Tuesday, November 01, 2005

In Search of the Mugger Crocodile

Published in Reptiles, Jan 2006

In the summer of 1999, Rom Whitaker, a herpetologist from India and I went to Sri Lanka to look at mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris). Our goal was to make the ultimate film on the mugger. But first, we needed to find a place with a mother load of muggers where we would set up base. Sadly, there were no big populations of crocs anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. Rom had done a croc survey in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s and remembered seeing large congregations of crocs in Yala National Park in the southeastern corner of the island nation. So that’s where we headed.

Yala is a woodsy, dry evergreen forest by the beach. The Park is dotted with pools, ponds and lakes – every one of them man-carved. Around the 9th century, this region was a part of the Ruhunu kingdom, a mysterious civilization of whom nothing is known. These water bodies were excavated then by hydrological engineers to water the huge rice fields. No one knows what caused this kingdom to vanish with no trace. Over the centuries, the forest reclaimed the land and today this sprawling 373,000 acres of forest is known as Yala (or Ruhunu) National Park.

When Sri Lanka became a part of the British Empire, Yala National Park was a Hunting Reserve. Up until the 1950s hunting parties of Europeans and Sri Lankans came here to shoot leopards, elephants, buffalo and boar. Nobody paid much attention to reptiles. In the records of the Park there is a lone entry to do with reptiles: on 1 Nov 1948, a party of 6 had shot 3 crocs, 4 boars and 1 python. The lack of croc references is surprising considering that crocs were everywhere and an easy target for any frustrated hunter wanting to take a pot shot. Or may be they just didn’t think it was worth writing home about!

Yala National Park: The Croc Paradise:

A lot of the waterholes had dried up at the time of our visit. There were about 10 large perennial ponds we concentrated on as all the crocs could only be here. We counted an average of 100 crocs a day during the dry season. In several ponds painted storks hunted for fish with impunity while crocs cruised close by. The birds were ever watchful but there were moments when they were too engrossed in the hunt to pay any attention to the predator close by. It took only a couple of days to fish out a pond. Then the hunters left for fishier pastures. Both birds and crocs looked very well fed and it seemed obvious that the storks and crocs had forged some kind of benign relationship. The birds’ constant probing around in the mud startled some fish right into the jaws of the waiting croc but it wasn’t clear how the deal worked for the storks. May be just the privilege of being allowed to fish in the murky waters. Elephants walked past basking crocs to drink water while buffaloes wallowed in the mud under the seemingly sleepy gaze of the reptiles. Deer were more wary of the tourists than the immobile crocs.

If a croc could stake its territory in a perennial pool, he had nothing to worry about. Others however have to slog – digging deep subterranean bunkers to hang out in. A tracker pointed to a croc tunnel at the edge of a bone-dry pool. A well-worn path led into the tunnel. And what was more - there were old broken eggshells lying around. Where were the babies? How could they survive the summer? The tracker said he had seen the babies come out of the tunnel following their mother every evening as she walked about 500 feet to the nearest water – a saline lagoon. Rom doubted the story but there seemed no other possible way for the babies to survive. This also provided a clue to where the mother crocs were nesting. Rom checked the mouth of every tunnel for a nest. He found 2 nests with about 30 eggs in each which he estimated had been laid a month earlier. The first eggs to be laid would hatch smack in the middle of the dry season like those phantom babies that take a walk with their mother every evening. What would they eat? What about freshwater to drink? This wasn’t making any sense.

All 3 nests were on the banks of saline lagoons. This may be because that is where the big female crocs congregate in the nesting season. We tested water samples from a couple of lagoons for salinity. The laboratory reported that the water was more saline than seawater, with the strong admonition: “remove crocodiles immediately”! Rom thought the young ones had little chance of survival in the very salty water. They were doomed year after year; we never saw any of the previous year's young. (We never found any nests along the river banks nor did we get a chance to probe around many of the freshwater ponds.)

Although the landscape of Yala is flat, a few rocky outcrops stick up. Rainwater collects in pools in the rocks and some of them are deep enough to be perennial. There were croc scats around but if there were any crocs, they made themselves scarce. It must take a determined croc to climb up the steep rocky incline several feet above the forest. Below one such pool we spotted a bleached perfectly preserved skeleton of a 9-foot mugger croc, probably the victim of a bad summer. Close by, at the bottom of one dry pool up in the rocks, were bones of buffalo and croc – a deadly trap with its smooth slippery sides. Once you get in, you can’t get out!

We had to regularly jam on the brakes to allow star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) to cross the road – both on the highways outside the Park and the dirt roads inside the Park. Big rugged females hotly pursued by smaller males; babies no bigger than a hen’s egg! Locals told us that the tortoises were the scourge of their tomato fields and the only way to combat the slow moving “pest” was to dig a trench. Apparently the tortoises fall in and die, unable to get out.

One afternoon while we were driving through the Park a message reached us that the Army wanted Rom to come immediately to the check post. The Army is a constant presence ever since they wrested control of the Park from armed rebels who chased away or killed the Wildlife staff a decade ago. Caught in the rafters above the security guard’s bed was a beautiful cobra (Naja naja). The soldiers, toting semi-automatic weapons, stood nervously by as Rom climbed up to the rafters and with a snake hook coaxed the cobra out of its hideout. What to do next? He couldn’t climb down and he didn’t know what to do with the snake. A quandary the snake solved by diving onto the bed below. Immediately the soldiers scurried out of the room. The cobra, stunned by the fall, conveniently waited until Rom could get it into a snake bag. Later in the evening, it was released into the dry forest several miles away from the check post.

Digging burrows is just one of the two ways the crocs deal with the dry summer. A lot of the crocs hike overland, across the jungle, along pathways they have probably used for several years, to deeper ponds. With the kind permission of the Wildlife Department, we walked along the dry riverbed of the Menik Ganga (with armed guards in case of an elephant or buffalo attack!) and there were croc tracks everywhere on the sand. A major nocturnal migration was happening unseen.

Lunugumvehera National Park: Croc at the end of the tunnel:

Almost contiguous with Yala to the North is Lunugumvehera National Park. It receives far less attention from tourists and the wildlife authorities than it deserves. Seasonal farms have come up along the riverbanks, irrigated by water lifted from the river. The river that runs through the Park is dammed and thus dry in summer so the farmers had gone home. They return only when the rains came and the river began to flow again. The embankments, we discovered, were riddled with big holes -- croc tunnels! A rotting corpse of a seven-foot croc with a stick driven into its skull lay by one of the tunnels. Not a good sign for croc conservation!

Rom devised a method of using long lengths of plastic pipes to measure the depth of the croc tunnels. Put together, the pipes measured 35 feet, but the tunnels were sometimes even longer! Most of these deep tunnels would have been worked on year after year by the resident croc. Rom was also curious about the temperature inside the tunnels and chose to crawl into the largest ones to find out! The burrows were clean and dry inside and several degrees cooler than the outside. I was worried that an agitated croc would charge out, but figured Rom's nose was large enough to handle the confrontation!

As it turns out, some of the tunnels were quite short and while rounding a bend, Rom did indeed come upon the resident croc or two that were just as surprised to see him. But none of the crocs did much more than hiss.

