Saltwater Crocodiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Have a PR Problem

The proposal to delist saltwater crocodiles, seemingly to facilitate a cull, is a response unbecoming of civil servants and civil society.

Following reports of an increase in the incidence of human-crocodile conflicts, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration has sought to reduce the legal protection of saltwater crocodiles, apparently at the behest of the tourism lobby. The proposed delisting, seemingly to facilitate the culling of crocodiles, is a response unbecoming of civil servants and civil society.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 already has provisions to deal with Schedule I animals (including saltwater crocodiles) that are considered to have become dangerous to human life. In fact, these provisions are often used to deal with large predators like tigers and leopards, thought to pose an imminent threat to people, in other parts of the country. The National Tiger Conservation Authority even has a Standard Operating Procedure to deal with emergency situations like the presence of tigers around human settlements or attacks on people. Since a process and precedent to address specific cases of human-wildlife conflict already exists – admittedly easier said than done – the real motive to delist saltwater crocodiles becomes unclear.

Crocodylus non grata?

The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is one of the largest, and the most widely distributed of the living crocodilians. Affectionately known as ‘salties’, they can grow up to 6-7 m long, and range from Sri Lanka and a couple of locations on the east coast of India to throughout Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea, northern Australia and the Solomon Islands.

Salties can thrive in saline and brackish water conditions but are equally at home in freshwater habitats. And like many other crocodilians, they undergo a dramatic transformation in size, diet and habitat through various stages in their lives, and play important roles – as prey, scavenger, ecosystem engineer and top predator – in their ecosystems. Being efficient predators, salties take advantage of feeding opportunities and, in rare instances, people find themselves at risk of a crocodile attack.

While people and crocodiles usually avoid each other, the potential for conflict arises in multiple ways: people providing feeding opportunities to crocodiles; the predatory nature of these animals; people’s circumstances and choices; and very often, ignorance about crocodiles or carelessness around them. No doubt crocodile attacks can be tragic; however, sensationalist media reporting, which only compounds the trauma and loathing, has resulted in the poor public image of salties and likely played a significant role in the loss of social acceptance for the species.

In India, salties were extirpated from most of their historical range and managed to survive in only three locations: Bhitarkanika, the Sundarbans and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These populations have recovered to varying degrees since the 1970s through legal protection and the implementation of Project Crocodile. However, the loss of social acceptance seems to prevent the (re)establishment of new populations even for such an adaptable, highly mobile and wide-ranging species.

This situation is clearly summarised in a 2014 overview of human-crocodile conflict in South Asia. It states, broadly, that:

… crocodile populations were critically reduced through unregulated hunting in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries mainly for the leather industry; human populations subsequently expanded into areas previously occupied by crocodiles; legally-protected crocodile populations began to stabilise, then grow; as crocodile numbers increased, local people began seeing crocodiles more frequently; and, crocodile populations and sizes of crocodiles continued to increase and naturally expand into areas now occupied by people. The problem is, perhaps, that a generation or two of people are no longer accustomed to living with crocodiles. Humans are unforgiving creatures: once we are habituated to an area and lifestyle, any threat to that is not tolerated. This is the situation that many crocodile populations now face around the world. Addressing this conflict is a critical part of developing our management plans for crocodiles.

Saltwater crocodiles are thought to be making a gradual recovery in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and if so, this bears testament to their resilience and is a significant conservation achievement. However, many are less enthused and view this recovery as ‘too many crocodiles’, ‘crocodiles straying outside their habitat’, ‘conservation gone wrong’, and so on. These views are symptomatic of shifting baseline syndrome, wherein we have accepted and normalised the degraded, depauperate state of our ecosystems, and now consider a recovery as anomalous and undesirable. This has been the case with crocodiles elsewhere too.

Reports of an increase in the incidence of crocodile attacks in the Andaman and Nicobar cite pre- and post-tsunami statistics, but a cursory look suggests this is true. Interactions between people and crocodiles have clearly increased. The human population in the islands has climbed dramatically and a significant part of the accompanying settlements, agricultural and fishing activity and tourism infrastructure overlap with crocodile habitat. The poor disposal of domestic and slaughterhouse waste is attracting crocodiles close to these settlements. Finally, the tectonic shifts that triggered the 2004 tsunami lead to major changes in the habitat. As a result, people and crocodiles encounter each other more often.

