In a part of Gujarat, a community lives in extraordinary harmony with resident crocodiles, writes Anirudh Vasava.
Photo: Soham Mukherjee.
Darkness had descended on Deva village and the crescendo of frog mating calls filled the air. As we approached the lake, we found several of them on the water’s edge. A splash alerted us to another movement. We focused our flashlights towards the sound to find a set of glowing eyes. A juvenile mugger was on the prowl. The wary frogs began jumping into the water, while the croc steadily approached. Suddenly, it opened its jaw to perfectly trap an escaping frog.
What was I doing in the middle of the night in Deva, a village in the Charotar region of central Gujarat? A year earlier, I had been enticed by Dhaval Patel, the managing trustee of the Voluntary Nature Conservancy (VNC) to visit. “You have to see it to believe it,” he had exclaimed. “Deva’s crocodiles are unique, people are unafraid of them,” he had added. We had set off and within an hour, I was looking at nearly 30 crocodiles basking along a lakeshore. All around the crocs were people! Women washed clothes, livestock drank from the lake and children played nearby. I soon learnt that similar scenes played out across Charotar.
Densely populated, dominated by agricultural fields and with virtually no forest cover, Charotar is an unlikely area for India’s largest freshwater predator. Yet, people here have always lived alongside the reptiles and continue to do so, with minimal conflict.
Though I was in Gujarat to initiate a project on wolves, this unique paradigm intrigued me. While I had no experience in herpetology, I was interested in human-wildlife interaction. I read available literature on Charotar, but found little information. With Dhaval’s encouragement, I decided to apply for funding from the Rufford Foundation to study these crocs, and received a positive response.
Dr. Raju Vyas, a well-known herpetologist who has studied the crocodiles of the Vadodara region for almost two decades, agreed to be the scientific adviser for the project. Over five years, Dr. Vyas and Jigar Upadhyay, a researcher from Ahmedabad, had already been independently chalking out the status of muggers here by conducting field surveys and interviews. We hoped that our study would further provide a systematic assessment of population, available mugger habitat and prevailing threats.
Photo: Vishal Mistry.
By the summer of 2013, I was joined by Vishal Mistry, a volunteer with VNC and resident of a neighbouring village Vaso, as a Research Assistant, and Mehul Patel, VNC’s Education Coordinator. The water level was low in the large wetlands, and the smaller ones had dried. Muggers stayed inside burrows to escape the scorching heat, only emerging at night to feed. So we too adapted to a nocturnal life, utilising the day to look for burrows, conduct interviews and assess habitat quality.
“Are you gator boys?” asked a student in Heranj village, who saw us taking notes and who had probably watched Animal Planet. “Are you here to catch the alligators?” he asked us again. “No, we are here to study them,” I replied, adding that these were not alligators, but muggers.
Muggers construct nests during the dry season through the wet season with the earliest seen around mid-April. There is considerable increase in the female’s activity at the den site, just prior to nest building, and well-worn trails take shape leading from the den to water. This activity was usually observed about one week before nest construction began. Egg-laying took place from April end to June end, and hatching commenced at the start of the wet season in June and extended up to August. On one instance, we were invited by a villager to see a croc burrow in his backyard. He reported that the burrow has been there for more than four years, and that he had no problems sharing his home.
Surveying crocodiles at night in Deva brought with it a unique problem. Deva was inhabited by a huge male water buffalo that had been disowned by his owner, the ‘Jalpado’ as we called him. A healthy specimen, he was always in the water and was intolerant of flashlights. So whenever we attempted to count crocs, we would instead find a buffalo charging at us, forcing us to run for our lives. It seemed that the crocodiles were also afraid of this animal and moved away as he entered the water. Other times, during night surveys, we found ourselves surrounded by villagers, who mistook us for thieves! Luckily, Vishal would come to our rescue or we would surely have received a beating.
Making a difference
Since he joined Voluntary Nature Conservation (VNC) in 2011, Mehul Patel has provided nature education to more than one and half lakh students. During our survey period between 2013 and 2015, Mehul, with the help of Vishal Mistry, began outreach initiatives in 25 schools in 15 villages having potential mugger habitats. Through audio-visual presentations and interactive discussions, he spoke to children about the basic biology and behaviour of muggers, and the role they play in maintaining aquatic ecosystems. He also highlighted the threats and the ways of co-existence. Nearly 5,000 students and around 400 teachers have benefitted from VNC’s work.