After checking out a fair number of tunnels, Rom wondered if the crocs in tunnels are in metabolic depression (a phenomenon seen in other reptiles that aestivate) – the crocs drop their heart rate to a minimum, reduce their breathing frequency and slow down all bodily functions. By entering a form of deep sleep-like state, they are able to tide over months of inhospitable dry season with no food and no water. When encountered deep inside their tunnels, they re-gained animation enough only to hiss; but couldn’t charge. Measuring metabolic depression is tricky business. By the time you rig the croc with all the probes and electrodes needed to measure their heart beat, brain reaction time, breathing frequency, the croc wakens completely. So, while we can guess and suspect that this is what is taking place, we have yet to quantify and prove it.

One croc, however, wasn’t in metabolic depression. When Rom stuck his head inside the tunnel to see if anyone was home, she came out leaping and hissing, missing his head by inches. Rom nearly tripped trying to put a safe distance between the croc and him. We discovered a nest of eggs at the mouth of her tunnel the next day, obviously the reason why she was awake and alert.

Village crocs:

If you thought “ugly” reptilian predators could only survive in Sri Lanka’s National Parks, you’re wrong. As we were. Local friends hesitantly told us of crocs in the neighboring village canal. Rom jumped up exclaiming “Show me!” Our friend, Shantha, led the way across the rice fields. A tiny copse of coconut trees standing out among the vast plain of rice was where we were headed. As we came closer, we could the see the canal, cutting a swathe through the fields. The copse was totally tangled in thorny vines; access inside was going to be difficult. We were seeking a way in and came upon a freshly dug up croc nest. An egg predator, probably a monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis), had found the nest and worked its way through the gooey contents; the egg shells untidily strewn all over the area. So crocs were there all right. As we came right around the corner we saw the tunnels, about 10 of them, side by side. The Irrigation Department was de-silting the canal and so it was bone dry. We could only assume that the crocs survived on the fish that came washing down with the water when the sluice gates upstream were opened. Rats that thrived on the rice could be dietary supplements. If crocs didn’t get in the way of humans, they could survive just about anywhere in seemed.

The head of a croc was resting at the mouth of one tunnel. It was in trouble. While desilting the canal, the maintenance crew had also widened it, shaving the croc’s tunnel down. It could barely pull its head in and after seeing two dead crocs inside a National Park, we feared for its life.

Discussions with the Wildlife Department followed and permission was given to translocate the croc. A week later, we arrived with the local Wildlife officials and the entire village to move the croc to its new home. Rom slipped a noose around its neck and before hauling it out, warned all the spectators to watch out – the croc could roll, snap and charge. The croc came out as meek as a tame pussycat. It was in metabolic depression! With enthusiastic Wildlife staff helping, Rom tied its jaws with elastic and loaded it onto the back of a pickup. It was released in one of the perennial lakes 45 minutes away, in Yala National Park. It was an hour and half before the croc gradually came to and could walk to the water.

Katagamuwa: The Lake of Crocs:

We were repeatedly told to visit a place called Katagamuwa. Everyone insisted that there were hundreds of crocodiles there. Finally, we shook off our cynicism and made the trip. Sure enough, Katagamuwa Lake had shrunk to that critical size. Any bigger, it would have been impossible to see the crocs; any smaller and they'd have all left for deeper waters. What we saw truly staggered us: Great big mugger crocs merrily fishing for hefty snakehead fish and catfish. It was dawn and the early morning light filtered through the trees, turning the crocs' hides yellowish gold. When the sun came up a bit stronger, these hulks hauled themselves out onto the banks like Europeans sunbathing side by side, soaking up the heat. We counted about 150 big crocs (left out the small ones) in the primeval splendour of the morning light. This was perfect.

From way before dawn, we could hear mugger hunting for fish, frogs and even an occasional stork - splash, crunch, gulp, gulp, gulp. A rosy sliver of sunlight finally tiptoed onto the scene. The bungalow was built conveniently close to the lake where I hung out. Rom, being the intrepid croc man, was ensconced behind a bush near the lake, spying on the crocs. It seemed as if the crocs were hunting systematically, in a group, much the way otters, orcas (killer whales) and dolphins do. The whole bunch of crocs would drive fish from one end of the water body to the other and then launch into them. Then the process would be repeated, across to the other shore: a synchronous smorgasbord. Rom wouldn't give them the benefit of cleverness though; he still maintains that the coordination of the hunt was coincidence. If one croc grabs a fish and creates a splash, the others will come over to investigate whether food is on offer. Then, more splashes follow that attract still more crocs and so on until the entire gang of crocs sail up and down the length of the lake in serendipitous coordination.

Crocs are as much creatures of habit as they are opportunists. By 9 o'clock the crocs were done for the morning and chose to spend a couple of hours basking, the sun revving their body engines to digest the huge meal they had had on a cool stomach. When it got too hot, they lazed in the water, playing politics. If a subordinate showed too much brashness, he had to be cut down to size; if a rival tried to usurp the top croc's place in the hierarchy he had to be trounced. The crocs had another big meal at dusk. They were so in tune with the time of day, that you could set your watch by them. Well, give or take a few minutes!

Through the day there were other creatures to watch. My inventory of animals that visited the lake to drink included: a pair of jackals with two pups, too many peacocks and peahens to count, wild buffalo, spotted deer, gray langurs, toque macaques and a ruddy mongoose – Rom collectively refers to them as “croc food”. And all the while, a pair of fishing eagles surveyed the scene from above. At night a small herd of elephants showed up for a drink causing Rom to come scurrying to the safety of the bungalow.

In all the time we were in Yala we were bound by Park restrictions. The one that we chaffed at the most was the one that demanded that we not step out of our vehicles. Those rules didn't apply to Katagamuwa Lake, as it wasn't a part of Yala at all. It formed the centerpiece of Katagamuwa Wildlife Sanctuary. Every morning we woke up to find signs of wild animals all around the bungalow. An elephant had come within 50 yards of us as we slept in a line of beds on the veranda of the bungalow, dorm-style, lulled to sleep by the buzzing of tree crickets punctuated by an occasional leopard call. We later met a scarred ranger who was dragged off a similar bungalow veranda by a leopard and lived to tell the tale.

Katagamuwa was a good summer bonanza for the crocs, but the water could not have lasted more than a fortnight. All those 150 crocs would then have to hightail it to the river about a mile away. We couldn’t wait around to see this happen and were forever haunted by visions of a long croc migration through the forest. But that will have to wait until a research project that we’re working hard to set up gets going. Until then, Lanka’s mugger crocs will have to wait!

Our survey of crocodiles in southern Sri Lanka lightened our hearts at the prospects of the mugger’s survival. There is no place on the entire Indian subcontinent that supports crocodiles in such numbers as in the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka. We think that it is the special brand of Buddhism practiced here that lends an aura of protection to all things, and the dangerous and scaly need it more than anyone else. In this short time we’ve seen more snakes and lizards walking and slithering through people’s backyards than in all the time we’ve spent in India. And these are “creepy crawlies,” mind you. Enhancing an already strong religious sanctity for all life with conservation education will go a long way to securing the mugger crocodiles’ future.

Too Much Monkey Business

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2 Oct 2005

Which town, village and city in India does not have a monkey problem? The monkeys of Delhi are perhaps the most notorious Page 4 regulars when they are caught prowling through the chambers of Parliament, ripping up records and computers. They are not mere destroyers of crops and property; they transmit serious diseases to man– like TB and rabies. Although there are flashpoints of conflict all over the country there is no national policy on how to tackle them. Since all species of monkeys are protected by the Wildlife Protection Act the onus is on Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoEF) to do something about it.