However, the relationship between increased interaction and increased conflict is not so straightforward. Could the incidence of crocodile attacks be a reflection of better reporting and more media coverage in the islands post-tsunami? We don’t know. Despite the considerable interaction between people and crocodiles, and peoples’ general negligence, crocodile attacks are an exception: an average of around two a year – so rare that the supposed increase is not perceptible and certainly not as pronounced as some news headlines have claimed.

It is also important to consider crocodile attacks as being random, independent events. That is, any particular incident can’t explain or be explained by the previous or next incidents. They are not predictable in this sense. The clumping of incidents does not necessarily indicate a worsening problem. Shark researchers have recognised this for some time; the clustered nature of shark bites is called Poisson bursts. Ignoring these aspects can lead to bad policy decisions, often reactionary, and the proposed delisting and culling of saltwater crocodiles is just that.

Not that one wants to indulge in whataboutery, or belittle the trauma and tragedy, but it is important to put crocodile attacks in perspective. There is a much greater chance of drowning in the Andaman and Nicobar than being attacked by a crocodile, and the National Crime Records Bureau data on ‘accidental deaths and suicides’ bears this out. Yet it would be considered illogical to suggest that people be forbidden from swimming or that tourists shouldn’t be allowed to enter the water. This is because we understand that risk is inherent in any activity, even in routine ones like driving or crossing the road, and have learnt how to minimise it. But mishaps can happen – due to poor judgement or just bad luck. It needn’t be any different in our inevitable interactions with crocodiles.

This is not to suggest that people should present themselves as willing crocodile prey, not in the least; only that we assume responsibility for our actions and safety when we choose to enter the crocodile’s domain. This worldview is neither new nor unprecedented. Take, for instance, what recreational beach users adopted in the case of sharks: surfers in Australia can sign up to the ‘Fin for a Fin’ initiative to end the vengeful killing of sharks in the event that they are attacked, while also finding ways to avoid such incidents.

Beware the camel’s nose

The official website of Andaman and Nicobar Tourism has a reasonably clear set of ‘safety guidelines for swimming, snorkelling and diving’ in the islands, and this advisory also notes the presence of saltwater crocodiles and other potentially dangerous wildlife in the region. The tourism sector, which hard-sells the ‘pristine’ beaches and the ‘tropical paradise’ package, ought also to highlight these guidelines and potential dangers, and the conditions under which various tourism-related activities are permissible.

Assuming it has done so, a tourist’s decision to visit the islands and partake in its many activities is an implicit acceptance of the potential dangers and disappointments – a calculated risk of sorts. However, tour operators not observing this obligation are simply selling a lie, and are in large part responsible for any untoward incidents involving unsuspecting tourists. It is this impropriety that brings disrepute to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – not crocodiles going about doing what crocodiles do.

While tourism tries to wish these beasties away, it needs an urgent reminder that salties are very much a part of the eco – a label this industry so readily lathers on itself. These islands are undoubtedly the realm of the saltwater crocodile and others of an inconvenient tooth, claw and sting. One wonders who’s next on tourism’s nuisance menu… Shark? Jellyfish? Sea snake? Stonefish?

Tourism has the potential to be a low-impact, wildlife-sensitive enterprise but such examples are, unfortunately, an exception. And as tourism seeks exclusionary, unregulated and increasing access to more islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago – despite the long-term concerns of its environmental impacts (e.g. this and this) and what a similar lack of control has done nearby – we will do well to heed the lesson of the Arab and his camel.

Solutions that aren’t

Some of the more commonly used measures in the management and mitigation of human-crocodile conflicts across the species’ range include beach-netting, translocation, captivity, and culling. However, these measures are not the effective solutions they appear to be, and unfortunately the islands’ administration risks repeating them.

Beach-netting, typically used against sharks, isn’t just a benign barrier between beach users and wildlife. These nets are prone to damage (rendering them unsafe), create a false sense of security, and are known to cause severe collateral damage, indiscriminately killing crocodiles, sharks, whales, dolphins and sea turtles.

