The name is called and out they come. The moment “water” is mentioned, they slip back in. No they are not little children enjoying a swim, but crocodiles, big and small, whom many would assume will not respond to a name. This is where the public perception is clearly wrong. ‘Romeo’, ‘Godzilla’, ‘Chip’, ‘Psycho’, ‘Ally’, [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Where crocs from around the world bask and cool off

With Sri Lanka set to host the World Crocodile Conference next year Kumudini Hettiarachchi catches up with a duo, who were here from one of the largest reptile zoos in the world, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust

The name is called and out they come. The moment “water” is mentioned, they slip back in. No they are not little children enjoying a swim, but crocodiles, big and small, whom many would assume will not respond to a name.
This is where the public perception is clearly wrong. ‘Romeo’, ‘Godzilla’, ‘Chip’, ‘Psycho’, ‘Ally’, ‘Melanie’, ‘Julie’, ‘Biceps’ and, of course, ‘Jaws’ et al respond to their names.

Talking crocs: Anslem with Colin and Gowri. Pic by Amila Gamage

People think that unlike elephants, lions, tigers and monkeys, crocodiles are somewhat stupid. They are certainly not. They respond when a pattern is developed, is what the Sunday Times learns from a duo of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, described as “one of the largest reptile zoos in the world and one of the oldest non-governmental environmental organisations in Asia”.

‘Jaws’ named after the horror movie-thriller of Steven Spielberg is huge, 16.5 feet in length, smiles the organisation’s Director Colin James Stevenson who along with Assistant Director and Veterinary Surgeon Gowri Mallapur were in Colombo this week to discuss plans and support for the World Crocodile Conference to be held in Sri Lanka from May 20-23, next year.
The conference is being held under the stewardship of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-Species Survival Commission (SSC) Crocodile Specialist Group’s Regional Chairman for South Asia and Iran, Anslem de Silva and his team.

The Madras Crocodile Bank will sponsor a major symposium during the conference on the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and assist another on the human crocodile conflict (HCC). It will also fund some Indian delegates who will make presentations at the conference.

The HCC symposium will certainly not be just a talk shop, assures Colin, referring to a pre-cursor in India in August where a lot of ideas were placed on the table. They are committed to follow up and work out a strategy on mitigating the HCC which is similar to all human-wildlife conflicts.

Getting back to their favourite topic, they are quick to point out that the zoo and centre sited on 10 acres, have 18 of the 23 crocodile species found around the world. With more than 2,000, it is one of the largest captive crocodile populations.
“We are also the only zoo in India which supports three field bases – the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka; the Andaman and Nicobar islands’ Environmental Team; and the Field Station in the National Chambal Sanctuary,” says Gowrie who had closed her practice as a vet in Mumbai and moved to the Madras Crocodile Bank due to “madness”.
As an Australian who has liked crocodiles all his life, the crocodile bank “drew me” and he found it irresistible when its legendary founder, Romulus Whitaker made the offer. “It’s a zoo with a difference and we are proud of what we do, with active research providing a bonus.”

It had been in 1976 that Whitaker and a like-minded group set up the bank to save India’s dwindling crocodile population which was on the brink of extinction, having been hunted for their skins to make exotic fashion accessories.
Earlier in 1972, the Indian government had protected all three species of Indian crocodilians — the rarest of all, the gharial and the mugger (Crocodylus palustris) and the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). The latter two are also found in Sri Lanka.
The situation from the 1970s does not seem to have changed much. The gharial has been “upgraded” from the ‘Endangered’ category on the Red List of the IUCN to ‘Critically Endangered’ while the mugger is still in the ‘Vulnerable’ category, Colin points out.

Originally designed to be “a living genetic repository of crocodiles for safekeeping, to protect and multiply until such time when they could be returned to restock their original wild habitats”, the croc bank has shifted gear. “This is due to shrinking wilderness areas and the lack of suitable habitat,” says Colin, asking whether it’s not a pointless exercise to keep releasing them into rivers if the threats are persisting.

Citing an example of a lack of suitable habitat, he says they need “basking spaces” to raise their body temperature, while Gowri explains that mining is posing a critical danger to sandbanks, affecting gharial strongholds in the National Chambal Sanctuary which straddles the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

With a strong focus of promoting the conservation of reptiles and their habitats through education, scientific research and captive breeding, the zoo and centre had later (in 2003) opened its doors to 13 species of turtles and five species of snakes.
A first has been the captive breeding of the critically-endangered Red-crowned Roofed turtle and the Travencore tortoise, the Sunday Times learns.

Exciting times are ahead for the Crocodile Bank and Herpetology Centre with a Master Plan which envisages geo-theme areas, having underwater-viewing of the animals and making efforts to get the five species of crocodiles of the 23 in the world they do not have into their fold. But that’s in the future, according to Colin as “international laws are very stringent and much paperwork has to be gone through”.

Crocodiles enjoy a swim. Pic courtesy of the MCBT

With both Colin and Gowri admitting that the most exciting project is the “gharial work”, they remain committed to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology because every day brings something different – be it a little tiff between a brother and sister crocodile, a quarrel among 400 muggers in one enclosure or a serious fight between saltwater crocs over territory.

What keeps them enamoured of croc work is also the ability to make people understand that though the much-maligned crocodile is a primitive creature (in fact it comes down from the time of the dinosaurs and is an apex predator), they are a vital part of the ecosystem.

Both Colin and Gowri get much satisfaction when men, women and children, after an enlightening tour, walk out not only with changed attitudes but also with respect for these creatures.

A chance to spot crocs by night

A unique strategy was worked out last Sunday to raise funds for the World Crocodile Conference to be held in Sri Lanka in May 2013. Eco-tours at night to catch glimpses of the crocodiles along the Nilwala river and educate locals are on the cards, the Sunday Times learns.

With members of the Crocodile Specialist Group as “guides”, the tours are to be organised by Lanka Exhibition and Conference Services (Pvt) Limited.

They are to be Wetland tours with a night thrown in because the best time to spot crocodiles would be then, due to these creatures being nocturnal and their shining eyes “showing them up easily,” a team member said.

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