Over the last six months, a draft action plan was circulated by the MoEF which advocates translocation of troops and sterilization of male monkeys. For years we were under the impression that wild animals will know how to take care of themselves when released in the wild. But we know differently now - studies carried out in recent years have highlighted a range of problems such translocated monkeys face. Young animals are taught which species of fruits and flowers to eat by their parents and other troop members much as a young leopard cub is taught to hunt by its mother. City born and bred simians are like fish out of water in the jungle. How do monkeys that are used to marriage halls and temples spontaneously know the varieties of edible forest fruits? How would monkeys used to dodging dogs and humans know about pythons and leopards? I wasn’t surprised when a monkey trapper employed by the Chennai Wildlife Warden’s office narrated an anecdote of monkeys who returned after traveling at least 14 km. They would rather risk coming back home to abuses and stone throwing than slowly starving to death in the forest.

Although the authorities are aware that translocation merely relocates the problem to another area and doesn’t really address the issue of the monkey menace, they continue to move large number of animals from urban areas to forest areas, from one rural area to another, from one state to another randomly and arbitrarily. For decades the Delhi Municipal Corporation has been moving hundreds of monkeys out of the city every year. In one instance in 2004, about 500 monkeys (comprising several family troops) were trapped in Delhi and released in Pilibhut and Kuno National Park. Today no one knows what became of these monkeys; enquiries reveal that local authorities had no idea that any monkeys were released in these areas under their jurisdiction.

Most translocated monkeys don't survive. Dr.Wolfgang Dittus, a primatologist of the Smithsonian Primate Biology Program, who has studied macaques for the last 30 years says bluntly, “Translocation of monkeys or any wildlife to a national park or wildlife refuge is a clear death sentence for the displaced – it is a political solution, not a biological one. It's a coward's way of killing the monkeys.” Despite researchers worldwide rejecting translocation as a method of solving animal conflict problems, translocation remains the main strategy underpinning the government’s action plan. If we were truly concerned about the safety and welfare of these urban monkeys, we would come up with realistic alternatives that aren’t so cruel.

The Ministry also proposes systematic sterilization of male monkeys. There are fewer males than females in a monkey troop and it might make superficial economic sense to target males. But as Dr. Dittus puts it, the catch is this: it takes just one single intact male that wanders close to a troop of fertile female macaques to impregnate every single one of them. Further, neutering male monkeys is not going to make them any less aggressive towards humans because they want food from us, not sexual favours. Dr. Dittus sums it up by saying that the only way we can control the monkey population explosion is by targeting the females of the troop for sterilization.

But who created the problem in the first place? We did, by willfully feeding free-ranging monkeys. When we feed monkeys we send the message that we are subordinate to them, says Dr. Dittus. So they begin to think that every human should feed them and ones that don’t have to shown their place. That’s when monkeys become aggressive and turn on people. There should be a ban on feeding of monkeys. Dr. Mewa Singh, a primatologist at the University of Mysore, further advocates the use of monkey-proof garbage bins so there is no other food available for wandering freeloaders. While citizens can help combat the problem this way, it is ultimately up to the authorities to come up with a realistic action plan that does not merely shunt the problem around and is humane to the animals.

There is a committed group of primatologists in this country whose expertise should be sought in drafting any action plan. A plan drawn up without their involvement will be scientifically unsound and in the long run it simply won’t work.

Big Cat in the Spotlight

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine February 6, 2005 as "Stealthy Comeback"

Place: Narayangaon, Junnar Forest Division, Pune District, Maharashtra State

Name: Shri Krishna Thorve

Victim: 8 year old, male

Date: 7 Feb 2003

Time: 7 pm

Krishna was playing in the open courtyard of his house. His grandmother was close by washing dishes under a lone light that cast eerie shadows on the wall. The leaves of the tall stalks of corn that surrounded the house swayed and rustled in the cool breeze. Suddenly the power went off and the whole place went dark. As the boy’s eyes grew accustomed to the moonlight, he saw a dark shape move behind the corn. Fear gripped his heart and he ran toward his grandmother just as a leopard pounced on him. While the old lady held on tightly to the child, the leopard’s teeth sank firmly into the boy’s leg. On hearing their cries the boy’s mother rushed out of the house and startled the leopard. The big cat let go and disappeared into the fields of corn as quietly as it had come. Krishna very nearly became another statistic - last year 18 people were killed by leopards in this region.

Until recently most of us, city-types, believed that such stories could only be read in books by Jim Corbett or Kenneth Anderson. Yet in recent months, incidents such as this have been increasingly reported in the media. Have leopards made a quiet come-back since the days when they were hounded out as vermin? Are they re-colonizing the country? Is it a case of conservation success?

Found throughout India, the leopard is the most adaptable of all big cats. It lives in the valleys of the wet tropical rainforests, up in the cool temperate mountains and down in the dry tree plantations of the plains, within protected forests and outside of them. It can slink through any overgrown area without people being wiser. The leopard eats almost anything it can catch - from insects, rats and frogs to larger animals like deer and pig - and will also scavenge for a living. One leopard lived off medical waste dumped in the backyard of a hospital in Valparai before being trapped. This ability to survive on anything that’s available means that the leopard does not need vast forests to maintain itself as does the tiger or lion. The Wildlife Institute of India estimates that there are 14000 leopards in India, of which about 7000 live outside protected forests. The apex predator, the tiger, has been exterminated throughout most of its range, leaving the field open for the stealthy leopard.

After every human fatality, the Forest Department is compelled to do something. The officials went by the book - the Indian Wildlife Protection Act states that the first option in dealing with dangerous animals is capture and translocation. If that is not possible, the Act allows the animals to be kept in captivity and as a last resort, killed.

The typical modus operandi was to trap leopards near human settlements and release them deep inside the forest, away from people. For years this is how carnivore conflict situations were dealt with throughout India. But the problem hasn’t gone away. We hear of more and more leopard problems cropping up all over the country. Contrary to expectations, moving leopards around has only aggravated the problem. Within the last three years, in Maharashtra state alone, 150 leopards were released into Protected Areas after being trapped near human settlements.

We’d like to believe that translocation gives individual animals another chance, but the reality is quite different. What we are doing is putting them out of sight, deep in the forest under the belief that wild animals are resilient and will survive all odds. In India, despite years of translocation, there has been no attempt to follow the released animals to study whether they survive or not. Wildlife biologists, Vidya Athreya, Sanjay Thakur, Sujoy Chaudhuri and veterinarian Aniruddha Belsare (funded by the Wildlife Protection Society of India) studied the leopard problem for a year. They interviewed local villagers, documented every casualty and came up with some clear conclusions. As translocation is usually used to augment the population of endangered animals and, not as a way of dealing with problem animals, the team paid particular attention to this.

About 100 kilometers east of Mumbai is Junnar Forest Division, a vast patchwork of fields interrupted by tree plantations. Natural leopard prey was virtually non-existent here. But domestic animals were readily available - dogs, goats and calves. Leopards were known to take livestock here and human mortality was minimal. The local people did not consider it a big problem, but in the year 2000, the situation turned serious. Deliberate attacks on humans became alarmingly common. Narayangaon, a little settlement in northern Junnar, was the nerve centre of the conflict between man and cat. The team chose this area to do their study.