Removal methods (which may include translocation, captivity, or culling) are tricky because they assume that the ‘problem’ animal has been correctly identified. But this is seldom the case, especially if more than one animal is present in the area, and because salties are capable of daily movements of up to 40 km. Moreover, eyewitness accounts are considered unreliable in general and are often prone to exaggeration when it comes to crocodiles. Removal methods also create a false sense of security and can be counterproductive because people will, assuming they are now safe from a crocodile attack, go back to doing what put them at risk in the first place. If an area is attractive to a crocodile, another one might simply move in.

Translocations are also not very useful because they risk ‘transferring the problem’, and salties are capable of long-distance homing, even as much as 400 km, and there is a big chance that translocated animals will simply return to sites of capture. It is undoubtedly safer to know that crocodiles are present in one’s vicinity and exercise caution than to assume that there are no crocodiles and behave carelessly.

Salties are known to exist within socially structured populations with dominant males inhabiting and patrolling defined territories and several breeding females living within these. Subordinate males are actively excluded from these territories but their nomadic behaviour allows them to find unguarded females. These social dynamics are major drivers that maintain the distribution and numbers of crocodiles. The culling of dominant individuals is likely to disrupt these dynamics, as has been demonstrated for many other species (e.g. lions and elephants), and can result in increased movement of crocodiles seeking to fill that position. It could even stimulate an increase in the number of crocodiles through population-level compensatory mechanisms in the short-to-medium term.

For culling to be theoretically effective, it might require a severe reduction in crocodile numbers. While this would still not guarantee safety, how is this even acceptable while managing a species that has been reduced to just two remnant populations in mainland India, and may only now be recovering in these islands? Widespread culling will only undo the conservation efforts of the past four decades, and still not remove the danger of crocodile attack.

Suggestions for zonation, i.e. demarcating conservation, coexistence and removal zones, on the lines of what the Karnataka Elephant Task Force has recommended are surprising. The capture and removal of elephants from the Hassan region did not help resolve the conflict; new elephant herds recolonised the area and the conflict continues. The theatrics of that experiment are there for all to see, and clearly, it didn’t achieve what it was expected to.

Keeping people safe

Australia has the largest population of salties anywhere in the world, and has a great deal of experience managing them. While they do have a trapping and removal program, attack risk in Australia is low largely because of ‘Crocwise’, a public education campaign to reduce the risk of crocodile attacks. It is also important to recognise that Australia is home to over 150,000 saltwater crocodiles, a population considered almost fully recovered or near carrying capacity.

As has been said earlier, crocodile attacks are largely preventable by promoting safety awareness, particularly for local residents, tourists, tour operators and the media, and by taking better precautions, which to a large degree involves common sense and personal responsibility. Part of this also means accepting that people are not the top organism in this ecosystem and that these islands and waters aren’t exclusively ours.

It is important to stress on personal responsibility because, strangely, awareness does not necessarily translate to precaution. The tendency for fatalism (e.g. see this, this, and this) can render ineffective any awareness campaign and eventually the blame falls on crocodiles.

Also critical are mitigation measures like Crocodile Exclusion Enclosures (CEEs) at bathing ghat and similar areas. The sustainability of CEEs often depends on site-specific conditions, and the Andaman and Nicobar can draw from the different designs and experiences in the South Asia region. Newer beach safety barriers (e.g. see this, this and this) to prevent shark bites are being developed, and these offer potential options without trapping and killing marine life.

While financial considerations are usually a limiting factor in sustaining these mitigation measures in the long term, I propose the following: since tourism is the biggest revenue generator in the islands, and the sector is particularly fearful of crocodiles, why not pump some of this money back to support long-term awareness campaigns and mitigation infrastructure like CEEs and safety barriers at boat jetties and beaches? Is there an excuse for not doing so?

As is the case with sharks, crocodile attacks have captured a disproportionate amount of media and psychological space, which have in turn pathologised the mere presence of saltwater crocodiles. Thus, an important part of ensuring better outcomes for people and the crocodiles is to demystify the interactions between them. For species so frequently vilified, an alternative way to frame messages concerning them is necessary to counter the ‘crimes by nature’ portrayal, and mobilise public support and favourable policy.

For now, we are left to wonder which path the Andaman and Nicobar crocodile management plan will take: reason or retribution.

Tarun Nair is a conservation biologist with an affinity towards crocodiles and rivers. He is currently a research associate with ATREE, Bangalore. More about his work here.