Primed to react to the slightest movement, they can be dangerous near humans. Enclosures made of poles, nets or metal mesh create a secure area at the water’s edge. Villagers step inside them to collect water, bathe and wash clothes or utensils without fear of crocodiles.
“It’s not just washing and bathing,” Rom said. “Fishermen have to wade through knee-deep water to get on their boats. Crocs can easily get them then.”
“Build jetties for them?”
“Be practical for a second. A jetty in every basti? Crocs are showing up in places that are not great habitats, in some places way inland. They have obviously been kicked out of their territories and have no other place to go. They’ll catch whatever they can get, even humans. Those crocs have to be caught.”
A case in point – the crocodile that killed an American tourist at Havelock in 2010. He had possibly been chased away from his original habitat by a rival or been disturbed by humans. And the beach where he showed up was not appropriate habitat for a saltie.
“If salties can’t be in the Andamans, where else can they be?” I asked. “There’s no secure saltie habitat along the Bay of Bengal. Not on mainland India, not Myanmar, Thailand or Malaysia. Maybe a little bit better in Sri Lanka. But that’s about it.”
“Bhitarkanika and Sunderbans,” Rom reminded me of the two protected mangrove areas in Orissa and West Bengal/Bangladesh.
“Bhitarkanika is teeny weeny, some 65 by 10 kilometres. That’s it. You were the one to say Sunderbans might be vast, but there aren’t many salties left there.”
We batted it back and forth, neither of us willing to give up. Until finally, an exasperated Rom turned around to face me and said with finality: “Some crocs will have to be caught. There is no escaping it. We could create a really snazzy croc zoo in the islands like the Madras Crocodile Bank. That could solve the problem.”
Even though I didn’t have an answer, correct or incorrect, he was being as adamant as the vethalam scooting up the moringa tree in the Vikramaditya story.
“Is this why you worked so hard for croc conservation all these years?” I asked. “Just so everything can go back to square one? Why would anyone support croc conservation now?”
“What do you suggest we do?”
“Fine. If you want to remove crocs, show me the places where you will let them be.”
“First things first. Problem crocs have to be removed right now, without delay. Then we have to do surveys. They haven’t done any serious surveys since the early 1990s. We don’t know how many there are, where the main breeding sites are. In 1976, we estimated a couple of hundred crocs in all of the Andamans. In 2016, they [the Forest Department and the NGO, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environment Team] counted 139 in one creek in Rutland Island. That’s an impressive recovery, no?”
“If there are so many there, how do local people manage?” I countered. “They aren’t complaining. It’s all the businessmen in South Andamans making all the noise. This is just like the elephant conflict scene here – farmers with small holdings adjust and the rich honchos with sugarcane fields make all the racket.”
“There aren’t any settlements near that croc nullah on Rutland, but crocs are great swimmers and will leave these secluded spots to find new territories. That’s the problem. The administration is worried about tourism. A tourist was killed inside the ‘croc-safe’ protection net at Wandoor beach last year. They’re already preventing tourists from swimming and snorkelling at many beaches.”
“Oh, *bleep* the tourists. They can come and look at crocodiles like they do in Australia. What kind of tourism is it that makes a wild species pay the price?”
“Andamans is not Australia. You can’t see crocs easily in dense mangroves.”
“Why don’t they try?”
“You don’t understand,” said Rom with exasperation. “This is serious. M. told me they were in a boat at a dive site and a croc showed up. They got spooked and returned. If the crocs were so bold, then people will take matters into their own hands. And it won’t be pretty or humane. We have to do something immediately.”
I didn’t have a retort because M. and the team were not tourists but marine biologists. And even they had become jittery of crocodiles. I sat on the bed watching as Rom continued packing his case.
“There will be others at the meeting who’ll have their own ideas and experiences of conflict,” Rom said. “Let’s see what they say.”
Experts not only from India but also Australia, with extensive experience in crocodile management, would be in attendance.
“You know what the Karnataka Elephant Task Force report did?” I asked after a long pause. “Create zones – areas where elephants have priority, areas where humans take precedence, and areas where they can cohabit with a little help. Shouldn’t that be the way to do it? If you decide where to remove crocs from, also mark off croc conservation areas. And then areas where people can live with crocs with enclosures and proper disposal systems for fish markets, etc.”