Vidya and her team tagged 40 trapped leopards with transponder microchips before they were translocated and released. Three of them were trapped again after people were attacked in the new sites. Some of these fresh zones of conflict had no history of man-eaters in living memory. In such situations, when people are suddenly forced to deal with marauding leopards in their neighbourhood, they will often take the law into their own hands and decide the fate of the cats by exterminating them. Already there are reports of many leopards being killed by villagers in retaliation for the losses they have suffered. Typically when wildlife is perceived as a danger and a liability, it compromises the very basis of conservation.

The second problem is that leopards are territorial and when re-located some will try very hard to get back home. In one astounding example of determination and homing instinct, a leopard translocated from its range in South Africa walked 540 kilometers home, the distance between Chennai and Hyderabad. But India lacks such vast wild spaces. Any desperate leopard attempting to return home will only walk into more trouble with more people. Could this be the reason leopards show up in unexpected places like Chennai and Kozhikode?

The other problem to consider is the impact of translocation on resident leopards. Ravi Chellam, a cat expert, says there is no existing suitable habitat (forests brimming with prey, and remote from human habitation) to move problem leopards to. Since all optimum forests already have resident leopards, translocation means re-locating cats into areas staked out by others. In the ensuing conflict for territory, the intruder or the resident is likely to get killed or driven out. If either of them is a mother leopard with cubs, the little ones will be the first victims of such confrontations. When many leopards are released in one area as usually happens, the resident territory holder may have to fight each of these intruders in turn, weakening its ability to hang on to its domain. The resultant upheaval in the leopard population will only escalate the problem for local people.

The graphs that accompany the team’s study are very revealing - the spike indicating leopard releases match a similar spike in the attacks on livestock and man for the same period of time. In Junnar, in the year 2000-2001, the problem was contained within an area of 1400 square kilometers with a casualty rate of 189 head of livestock and 2 humans. Post 2001, when translocations became the norm, the trouble zone nearly doubled to 2400 square kilometers. Mortality rocketed to 348 domestic animals (not including dogs) and more disastrously, 29 humans. The attacks abated only after 62 leopards were trapped and moved out (outsourcing the problem), with the result that now Junnar is nearly a leopard-free zone. Is the only solution to the leopard problem removing every single one of them?

While India’s 35,000 annual rabies deaths hasn't led to a moratorium on stray dogs, leopards are made to pay a heavy price for every misdemeanour from mauling man and lifting livestock to wandering into fields and merely being seen. If we are really serious about this comeback of our wildlife, people also need to make adjustments to their lives and lifestyles. They need to understand that unless a leopard takes to man-eating or livestock-lifting regularly, it should be left alone.

We could make settlements safer by changing cropping patterns but it’s impractical to ask farmers to uproot their sugarcane and tea bushes. Almost all these areas also offer food - livestock, goats, and dogs. People living in leopard country will need financial help to reinforce flimsy mud or bamboo houses against a marauding leopard. Livestock should be securely penned, separately from people, at night. It’s a loss to a villager if a leopard kills a goat but driving it away from its meal only makes it worse. The hungry animal will just go out and kill another goat or calf. Livestock can be insured against leopard depredations so losses can be compensated. Villagers need to be taught how to avoid leopards and what to do in case of a confrontation. A very successful education campaign helped local people in Australia understand how to live with man-eating salt-water crocodiles when their populations bounced back. A similar education campaign, “Living With Leopards” has to be initiated to address this issue.

Rainforest Revival

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine 17 July 2005

We were in the Western Ghats, technically one of the world’s richest hotspots of biodiversity. But instead, a vast manicured matrix of tea estates spread out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Although tea estates are way up in the high rainfall belt, they are biological deserts. Decades of spraying pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides had made sure that not even a frog croaks on a rainy night here. You can see only the survivors – jungle crows, jungle mynas, red-whiskered bulbuls. We are faced with a losing battle – hundreds of hectares of rainforest vanish every year in the Western Ghats. After decades of bad press, a group of estates in the Anamalais, under the banner of Anamalai Biodiversity Conservation Association (ABCA), have joined hands with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) to buck the trend.

Any tea estate has areas of low productivity called “blanks” – where tea cannot be planted. Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), as one of the first participants in the programme, has allocated a few such “blanks” to the NCF to plant with indigenous rainforest trees. A nursery used to raise tea plants has been converted into a rainforest sapling nursery. An amazing 30,000 saplings of 90 species have been raised so far, of which over a dozen species have never before been germinated in a nursery. Another estate in the vicinity, Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC) has decided to use rainforest species to provide shade to their 80 hectares of organic coffee and vanilla. As the smaller building blocks of a healthy ecosystem come together, hopes for a better representation of biodiversity have increased. When the habitat is restored, it provides valuable new haunts for native species of birds and mammals. How did this remarkable alliance begin?

As a doctoral student, Divya Mudappa studied the role of fruit-eating mammals in the propagation of forest trees in the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) near Thirunelveli. She collected scores of seeds from the scats of frugivorous animals like civets and germinated them to study their growth rates. (As suspected she found that seeds of many species that have passed through the gut of the animals germinated better or faster than seeds from uneaten fruits.) When the time came to wrap up her study she had hundreds of sturdy little saplings ready for life in the jungle. In an abandoned cardamom estate in Sengaltheri (KMTR) Divya and her colleague-husband, Shankar Raman, had noticed that indigenous saplings easily took root in clearings where there was no competition from cardamom. Taking a cue from this observation, Divya planted her 250 saplings in clearings amongst the cardamom and helped speed up the regeneration process. Realizing what it takes to get the forest back on its roots, Divya and Shankar Raman, decided to focus on rainforest restoration. This was just the sort of project that their NGO, the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, wanted to do.

The abandoned estates of Kalakkad-Mundanthurai were in better shape than the estates of the Anamalais. Although the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary surrounded the vast plantations, the last fragments of forest were disappearing. The presence of a vast human population on these mountains threw up a whole gamut of socioeconomic issues. The Anamalais needed urgent attention and the couple moved there, forsaking the relative peace and quiet of KMTR.

Hindustan Lever Limited, a major landholder in the Anamalais had a mandate to protect biodiversity on their lands under their international sustainable agriculture programme. Divya and Shankar held several meetings with the General Manager, D.G. Hegde, about what needed to be done. He had the right ideas – tree planting, starting a nursery – and Divya and Shankar found their first collaborator in the area. All of them agreed on the general principles of the work ahead – to plant a diversity of tree species typical to rainforests of that elevation, and choose pioneer species that do well in open areas which also attract seed-dispersing birds and other animals. HLL provided the infrastructure, labour support and more importantly, access to degraded fragments on its land with the caveat never to convert them to plantations. Now the real work began.

Almost nothing is known about forest trees – germination time, viability of seeds, rate of survival, what to plant in specific site conditions. Divya and Shankar also had to figure out which species would naturally regenerate as “pioneer” species. Under the shade of these pioneers, other more shade loving saplings could be planted. Within the first two years the team planted 5000 nursery-raised saplings of 75 species amongst these pioneers in two degraded bits of land totaling 24 hectares.

With little more than the logistical support provided by HLL, the NCF team managed to prove that a lot could be achieved. Even as the team proved their credibility with the local tea plantation managers, some funds trickled in from the Netherlands Committee of the IUCN’s Tropical Rainforest Programme which helped the restorers consolidate some of their efforts. Over the last two years, with additional support coming from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme in India and from Barakat Inc., USA, the programme is set to expand to new areas. Another local company, Parry Agro Limited, has come forward to restore degraded fragments totaling about 350-400 hectares.

