ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31

A croc comes to town

~ If you happen to see ‘Bertram’ the crocodile strolling along the Wellawatte canal bank, do not attempt to feed it or harm it and it will not harm you, say wildlife experts

By Malaka Rodrigo, Pic by Mike Anthonisz

Where does one expect to find a crocodile basking in the sun or slowly gliding into the water? Many would assume it will be some place down south like Bundala or in the marshes of Negombo. But there is news for those living in Colombo, for a crocodile has been sighted close to the canal in Wellawatte. While experts assured people that there was nothing to fear they also urged them not to feed it or harm it as it goes about its routine of catching prey, eating and sleeping.

“It is a Salt-water Crocodile (Gata kimbula),” confirms Dr. Anslem de Silva, a renowned herpetologist and member of the IUCN’s Crocodile Study Group, explaining that fewer than 300 Salt-water Crocodiles are surviving in natural environments in Sri Lanka. These crocodiles are also heavily threatened and it is surprising to see a healthy animal in a polluted waterway like the Wellawatte canal, he said, stressing that crocodiles are an important link in the eco-system as they clean up the waterways by feeding on sick fish or scavenging on rotten carcasses.

Like elephants, only one or two crocodiles are “notorious”. Fish is their main diet and humans are not among their natural prey, he reassured. When contacted, Dr. Tharaka Prasad of the Department of Wildlife Conservation said that a decision on the capture and relocation of a crocodile would be taken only after evaluating the potential danger not only to the people but also to the animal. They will observe the crocodile at Wellawatte before any decision is taken.

“In many places crocodiles live in harmony with people and are not aggressive. But if the need arises, we use several methods to capture troublesome crocs. Baiting and setting up cages to capture them are some methods. Nets are used if the reptile can be cornered easily. We never set nets in water to trap a crocodile in the night, as a delay in taking it out will result in the entangled crocodile drowning,” said Dr. Prasad who is Acting Deputy Director, Wildlife Health Management.

Once captured, they are released to sanctuaries or national parks depending on the crocodile population already living there. It is a tedious, time consuming and dangerous job, he explained, emphasizing that it is extremely dangerous to feed crocodiles. “Feeding the crocodile in Wellawatte should be stopped immediately,” he urged. Down the years from the colonial era, there has been evidence that crocodiles have lived in the canals built by the Dutch. The Kayman Gate in Pettah (Kaiman Dorakada in Sinhala) means ‘Crocodile Gate’, with Kayman being the corrupt form of the Caribbean word for crocodile, and had been in use among the Dutch in the East.

Crocodiles may have been introduced into the moats around the forts to protect the gates, The Sunday Times learns and the crocodile in Wellawatte may very well be a descendant of one of them. An atlas drawn in the 12th century, which Dr. de Silva saw in a Cathedral in England had, interestingly, indicated two crocodiles on Sri Lanka.

There are two species of crocodiles living in Sri Lanka -- the Salt-water or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) which prefers brackish water and the Mugger Crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) known in Sinhala as Hala Kimbula, estimated to number around 1200 which lives in fresh water habitats. Bolgoda, Bentota, Negombo, Muthurajawela, Trincomalee and Matara are some of the hideouts of the ‘Saltie’ while water bodies across the country are home to the Mugger.

The Salt-water Crocodile is deemed responsible for most attacks as it grows larger than its cousin, usually up to about 6m and the worst battles between crocs and humans occur along the Nilwala river in Matara. It is believed that butcheries in some parts of Matara used to dump cattle carcasses into the river, which made crocodiles acquire a taste for such flesh resulting in them hunting not only cattle but also humans.

The common theory, however, is that some aging crocodiles are suspects in such attacks as they are slower and find it difficult to hunt for fish and other natural prey. Another school of thought is that the fish population in the river is also diminishing compelling crocodiles to seek alternative food.

Killing a crocodile, having their skins or teeth in one’s possession or raising crocodiles in captivity is prohibited, under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. However, killing of crocodiles due to fear or to take their meat or skin takes place, while natural threats to these creatures come in the form of habitat loss and fragmentation.