What should be done with the removed crocs? I didn’t have a preference, whether they were held captive or culled. Once they are taken out of the wild, they stop being part of the ecosystem. As we know from leopards, relocation is out of the question. Crocs return – one Australian saltie swam about 400 km home – and could be even more dangerous.
“Hmmm… I told you they swim,” he said.
The vethalam! I let the subject drop. He was to leave in an hour and I didn’t want tension in the air.
A day later, Rom called from Port Blair after the first round of meetings.
“What happened today?” I asked after the preamble.
“The Forest Department guys said they tried relocating crocs to uninhabited islands. Only a few of some 20 or 22 of them returned to the spots where they were first caught.”
“How do they know the others didn’t return? Did they mark the crocs in any way?”
“Yup. They clipped scutes.”
Crocodiles have two serrated rows of scutes at the base of their tails and a single row towards the end. Clipping the hard tissue doesn’t hurt much and, if done right and the scales don’t regrow, they become a permanent marker, giving each crocodile a recognisable identity.
“Isn’t it possible all the crocs returned but are now wary and keep a low profile?” I asked.
“Possible. And now they are probably trap-shy to boot. They’d be difficult to catch again.”
When a predator is visible, people are careful and take precautions. An invisible one is dangerous because residents don’t know of its presence and attend to their business as if it didn’t exist.
“What else?” I prompted.
“We discussed crocodile farming as a future option.”
In other parts of the world, crocodile populations are managed with a combination of protection and sustainable use – rearing them for their skins. The projects range from small village-level cottage industries, medium-sized farms to large operations, monitored by experts within the country and international wildlife trade, animal welfare and conservation organisations. Although this was on the agenda of the now-defunct Project Crocodile, a Project Tiger-like initiative of the UNDP-FAO-Government of India, since the 1970s, it was never operationalised because of vehement opposition not just from animal welfare activists but also conservationists.
Rom has set up croc farms and ranching operations in other developing countries, but in India, he has been vilified, abused and invited to give talks on the subject and then browbeaten. He still insists we have to take this seemingly unseemly route to conserve crocs because they are toothy and dangerous and incapable of winning any popularity contest. Why would a villager who stands to lose livestock, life and limb put up with an ugly predator?
I understood his unsentimental thought process – but to privileged urban Indians far removed from living with wildlife of any sort, the very concept of killing crocs for skins to support conservation is abhorrent. They’d prefer crocodiles face an uncertain future as they do now across mainland India than let capitalism get its dirty hands on their scaly hides.
So when Rom mentioned farming, I expected the worst.
“And?” I prodded apprehensively.
“Apparently the price of skins isn’t as good as it used to be.”
“But I thought the market didn’t want wild crocs.”
Crocodiles caught from the wild have too many scars from fights. Fashion houses prefer perfect skins from farm-raised animals.
“Yeah, the captured problem crocs could be the parent stock,” Rom replied.
“So what happens now?”
“Nothing Earth-shattering. They were reluctant to consider farming at least for now. We have another day of meetings tomorrow, and I’ll call you tomorrow evening.”
The next evening, Rom said that day’s meeting had included other wings of the island administration such as tourism and fisheries, as well as representatives from local communities.
“They want to take salties off Schedule I,” he said.
India’s Wildlife Protection Act lists species that need the most protection on Schedule I. These could be species that are having a hard time, like tigers, as well as ones that are very common but have a high market value, like some turtles. Salties are on it too because, in India, they were hammered to within an inch of extinction.
“They are talking of culling them,” he continued after a pause.
“*Bleep*! If they think a one-time cull is going to solve the problem, they are naïve. Just look at Australia.”
“Well…,” Rom drawled. “We didn’t reach any conclusions, and they said we’ll continue to work on it by email.”
A week after Rom’s return, before the experts could reach an agreement, news leaked that the administration was lobbying the Centre to reduce the legal protection salties enjoyed under the Wildlife Act. Journalists called Rom to ask for his views and news reports publicised the island administration’s proposal to cull crocs. People tagged me on posts in Facebook and Twitter and sent outraged emails calling for protests, petitions and campaigns. I wrote a Facebook post explaining what I thought needed to be done – zonation of islands into croc areas, croc no-go areas and people areas.
I showed it to Rom. “Give me the link,” he said.
“To what? The news report or my post?”
“Your post. I’m going to copy your words.”
Did I win the argument at least at home? Or was Rom still being a vethalam? I don’t know yet.
See Queensland’s (Australia) crocodile management program, called ‘Be Crocwise’.