Perhaps the hardest solutions that the team has had to come up with are to meet people’s needs for fuel-wood to prevent further degradation of these fragile rainforests and to find indigenous shade trees for the tea. Tea needs relatively more sunlight than coffee and the exotic silver oak has been the tree of choice to provide the scant shade that the plants need. Collaborating with the United Planters’ Association of South India (UPASI), the team is experimenting with four rainforest tree species - Filicium decipiens, Ormosia travancorica, Trichilia connaroides and Dimocarpus longan - that could possibly replace the silver oak. Should it succeed then they are set to change the profile of tea estates across the Western Ghats.

What has upgrading the quality of the forest in these isolated bits of land achieved? For one thing it can reduce the extent of damage caused by elephants. Throughout the appropriately named Anamalai hills, there are running battles with elephants. By providing shelter during the day and access to other parts of their range these new forest oases help bring down the intensity of the conflict. Conversely, it is the estates that have no such fragments of forest where elephants pose a greater threat. Besides creating habitat for endangered wild animals like the lion-tailed macaques and the great Indian hornbills, native trees are the key to watershed management.

Starting small, by restoring and protecting little bits of degraded slopes, Divya and Shankar want to take on the bigger challenge of planting corridors between these individual bits of forest. While this may not be comparable to a pristine rainforest, its effect will be greater than the sum of all the isolated fragments. Traditionally conservation has focused on National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserve forests, but this project goes to show that by co-opting private land owners much can be achieved.

Puk puk Project Belong Papua New Guinea

Published in Herpinstance, March 2004

The plane flew over the lush green forests of Papua New Guinea as it flew across the country. Big rivers snaked dramatically across the landscape draining and sustaining vast swamplands that stretched as far as the eye could see. We were going to check out the most famous of these rivers, the Sepik, for New Guinea freshwater crocs. Rom was visiting PNG after a gap of 23 years while this was my first visit to that part of the world.


The small Cessna that flew us to Ambunti from the coastal northern town of Wewak was chartered from the MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship). It is the missionaries who maintain the airstrips and a fleet of aircraft that link the remote parts of the country. There were severe limitations on how much the small plane could carry. Everyone and everything was weighed and the payload calibrated. Half an hour later we landed on a very small grassy strip. One end of the strip led to the river and the other was backed against a hill.

We came to Ambunti especially to meet Alphonse Mapa, the ace croc hunter of the area, who worked with the Wildlife Conservation Department, conducting extension programs in the various villages. As we walked across the village to Ambunti Lodge, people began arriving for the daily market in dugout canoes to sell fish, sago, turtles, cuscus, possums and all else edible. The funny thing about this country is that people travel by boats and planes regularly but few would have seen a car, bus or truck; there were hardly any roads.

By evening we were out looking for crocs. The river was high but there were a few baby crocs around. Alphonse leapt out of the boat and grabbed the first baby croc he spotted. The breeze was cool and kept the mosquitoes away. Next one to leap off the canoe was Rom. There was a brown snake among the reeds and Rom sprung out like a veritable Jack-in-the-box. It turned out (he thinks) to be a brown tree snake, the infamous decimator of the bird fauna of Guam. But of big crocs, there was nary a sign. PNG is a very difficult place to see crocs. The vast swamplands are impossible to travel through and that’s where the crocs hang out. And we knew there were plenty of crocs there.

Alphonse thought we should go up river to the village of the Insect people if we wanted to catch a big fresh water crocodile. It turned out to be a marathon trip.


It was about 4 pm when we reached Swagap, the village of the Insect People. The village is off on a detour from the main Sepik River and we had to negotiate logjams and narrow waterways to get there. There was so much floating vegetation that the outboard motors had to be lifted out of the water and the canoes poled and pushed ashore. It was hard work but we got there finally. The totem of the Insect People is the praying mantis and hence the Lonely Planet nickname. Their woodwork was fine and intricate – much better than the touristy carvings sold in town.

All the village men hung out by the boats. A few guys were hollowing a massive log into a canoe, while others stood around, chewing betel nut, smoking and watching. An old guy sat nearby making a harpoon for hunting crocs. Come to think of it, every canoe moored there had 2 or 3 harpoons. And we hoped to find crocs around here!

At sunset, we all piled into the canoes. Everyone wanted to go so we had to be clear that (a) we wanted someone to guide us and (b) this wasn’t a harpooning expedition. Three boats started out running full throttle toward an ox-bow lake close-by. Ox bow lakes are formed when the river changes course leaving the old bend totally cut off creating a lake. We saw the lead boat with the guide go through a gap among the reeds into the ox-bow lake but it was obviously a tricky shortcut. The drivers of the 2 canoes following struggled to find the way and an hour later we were still stuck there listening to the distant whine of the first boat's motor. Then the second canoe managed to get through but not the third! After several minutes, we got them on the radio and coordinated movements. They had finished looking around in the lake and were coming out onto the river again where we'd rendezvous with them.

They had had some luck – they had spotted a big croc which had disappeared in a splash, plus lots of babies that they didn't want to waste time catching. It was a dismal night but we didn’t give up easily. It was past midnight when we decided to call it quits and headed back to Ambunti.

One of the ways people earn money here is to catch hatchling crocs, feed them up to a good size in three years and then sell them to the large farms. They can earn more money than by just selling the hatchlings. At such a rearing station Rom pointed out 2 wart-like bumps on top of the snout of New Guinea freshies - something no other croc has. So besides the mugger croc of South Asia, here was a croc that dummies like me could tell apart from the other species of crocodiles.

Old man and the river

I asked Alphonse about the biggest croc he had ever killed. The skull of this massive creature presided over the lobby of Ambunti Lodge. Rom estimated it to be a 17 feet long. The story was that the croc began biting boats and killing people. Alphonse’s family lived on the riverbank and he feared for his children’s lives as they canoed to school everyday. So he decided to go after the croc. Someone had already taken a pot shot at the croc and blown its nose off. After several nights of stalking and baiting Alphonse finally caught a glimpse of the croc and harpooned it. He quickly lashed a couple of 20-gallon drums to the rope. That way he could tell, by the bobbing drums, where the croc was, even if it dived to the river bottom. That was about 9 pm. Then followed a monumental struggle between man and beast. Finally at 2 am an exhausted Alphonse felt the dead weight on the harpoon’s stay rope stop yanking and he knew the croc was dead.

More people live in close proximity to large crocs in PNG than anywhere else in the world. People have seen family members being taken in front of their eyes and felt helpless against the power of the master predator. They sought to immunize themselves from the unpredictable attacks by carving the prow of their boats in the shape of a croc, their large drums that were beaten on ceremonial occasions were in the shape of a croc and whole tribes adopted it as their totem animal and scarified their bodies to imitate the ridges on a croc’s back. In fact crocs permeated all their stories, artifacts and way of life. Croc meat was highly prized in the swamplands and a regular staple in their diet.

Then with the coming of European influence, the tribal people were introduced to a market that highly valued croc skins. Croc skins didn’t have any value in the local economy until then and so local people had no concept of what the skin was worth. Rom narrates stories of tribal people selling huge croc skins worth hundreds of dollars for a mosquito net or some worthless trinkets.

