Killing of Ragama croc frowned on by environmentalists

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Two victims, a human and a crocodile, in a tragedy played out at Ragama. Sebastian Angelo Uday Kumara, 36, who went missing on January 26, is believed to have been killed by a crocodile at the Meda marsh in Ragama town while the alleged killer-croc captured by people of the area last week, breathed its last in agony on Wednesday night.

The 15-foot crocodile was trussed up and dragged here and there by residents who captured it. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The crocodile had been captured by using a chicken, with a large hook hidden inside the creature, as bait. With hundreds of people milling around to get a glimpse, the massive Saltwater crocodile, over 15-feet in length, which had swallowed the chicken, hook and all had been trussed up tightly, dragged here and there and hammered on the head with an axe and seemed to be in terrible agony, when the Sunday Times went to the area.

This tragedy highlights the need to mitigate the human-crocodile conflict (HEC) as humans invade the territory of this endangered species in Sri Lanka, environmentalists stressed, with Anslem de Silva, Vice Chairman, Crocodile Specialist Group IUCN/SSC for South Asia and Iran, urging local government authorities to put up warning boards in areas where crocodiles are spotted, so that people are aware of the danger.

The Ragama crocodile had swallowed the hook-embedded bait two or three days before Wednesday, the Sunday Times learns. Transported carefully to the National Zoological Gardens at Dehiwela by officials of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) under the instructions of DWC’s Dr. Tharaka Prasad, a team of Zoo veterinary surgeons, along with Dr. D.S. Kodikara called in for the purpose was awaiting the animal on Wednesday night to operate on it immediately to remove the hook. However, the crocodile died a few minutes after being brought in, it is learnt.

The four-inch hook bent in the shape of an anchor had severely injured the oesophagus and surrounding tissue of the crocodile, said Zoo Veterinary Surgeon, Dr. Jagath Jayasekara when contacted by the Sunday Times, explaining that the necrosis around the area indicated that the hook had been swallowed two or three days earlier.

There could be two possibilities, the Sunday Times understands. The animal may have swallowed the bait earlier and hidden in agony and then pulled out by people when it weakened on Wednesday, or people may have found it as soon as it swallowed the hook and harassed it without informing officials until Wednesday.

The hook that had been used inside the chicken that was used as a bait

The injury from a sharp weapon on the head had been inflicted around Tuesday evening, said Dr. Jayasekara, pointing out that it had fractured the skull and caused trauma to the brain.

The stomach contents, the post-mortem had found, included bones which the Zoo vets suspect are human and also tortoises, cattle hooves, bones of small carnivores such as cats and dogs, nails of fishing cats and lots of polythene, he said, adding that on the request of the Ragama Coroner M. Priyankara Lal, the bones suspected to be human have been sent to the Department of Forensic Medicine, Ragama Medical Faculty for examination. This is most probably to establish whether the bones are those of Kumara.

“It is against the law to harass or kill a protected animal such as this crocodile,” explained Dr. Jayasekara, while other environmentalists said that people should be discouraged from taking the law into their own hands without calling in the relevant officials, even in the face of a human killing.

While Zoo Director Bhashwara Senanka Gunarathna has instructed that the crocodile should be kept as an exhibit at their museum, the Ragama Coroner Mr. Lal who had returned an open verdict on the death of Kumara is due to take up the hearing on February 24.

A boy of about 12 who heard and saw the photos of the crocodile in agony summed up the tragedy well when he said, “We go into their (crocs’) home and when they do what is instinctive to them (predation), we kill them.”

Scheme to separate man and croc

Referring to the two types of crocodiles found in Sri Lanka, Mr. Anslem de Silva said the Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and the Mugger (Crocodylus palustris) play an important role in the eco-system.

Crocodiles are apex predators (adult crocodiles have no natural predators in the eco-system) and also a keystone species, surviving from the time of the dinosaurs.

These factors point to the need to protect crocodiles, Mr. de Silva said, referring to an e-mail sent to him by Dr. Brandon Sideleau, a world authority on croc attacks which states, "……it's sad the crocodile died. I am assuming there are not many of that size in the area".

A survey of Mr. de Silva has found that over about 15 years more than 130 people have been attacked with 35 deaths. More than 50 crocodiles have also been killed.

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