In Gujarati, the word ‘Charotar’ means a pot full of gold, supposedly coined in lieu of the fertility of the land. Charotar comprises parts of the Anand and Kheda districts and is located between two major rivers; Sabarmati on the west and Mahisagar on the east. Although it lacks forests, it has the highest density of urban trees in the state, and is considered the green bowl of Gujarat. Large areas are irrigated by the Mahi Irrigation Project, and most waterbodies are interlinked by an intensive canal network. This network acts as highways for dispersing crocodiles.
“Magara (mugger) to bap dada na jaman thi che (muggers have survived in this village since the times of our forefathers),” says Durgesh Patel, the Sarpanch of Malataj village. “Crocodiles were released in the region by the Maharajas of Vadodara for sport,” claimed Mathur Patel, a wizened, old man we met at Traj village, although we did not find any published evidence stating this.
To a limited extent, the drying up of wetlands in hot months, flooding of burrows due to rise of the water level, habitat encroachment and road kills do pose a threat to the future of these muggers. Villagers use parts of the wetland to grow the Indian water chestnut Trapa bispinosa and lotus Nelumbo nucifera, and pesticide use is rampant. This is likely to affect the various trophic levels in these wetland ecosystems.
In the monsoons, water levels rise, flooding many crocodile-basking areas and burrows. The release of water in these canals also inundates many of the burrows thereby hindering hatching. The muggers are forced to indulge in local dispersal, and migrate to other ponds. In this season, they also lay eggs, and hatchlings make these ponds their own. Since most wetlands are interconnected, during the monsoon when the waters rise, muggers use the canals to move from one village to another, often reaching less-tolerant areas. Negative reports by the media add to the fear mongering. A number of crocodiles are rescued every year from human habitations, and during our project, nearly 17 were rescued from different villages by authorities.
Despite this, overall there is a great tolerance for these animals. The village pond of Malataj village in Anand district has become an excellent example of coexistence. The villagers here even ask the Forest Department to release rescued animals in their village pond. Although the villagers claim to have nearly 70 muggers, our survey concluded that there were 18-24 adult animals in the pond. Jilesh Patel, a volunteer with VNC and a resident of Malataj, says, “When we were kids, we used to play just nine-fifteen metres away from where muggers used to bask. We were never afraid of them. Neither did our parents warn us against them.”
Durgesh Patel, the sarpanch, says, “There is nothing to fear. Muggers have never attacked anyone in Malataj. If we do not harm them, they do not harm us.” No wonder, Malataj is being promoted as ‘Magaro nu gam’ (the crocodile village). People from other villages tell us, “Ato chaniya magar che, chhan khay ne jive, te kai na kare (these are dung crocodiles, they eat cow dung, they do nothing).” Villagers pile excess cow dung at the village edge, sometimes near the pond. Muggers find refuge in these piles of cow dung as it provides excellent warmth in the cold. This association of cow dung and muggers has led villagers to believe that the muggers eat cow dung, apart from fish and birds. The idols of local goddess Khodiyar too depict the deity mounted on a crocodile – a symbol of coexistence, say residents.
However, it is important to note that the muggers have been positively accepted because there have been very few attacks in this region. One incident involving the attack and death of a girl in Traj village in our study region resulted in agitated people demanding the removal of muggers. Seven to eight muggers were captured and relocated. Unfortunate incidents like these can turn the tide. Forty kilometres from Charotar, in Vadodara, the situation is starkly different. With nearly 40 attacks on humans, of which 28 were fatal, and 200 rescues in the last five years, Vadodara needs urgent attention. As per the data generated by the website CrocBite (www.crocodile-attack.info), Gujarat faces the highest mugger attacks in India. Crocs that are rescued are set free mostly in the Aajwa reservoir on the outskirts of Vadodara. Their population has increased manifold in the last few years. This means an increasing number of human-crocodile encounters. The 22 km. stretch of the Vishwamitri river in Vadodara is home to more than 200 adult crocodiles.
Photo: Anirudh Vasava
Protecting Charotar’s crocs
Though the mugger population in Charotar is healthy, we identified certain threats. Direct human influences such as poaching and collection of eggs were not reported, and local villagers are not involved in fishing. However, most wetlands are leased out by the village panchayat to fishing contractors. They place large gill nets in the wetlands, wherein muggers occasionally get trapped. If not rescued in time, they could suffocate to death. Some of these contractual fishermen, who come from outside Gujarat, intentionally capture muggers, tie them up and keep them outside the water until they finish fishing, so as to protect their nets. It was in such a scenario at Traj village that a mugger tied to a tree, injured a small boy.