Puk puk (Crocodile) Project bilong Papua New Guinea:

In the late 1970s the newly independent Govt. of PNG sought United Nations funding for setting up a sustainable croc skin industry. Unlike other countries, most of the land was owned by the people. There was very little Govt. or common land. So when crocs nested, they were doing so on someone’s private land – be it swamp or garden. The idea of sustainable use and conservation had to be taken directly to the people. If the people weren’t convinced, tough luck, there was nothing anyone could do about it. The goal was to teach people that nesting female crocs were a renewable source of money and should be left alone. They lay eggs at the same site every year. So instead of killing large female crocs, people could harvest 50% of the croc nests found on their land– the hatchlings were either sold immediately to farms or kept in pens for a period of time before being sold as larger animals. Hunting of crocs for their skins was permitted but no croc with a belly skin width (from armpit to armpit across the belly) of more than 21 inches could be killed. The logic behind this stricture was that anything larger than this would be a breeding size croc capable of replenishing the croc population during the next breeding season and ought to be left alone. To back up this entire operation, the Govt. would monitor the wild croc population every year by conducting surveys on nest transects.

Twenty years later, when we visited the country, the Govt. had not done any surveys in 4 years while croc exploitation continued as before. The IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group and the Animals Committee of Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) put pressure on the Govt. to uphold its side of the deal. Like every other developing country, funds were short. The Govt. was to use funds it earned as tax from the croc ranching operations to do these surveys but instead the money was probably lining a minister’s bed! Into the impasse stepped Mainland Holdings, the world’s largest croc farm with an estimated 25,000 crocs. The company, based in Lae on the northern coast, had everything to lose if the Govt. didn’t honour its part of the bargain which could lead to the IUCN and CITES banning PNG croc skins from the international market. So the company funded 50% of the cost of this year’s aerial surveys while the Govt. chipped in the rest. The results look good. There has been a steady increase (6.12% every year since monitoring began in 1982) in the number of nests. And in the year 2003 alone, the villagers of Ambunti received K 7438 (Rs. 111, 943) just from egg harvests. The Sepik is the focus of all the attention on crocs as this is the single largest area exploited.

Just to get an idea of what this industry means to the local people, I asked Alphonse how much of his annual income came from crocs. He looked me like I was from Mars (or Venus) and said he could send his kids to school for an entire year just from exploiting the croc nests on his land. Each egg is worth 7 Kina (Rs. 105) and an average nest, with about 30 eggs, is worth Rs. 3150.

There are accusations that crocs are being hunted illegally and the skins smuggled across the border to Irian Jaya where the Indonesian authorities condone it. May be this happens but the scale of illegal operations is not big enough to be worried about. The results of the aerial surveys are indicative of the relative abundance of the croc population. In this age when making such programs work in developing countries is a huge challenge, we can celebrate the fact that crocs that have had a bad rap for centuries finally have a future at least in some places on this earth. And it is no small achievement that this program has been running successfully for 20 years now. It has had its ups and downs but the basic principle – that wild croc populations can survive alongside people if the people are actively involved in their management - still holds strong.

Creepy crawly Household

Published in Herpinstance Dec 2005

When we first moved to our new home in the rural outskirts of Chennai City Rom warned me to expect venomous snakes in the house. “We’ve built a cave between the scrub jungle and the farmland and it’s only natural to expect creatures to take advantage of it,” he declared. While I gamely nodded, I was secretly wondering, “What have I got into now?” Within the first few months, we spotted a cobra (Naja naja) in our backyard under the banyan tree, while our dog found a young Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) crawling along the side of the house, metres away from the open kitchen door. Driving home late one night, we saw a common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) going past our gate. So the creatures were there all right and I braced myself for the inevitable venomous one inside the house.

People meeting us for the first time ask me that predictable question – do I catch venomous snakes too? By some logic clear to them, they think just because Rom handles venomous snakes I should too. Do they ask spouses of writers if they write too? It’s my pet peeve – I never had any need to catch venomous snakes so far as the resident snake catcher, Rom, wasn’t far away. But when we moved in to the new house, Rom thought it might be a good idea if I learnt to handle venomous animals. He got a tall plastic bucket with a lid and demonstrated how to hook a snake and plop it into the bucket and close the lid. Easy peesy, I could do that!

In the beginning, about eight years ago, the land was absolutely flat, blistering hot and barren of trees. Well, not if you counted the HUGE banyan and the hedge of palmyra trees, that is. It was after all a rice field. We wasted no time planting trees around the house - the shade was sorely needed - and with daily watering, they shot up. At that time we had hardly any furniture either and every evening we unrolled our bedrolls on the floor. We had to shake out all the sheets just to make sure no creatures were hiding inside. Despite the exaggerated precaution, Rom shot out of bed one night in pain. A giant centipede (Scolopendra.) had bitten him. The pain was so excruciating that he couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. That was when we decided we needed to get above the floor and bought a cot. This incident was a sign of creatures to come.

It was approaching summer when the ubiquitous house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) first moved in. This added the first real touch of being in a 'home'. One night a little creature, I had never seen before, darted speedily across the room. It looked like a centipede with enormous thin legs. That was my introduction to the harmless scutiger. Common tree frogs (Polypedates maculatus) began moving in as the heat built up. During the day they hid behind the framed pictures and at night they emerged to ambush the insects that hovered around the lights. Toads (Bufo melanostictus) began to do the same in the garden.

At the height of summer the frogs were EVERYWHERE (at one count, there were 267 in the house) - in every crack, the tiniest of ledges, light fixtures, the toilet bowl and flush tank, behind cupboards. We had to check the inside of the washing machine before loading the laundry, cause they were frequently inside. At night they seek out the toilet bowl and kitchen sink to soak in before beginning the night’s hunting. They spent a few minutes in the water and then wiped an oily lipid secretion all over their bodies with their hind legs. If you didn't chase them away, before using the pot, with a flip of the flush, you would be treated to the rude shock of having a wet glob suddenly attach itself to your butt. At the fag end of the summer, the house resounded with their calls heralding the arrival of the rains. We tried not to invite any guests then; the frog calls sound like a terribly flatulent person!

Just as we were about to be overrun by the frogs, Rom christened our home ‘Pambukudivanam’ (the woods where the snakes live) as a portent of more things to come.

About a year later we noticed we had a new guest – a termite hill gecko (Hemidactylus triedrus). It had staked out one of the kitchen cupboards as its territory. It was a very neat houseguest and always shat in one spot near the cupboard door making the cleaning very simple. One morning when I opened the door to clean out the gecko’s nightly offerings, there was a white round egg along with the little turds. Using a paintbrush I cleaned around it gently taking care not to disturb the egg. A couple of days later, there was another egg until there was a collection of five. Months passed, nothing happened. The eggs grew discolored and had to be cleaned out finally. I guess she had no male to fertilize the eggs.

Another species of frog who then moved in was the diminutive Ramanella variegata. They were entirely bathroom-based frogs - monopolizing the pipes and the flush tank. The only inkling of their presence was the loud, deep croaking; the pipes did their bit to amplify their calls. As soon as the light was flicked on, they disappeared inside the washbasin or the tank. If one was late in disappearing, you'd be treated to a Houdini-act - we still cannot figure out how a 4-cm frog could squeeze itself through a 0.5-cm diameter drain hole. They were quite responsive to non-frog sounds. My computer made a weird chirp if I make a mistake, and I always received an answering call from the bathroom. Why, sometimes they even answered the dogs barking!