The Salt-water Crocodile builds its nest using flag-plants (ketala) and loss of nesting material disturbs the breeding cycle. The nests are also often destroyed by fishermen, while in some waterways, an imbalance in the water monitor population poses a threat to crocodiles, as they destroy crocodile eggs and feed on the young.

The croc which got entangled in a fishing net

The possibility that the Wellawatte canal may be a hideout for crocs came to light some years ago. In 1999, some fishermen from Moratuwa found a 12ft crocodile entangled in their net, which even amazed wildlife officials as it was found in the sea. This crocodile had been spotted in the sea near Kollupitiya, Moratuwa and Wellawatte before it got netted accidentally. It is believed that the heavy rain experienced at that time enabled the crocodile to enter the sea. This crocodile was later released at the Bundala National Park.

For human and crocodile to live in harmony, a few precautions will ensure safety from potential attack. In some rivers like the Nilwala, safe areas for bathing have been demarcated using wooden panels. Rivers and waterholes in remote areas are the lifeline of many villages and men, women and children use them for their basic needs.

But a garbage-strewn and polluted waterway like the Wellawatte canal can very well be avoided. It will be best to keep away from the banks to ensure that a man-crocodile conflict does not take place there.

Meet the 7-foot neighbour

By Mike Anthonisz

It’s not some idyllic jungle hideaway in the vastness of a wilderness, but in the heart of the metropolis that Christopher Anthonisz, retired banker and octogenarian, has the dubious pleasure of sharing his neighbourhood with a seven-foot crocodile. Christo’s home borders the Wellawatte canal and this Salt-water Crocodile has been seen lazing away the forenoons on his canal bank walkway. Luckily for Christo, because of his advancing age he has given up his regular visits to the canal bank and has therefore avoided inadvertently stepping on the motionless croc.

The croc was first spotted about two months back in the water outside the fenced off garden of a playschool. The children in the Montessori next door have named it Bertram. Like all pets, Bertram was soon the happy recipient of tasty morsels being thrown to it by the curious children.

There have been reported sightings from as far back as 10–15 years ago of a crocodile down the Wellawatte canal, but such sightings have been few and far between and have for the most part been scoffed at as products of a fertile imagination or the mistaken identity of a large kabaragoya (Water Monitor). The kabaragoya was a frequent sight down the canal, but, come to think of it, I have not seen one for some months now along the stretch where the croc has been spotted.

What brought Bertram out of its hiding is not clear. Whether it was simply wanderlust or whether the recent dredging of the canal had anything to do with it, no one will know. It is possible that the dredging had opened up a hitherto blocked off canal pathway through which the crocodile was able to slip through. As to why it has taken lease of Christo’s canal bank however could be because this is perhaps the only bit of land that shelves down naturally to the water’s edge, without a concrete barrier being erected to hold the landfill in. Perhaps it also finds the salinity of the water just right to its taste – there is about a foot and a half rise in water levels with the changes in tides and there have even been some larger species of fish sometimes swimming up the canal.

The fact remains, however, that the croc is not easily fazed. The first photos of the croc were taken by Dickie Delpechitra while the dredger was doing its work in the same area. Dickie himself has been observing the behaviour of these species of crocodiles for some years now. An avid fisherman, Dickie’s holiday home on the Bolgoda Lake is a frequent haunt of the Anglers’ Club to which he belongs and on many a journey in his boat, Dickie has encountered the crocodiles that inhabit this body of water. On a recent excursion he reports having come across what he estimates to be an extremely large 15-footer –- leaving allowance for fisherman’s tales et al, suffice it to say that it was so large that he was duly impressed with the size of the monster.

Could the Wellawatte specimen be a member of this same family? It is well known that the canal system in Colombo has a network that connects up marshes like Muthurajawela, Diyawanna Oya and reaches as far south as the Bolgoda Lake. All it needs is a young croc with a sense of adventure to decide to set off one day to do a little exploring and see the world.

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