Offshore Croc has Matara abuzz

By Malaka Rodrigo

A local poem ‘Matara gange inna kimbulige patiya’ colloquially refers to crocodiles in Matara’s Nilwala River, but one of them, sighted in the sea off Matara town, surprised onlookers last week. This 10-ft crocodile was spotted on January 6, resting on the rocks near Pigeon Island.

Nilwala River is famous for crocodiles, and it is believed that this one was dragged out to sea by strong river currents, caused by the recent heavy rains. After some time on the rock, the crocodile had jumped into the sea and disappeared.

The croc on the rocks
The croc swims away
A crowd gatherd to see the unusual sight

The monks at the Uposathagara Maha Viharaya on Pigeon Island, informed the Wildlife officers of the crocodile. Hathara Liyadde Mangala Thera said a crocodile was first sighted offshore near the temple in April, and recalls sighting it about four times before the last sighting. The crowd too was sympathetic of the usually feared creature, thinking salt water would harm him.

A common belief is that the crocodile’s eyes bulge when in sea water, making the crocodile blind, but experts disagree. Vice Chairman- Crocodile Specialists Group, IUCN/SSC South Asia & Iran, Dr. Anslem De Silva assures that crocodiles can tolerate salt water.

“Crocodiles also have organs to excrete excess salt from their body, and this particular one, which should be a saltwater crocodile, could survive in the sea,” suggests the crocodile expert.

Sri Lanka has two species of crocodiles – the Mugger Crocodile (Marsh Crocodile) mainly found in freshwater tanks, and the Saltwater Crocodile (Estuarine Crocodile) which prefers estuaries and lagoon habitats.

Like the name and its usual habitats suggest, the saltwater crocodile has a higher tolerance for sea water, but according to the croc expert, even the Mugger Crocodile can tolerate salt water.

Dr. Anslem recalls that a large saltwater crocodile, believed to have originated from Sri Lanka, was found in seas off Chennai, swimming all the way to India. This was about 20 years ago, and the skeleton of this large crocodile can still be seen in the Madras crocodile bank. Many years ago, a crocodile was also found swimming in the seas off Kollupitiya, and later found entangled in fishing nets in seas off Moratuwa.

Wildlife Ranger- Hambantota, Thusharapala Epage visited Matara with a team to investigate the crocodile sighted offshore. But the crocodile had disappeared at that time, and their efforts to locate the reptile failed. The team had educated the crowd of the situation and to keep in touch with the temple to take necessary action. The Wildlife Ranger also said that another small crocodile found offshore near Dondra lighthouse in Matara, was captured and released into the Udawalawe National Park sometime back.

Matara is one of the worst areas of human-crocodile conflict. Crocodiles kill many people annually and hence crocodiles are hunted down frequently. This conflict has resulted in the reduction in numbers of the saltwater crocodiles in Sri Lanka. Lack of nesting habitats are also one of the reasons for their decline, according to experts.

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