Where frogs were, snakes can't be far behind. We've played host to a few in the last few years. The common bronze-back tree snake (Dendrelaphis tristis) slides in through any of the upstairs windows from the overhanging banyan tree. One evening we found one who had fallen into the wastebasket, stuffed full of tree frogs, and couldn't get out! The night shift was taken over by the common wolf snake (Lycodon aulicus) in its hunt for geckos. We’ve even had birds coming in to get the frogs. Drongos swoop in, grab a frog and sit on the window gruesomely bashing the frog into senselessness.

The floor of the upstairs was the domain of a large skink (Mabuya carinata). He was chunky, yellow striped and fast. He lurked around through the day and retired under the cushion of the sofa for the night, just when we were about to relax in front of the TV. On rainy days, he could barely stir himself. It was kind of strange to pick up a pillow, like you'd turn over a rock outside, to find a nice fat skink sleeping underneath! Judging from the long healthy turds he left around, a lot of troublesome insects were getting chomped.

The creatures that turned our home into a real minefield were the scorpions. There were three different species residing at this address but only one was dangerous, the red scorpion (Mesobuthus tamulus). They ruled the windowsills, door and window hinges and perilously, in the bookshelves as well. We never pull a book out by placing our fingers on top of the book's spine because that was where they hung out.

Of late, we have noticed a new gecko on the prowl in the bedroom, the bark gecko (H. leschnaulti). It made a meal of a few house geckos before staking out its large territory. Sometimes when we returned home late and switched on the light, we have caught a couple of these big geckoes engaged in mortal combat. They disengaged and ran across the floor in opposite directions with open wounds. If we hadn’t unwittingly called off the battle, they would have almost certainly lost their tails, with their skin hanging in tatters. One evening last month, a false vampire bat began flitting through the house noiselessly. Watching him flap from room to room was like driving a Porsche through congested city streets – he had to flap so slow that he could just barely be air-borne. He cleaned up all the geckos in the house in a couple of nights. Unfortunately on one hot summer evening I was cooling off under the fan when he got hit by the fast rotating blades and fell down stone-dead.

Quietly over the years the house has become the summer home of a congregation of toads – Bufo melanostictus and Bufo fergusoni. Last summer there were so many that we had to be very careful while walking around for fear of stepping on them or one of their magnificently enormous scats. After a few days of cleaning up after them I grew irritated, I wanted a normal house. So I caught a whole bunch of them and moved them to the garden. They returned. I caught them all and moved them 250 m away out of sight of the house. They were back that afternoon. They returned in 25 hours when I moved them 500 m away. That was it – it was an all out battle of wits. By this time I had marked them with permanent marker so I could recognize them. I took them 1 km away across a road and into the scrub jungle. May be that was too far away or may be they got the message that I didn’t want them. May be they all returned but stayed in the garden, I don’t know. But the house was free of toads the rest of the summer and when the rains came we could hear their melodic metallic songs all around.

Rock lizards (Psammophis blandfordanus) live on the palmyra tree behind the house. Then there was a common monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis) who stayed for a few weeks in the rafters of the porch. It kept the pesky palm squirrel from building anymore messy nests. A large beaked worm snake (Grypotyphlops acutus) (India's biggest worm snake at 60 cm) caused a guest to freeze on her tracks in the kitchen. Besides, we came across several chameleons (Chameleon zeylanicus) using the house as a bridge to cross from the banyan to the trees in front of the house.

We were very careful where we put our hands and feet in the garden. Rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) have been our most common visitors over the years. We watched a pair of six-foot males fight for a couple of hours. Our big 30-foot diameter well is ringed with several long nests of baya weaverbirds hanging just above the water. One season we watched a rat snake get into a nest and the whole thing - snake, nest and baby birds fall into the well. The well was dry and the fall must have felt hard but the snake seemed to be all right. Comfortably grounded he made short work of the baby birds.

We found a shed skin of a common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) near the clothesline recently but by and large, they tended to remain shy and elusive. We even found a gravid slender coral snake (Calliophis melanurus) under the banyan tree while digging a water pipeline. The open field below the house doesn’t look like much but it was the favoured hangout of the saw-scaled vipers (Echis carinatus). Local village ladies who came every afternoon to cut grass for their cattle regularly find the sawskies coiled around the grass. One morning we found a Kollegal ground gecko (Geckoella collegalensis) in one of the dry watering sumps along with an incredibly fast pygmy shrew (Suncus etruscus). We hadn’t even realized that these pretty geckoes or one of the world’s smallest mammals were found here.

In all of this time we found several venomous snakes regularly in the garden. The commonest venomous snake here was the Russell’s viper. It was the one snake I really didn’t want to deal with. It was snappy with long fangs, and sat its ground. But the most traumatic incident was caused by a cobra.

One morning we woke to be greeted by only 2 of our dogs. The third one was missing and we called for her. She was usually immediately responsive when called. When she didn’t turn up, we knew something was wrong. I found her crouching in the overgrowth along the edge of the garden unable to walk. She had two bloody wounds on her leg which we assumed was the result of a fight between the dogs. Rom carried her home and lay her down on the porch. When an hour later, she seemed to be getting worse, Rom concluded she must have been bitten by a cobra. The venom had paralyzed her legs and she wasn’t able to even sit up. We rushed her to the local vet hospital and gave her the antivenom serum that we always had a stock of. The vets were unconvinced it was a snakebite but Rom forced them to administer the antivenom serum. She got 9 vials of serum in all but it was probably given too late and she died late that night. It was horrendous watching her struggle for breath as her lungs collapsed from paralysis. Eventually she just got so tired from the struggle that she gave up. That was the first time I had witnessed a snakebite incident and I was terrified of having snakes around the house after that. We cleared all the overgrowth and made a policy decision that any venomous snakes in the garden would be removed far away hereafter. Rom flipped several into the big bucket, and released them the next day deep inside the scrub jungle.

One cloudy afternoon when I had a friend visiting me the dogs found a young cobra. It had to be caught and moved into the forest. Rom was out so I had to play snake catcher for the first time. The dogs and family were standing on one side while on the other was our pet pig’s enclosure. I tried hooking the snake like I’d seen Rom do millions of times but the snake slipped off like spaghetti. Each time the snake slipped off the hook it crawled closer to Luppy, the pig. Luppy watched the cobra and grunted with interest. She would have a snack of the cobra if she got a chance! I felt clumsy and inept. Finally the snake tired and sat limply on the hook long enough for me to get it into a bucket. That’s when I realized that I was shaking from the adrenalin rush and the fear that I was going to get bit.

One night our gardener came running to say there was a black and white banded snake in his house and it had crawled over him, as he was lying asleep. My mind kept saying “krait” – had a venomous snake finally found its way inside? What we found instead was a pretty snake appropriately called the bridal snake (Dryocalamus nympha). While this was my first look at the species, Rom had last seen it thirty years ago in Guindy National Park, in the middle of Chennai city.

As our trees grow and integrate with the scrub jungle we expect more and more creatures to also call this place home. I just hope not a lot of them are venomous. It’s summer now and almost all the old faces – tree frogs and toads - are back in the house. One of these days I’m going to move them all out and I wonder how many will home back.