Our surveys in Deva village revealed that animal skinners often leave remains of other animals for the muggers. This could encourage the reptiles to lose their fear of humans and approach too close in search of easy food. Some reports suggest they cross the road between the pond and village. On one occasion, a mugger was killed by a vehicle near Vaso village.
During winters, when muggers bask intensively, village kids disturb them by throwing stones or poking them with sticks. Once when we arrived to monitor the burrow of a female just outside Heranj village, we saw that kids had tied a rope around her snout to play tug-of-war. We stopped them and explained why this could be dangerous. A few months later Vishal informed me that the female had become aggressive and would charge anybody who approached. On many occasions, villagers from certain villages were found defecating just at the entrance of burrows. Such close encounters between crocodiles and people could possibly escalate conflict.
A future with muggers
During our two-year study, we surveyed 67 potential localities to enumerate the distribution and population status of muggers. We located muggers at 27 of these villages, 10 of which were not previously known to be occupied by crocs. Their occurrence was reported from another 16 villages, based on indirect evidences and interviews. However, they could not be sighted in these villages, perhaps because they do not have a permanent breeding population here. Our population survey revealed that there are around 180-230 muggers. Of the total muggers observed, 71 per cent of the observations occurred in six localities; Deva, Vaso, Heranj, Marala-Naghrama, Traj and Malataj.
Conservation of any species depends on the tolerance of locals, especially in Charotar, where humans and crocodiles use the same resources. Certain key ﬁndings emerged from our study. Despite pronounced urbanisation and reduction of habitat, muggers play an important role in people’s consciousness. The respondents’ views of muggers were surprisingly favourable in our study area with 81 per cent professing a liking for the species and 81.82 per cent supporting their protection. A majority of the respondents (67.52 per cent) suggested that they be protected where they occur presently. Overall, men and women had similar concerns and showed almost equal tolerance toward muggers. The older generation, not surprisingly, were more knowledgeable about muggers. The main variable accounting for negative attitudes was safety concerns. This can have important implications on the reptiles’ conservation here, as these mugger populations are surviving outside. Protected Areas.
While there is minimal conflict in the Charotar region now, one cannot predict the future. Increasingly, muggers are being rescued from many areas of Charotar and translocated to either Pariej lake or Malataj village pond. The lack of appropriate ‘rescue and release’ protocols is worrisome. “Translocation of animals is not a viable option as many animals returned to the place where they were rescued from,” says Dr. Raju Vyas. It is vital to craft conservation plans including effective and adequate compensation in the case of human or livestock loss due to muggers. It is also necessary to decrease the interface between humans and muggers. In some villages, Crocodile Exclusion Enclosures (CEE) for people to access the water’s edge have been installed.
“It is high time to design an action plan for this species at the state level and to evaluate the existing conservation strategy and reformulate management policies,” says Dr. Vyas. For me, the whole experience of studying these animals in Charotar has been inspirational. I had walked into a situation rarely seen in today’s sterile world and attained an unique insight into human-wildlife interaction.
Photo: Niyati Patel.
With inputs from Dhaval Patel and Dr. Raju Vyas.
The public participation of non-scientists in scientific research has become an important tool for monitoring and evaluating biodiversity. Citizen science is critical to engage the public to care for and participate in wildlife conservation. I had followed the excellent work done by Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) through the use of volunteers.
The idea for the ‘Charotar Crocodile Count’ stemmed from this and in December 2014, VNC conducted its first volunteer (mostly urban dwellers) based crocodile count in Charotar. Some 42 volunteers surveyed 18 villages in two days, resulting in the sighting of 98 individual crocodiles, and conducted more than 200 interviews. Buoyed by its success, we repeated this in 2015, which resulted in 61 participants surveying 26 villages and sighting 131 crocodiles. These volunteers come from all walks of life, aged 18 to 60. The participants provide a wealth of baseline data in a small amount of time, which would otherwise have taken months of field work. This year, we received more than 250 entries for the two-day Charotar Crocodile Count-2016 held on January 16 and 17.
Author: Anirudh Vasava, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 2, February 2016.