Even as the country celebrated its 70th year as a free republic, an endangered species in Gujarat had its freedom taken away when the forest department in the state swooped on them to start a mass capture programme.
The Gujarat government has ordered for more than 500 crocodiles to be removed, as they are coming in the way of seaplanes landing near the multi-crore Statue of Unity that was recently constructed at the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
A newspaper report stated that the “Gujarat Forest Department has started evacuating crocodiles from two ponds on the Sardar Sarovar Dam premises on the Narmada, to make way for the seaplane service planned to promote tourism at the site. Using fish as bait to lure them into cages, the Forest Department has started removing the crocodiles, the largest of them so far about 10 feet. There is no deadline as of now for finishing the operation”. With more than 500 crocodiles estimated to be in the area, it is unclear how so many animals will be moved out and where they will be taken.
Translocating the Crocs Won’t Solve the Problem
Romulus Whitaker, a well-known crocodile expert who is also a member of the IUCN crocodile specialist group and set up the famous Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, fears that this effort could in fact lead to further conflict, if not conducted in a scientific manner under the supervision of experts. He condemned the move stating “It's a disgrace to relocate crocodiles from their home in the homeland of the goddess Khodiyar. This will not solve the problem; many crocodiles will die and translocating them will simply cause problems elsewhere. I'm sure the Central Government has not given the necessary permission to Schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act.”
Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta says every rule in the book is being violated in moving a Schedule I species out of their habitat. The Indian Mugger is on Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, which means it has been accorded the highest level of protection under India’s laws.
Dutta further asks, “ Were permissions taken from the Centre? Will their translocation help in the conservation of the species? These questions have simply not been addressed”.
‘Negligible’ Crocodile-Human Conflict?
It is ironic that this move by the forest department should come at a time when Gujarat has been praised for living harmoniously with crocodiles, and overall seems to have a greater tolerance for wild animals. The village pond of Malataj village in Anand district is often cited as an excellent example of coexistence of humans and crocodiles. The villagers here even ask the Forest Department to release more rescued animals in their village pond.
Studies done in the past on crocodile-human conflict by crocodile expert Raju Vyas from 1960 to 2013 observed that, in spite of the fact that across Gujarat where the reptilians live so close to humans, conflict has been quite low.
The total number of incidents based on secondary data gathered showed the total number of attacks on humans by crocodiles to be around 64 in a 54-year period span, that comes to an average of 1.18 crocodile attacks per year. This seems negligible in comparison to other incidents of human-wildlife conflict in the state, especially when compared to the records of snakebites in the state. But the same paper also observed that there has been a rise in incidents of human-crocodile conflict in recent years.
‘Homing’ Instincts of Crocodiles
The latest move by the Forest Department could exacerbate the situation. Crocodile biologist Soham Mukherjee who is based in Ahmedabad, and has been involved in hundreds of rescue efforts across Gujarat for the Indian Mugger, has also strongly condemned the decision to move the crocodiles out – “crocodiles have a very strong homing instinct and mechanisms.”
He adds, “Like other wild animals, they have ‘homes’ where they have grown up, knowing all about the various resources within, and have figured out a way of surviving there and fulfilling their biological and ecological needs. When removed from that system and translocated at random, they get into a homing mode where they will spend most of their energy in trying to ‘home back’. This is true especially for larger individuals, though younger crocs may be better at adapting to the new place”.
Main Threat to Indian Mugger
There are many research studies establishing this phenomenon of homing; one crocodile was documented to home back from its translocated place that was over 400 kms away. However, the concern doesn’t end at this. Soham fears like Whitaker, that the incidents of conflict with humans will only increase. “Local communities are by default in danger when large crocodiles are trying to migrate back to their homes through the intricate network of canals and streams across Gujarat. It has been observed that regions where crocs are regularly translocated under pretext of rescue, conflicts too are on the increase,” he says.
The Mugger is a medium-sized crocodile (maximum length 4-5 m), and has the broadest snout of any living member of the genus Crocodylus.
It is principally restricted to the Indian subcontinent, where it may be found in a number of freshwater habitat types including rivers, lakes and marshes and is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.
The main threat to the Indian Mugger is associated with habitat fragmentation, and global populations are estimated to be between 5000-7000 individuals. However, in India, there is still not enough data to estimate whether their populations are increasing or decreasing.
A Long Ride Home for the Indian Mugger Croc
A feasibility report on the seaplane service had been prepared in the run-up to the inauguration of the Statue of Unity in October 2018, by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and Department of Civil Aviation.
The Centre had promised this service in the state, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelling in a seaplane from Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad to Dharoi Dam in Ambaji in December 2017, marking the end of his campaign for the Gujarat Assembly polls. As the Gujarat government moves into high-speed gear to translocate the animals, for the Indian mugger it’s going to be a long ride home.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environment journalist and conservation biologist. She tweets at @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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