Bangladesh’s Holy Muggers

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXIV No. 3, June 2004

The female mugger croc was so fat that she couldn't even turn around to bite Rom (Romulus Whitaker) as he tried to budge her from her nest. Her neck was thicker than her head, and a noose thrown around her neck would have slipped right off. She had laid eggs during March on the bank of the lake and she was doing her best to dissuade Rom from checking on them. Anyone not well acquainted with crocs would have been sent running by her growls and spirited lunges. With the entire village watching him, Rom was huffing and puffing and completely soaking in sweat. He was exhausted, he told me later, and it felt like moving a water buffalo. Finally when we all thought Rom could go on no more, the croc gave up and slipped into the water. But we kept an eye on her anyway so the good mother that she is, she couldn't launch a surprise defense.

Probing with his fingers, Rom located the nest with practiced ease. The trick is to check for loose earth in an otherwise well-packed area. Seven of the 21 eggs were rotten, and a foul smell rent the air when they were broken open. There was no sign of embryo development in any of the rotten eggs. And she was the last mugger croc laying eggs in all of Bangladesh.

In 1970 there were eight big mugger crocs and 30 babies in this very lake. In 1982, the number had fallen to five adults, no babies. And in 2003 there were only two crocs and no babies. The mugger has been listed as extinct in Bangladesh by the IUCN Red Data Book.

The Last Survivors

It was May and we were in Bangladesh. Floris Deodatus, a colleague working for the Sunderbans Biodiversity Project funded by the Asian Development Bank was charged with looking at Bangladesh's saltwater crocodiles (affectionately called “salties”). During the course of drawing up an action plan he became aware of the dismal situation of the country’s mugger crocs. He could trace only four muggers in all of Bangladesh – two in different zoos and two in a lake adjacent to a Muslim shrine called Khan Jahan Ali Mazar. The female croc at the Mazar had been known to lay eggs every year, but no hatchlings had emerged for several years. There were various theories to explain this. An organization called Winrock International in Bangladesh and the IUCN/SSC/Crocodile Specialist Group arranged for us to visit the location to see what Rom had to suggest.

The history

In the 1400s a Turkish general, Khan Jahan Ali arrived in Bagerhat, (south of the port city of Khulna), with his followers and settled down to a life of spiritual Sufi calm and contemplation. He excavated a huge lake estimated at about 6 ha. in extent and introduced two mugger crocs. He named them Khalapahar (black mountain) and Dhalapahar (white mountain). When he died, his mausoleum became a shrine. The affairs of the shrine are taken care of by the 300 descendents of Khan Jahan Ali’s retinue, called kadem, who live around the lake. The two crocs living in the lake are believed to be the descendents of Dhalapahar and Khalapahar and are also called by the same names. Hundreds of pilgrims visit the shrine each day and show their reverence by feeding the crocs pieces of meat and whole chickens. Being reptiles, their metabolism doesn't require such daily feedings and they were both obese. The male in fact was as tame as a puppy, coming whenever summoned for feeding by the kadem. Understandably, the kadem were in a panic that their crocs were impotent. All of the shrine’s income came from pilgrims wanting to see the crocs. Since voicing such concern might create adverse publicity, the kadem were on their guard with us initially. They didn't think there was any problem, they didn't want any help, and they didn't want any interference. It was through a local NGO called Rupantar, and its ebullient director Rafique ul Islam, that we managed to get through to the kadem at all.

The Present

Rom and Nirmol (a forest department employee assisting us) marked the top of each egg. Croc eggs can’t be turned over or the embryo will rip from its moorings and die. After retrieving the eggs we needed to check if they were fertile or not. One of the more liberal kadem, the long bearded Fakir Sher Ali led us to a hut close by. Under Rom’s supervision, he drilled a hole through the bottom of an earthen pot. Next we needed a bare electric bulb. The fakir got one and Rom retreated into the dark hut, which was soon jammed full with masses of perspiring bodies watching what was happening to their beloved Dhalapahar's eggs. Rom thrust the bulb into the pot and turning it around, had a thin sharp beam of light. He held each egg so it was backlit by the beam. The egg was translucent, no sign of blood vessels, or any sign of an opaque blob at the top that would be an embryo. Every single egg was infertile!

Rapid fire Bengali shot back and forth as people spilt out of the hut. One of the kadem said that the eggs must be returned to the nest. Rom explained that it wouldn't make any difference, as the eggs were infertile. One of them retorted that Khan Jahan Ali would ensure that embryos developed in the eggs later! This was going to be tough…

Struggles with religion

The crocs’ infertility could be due to one, or all, of several things: age of pair, incompatibility between the two, or obesity affecting the reproductive health of both. The course of action we discussed with the kadem was, first, that the other two crocs residing in zoos that were taken from Bagerhat would have to be returned. Second, although it would have been great to conserve the uniquely Bangladesh bloodline, it was too much of a long shot to do that with just four crocs. To prevent the total extinction of the mugger in Bangladesh, Rom suggested bringing 50 fertile eggs from the Madras Crocodile Bank and replacing Dhalapahar’s infertile eggs with them. She was a good protective mother who would guard the eggs and the babies after they hatch. There was good habitat - lots of reeds and vegetation - where the babies could cryptically hang out in a crèche. The insects that frequented the reeds would form their main diet.

But the kadem didn't think the Madrasi crocs were holy enough. We tried to convince them that they are the same crocs on the subcontinent for millions of years and that some of the holiness of the lake’s waters would rub off on the heathen crocs, but the kadem said they would much prefer artificial insemination to importing crocs from Madras. Then came word that one of the crocs believed till then to be at the Mirpur Zoo in Dhaka was dead. That left only the croc at the Khulna Zoo. A quick trip there confirmed that it was a female. So it was left to the Forest Department to negotiate the croc’s release to the Khan Jahan Ali Mazar lake.

An interloper

The next day, on a walk around the lake after dark, we heard the unmistakable sound of a croc splashing into the water. But it couldn’t be either Dhalapahar or Khalapahar... Rom got into the water and waded across in the direction of the sound. Pinned under a strong beam of light was a young saltwater crocodile! The panicky kadem had bought the saltie from a fisherman and released it into the lake! We went back to the kadem and argued that if they were agreeable to introducing a totally different species of croc, what was their objection to the ‘Madrasi’ muggers. Rom then pulled out his trump card – a black and white picture taken in 1941 of Mugger Pir in Karachi (see box, print 13). The kadem looked at the lake teeming with mugger crocs and their eyes glistened. Lots of humming and hawing later, they were finally ready to listen and cooperate. But first we asked them to remove the saltie from the lake as it would ruin any mugger-breeding program. The saltie would not only eat up the baby mugger but could become a nuisance to livestock and locals.

The Big Plan

Back in Dhaka, at the request of an enthused Forest Department, a pro-active action plan was drawn up that involved sending over 20 mugger crocs from Madras to stock the Forest Department’s croc breeding facility in Karamjal and another 20 to the huge new enclosure at Mirpur Zoo, Dhaka. The paperwork is being processed by the Indian Government and we hope the necessary permission will be given soon. In the meantime, we are raising funds to move the crocs to Dhaka. Alitalia has agreed to cut freight rates but the Bangladeshis still need to raise four and half lakh rupees. So far there are no other sponsors. Anybody willing to chip in to bring the muggers back to Bangladesh?

Epilogue - the crocs were shipped earlier this year and hopefully croc conservation in Bangladesh is in full swing.