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Zen & The Art Of Crocodile Spotting

Zen & The Art Of Crocodile Spotting

Harvey D’Souza delightfully touches upon the magic of the Cumbarjua, how it encapsulates the spirit of Goa, plus a few nostalgic thoughts about the call of the wild.

A mugger in the mangroves can be tough to spot. Photo: Harvey D’Souza

There’s a place where Goa still rocks. I am not returning to Spain until we journey there.

I would like to introduce my children to an old friend who lives there. Were it not for Crocky Wock, I would never have met their mother.

We rent a boat and head out into the Cumbarjua mangroves. Stray muggers have been sighted all over Goa, and hatchlings have cropped up in the unlikeliest of places, such as the Panjim creek and the Dudhsagar waterfalls — but there is no better place than the Cumbarjua to spot my elusive friend, the marsh crocodile.

I should know.

Two decades ago, I ran crocodile safaris here with Neil Alvares.

It was on one of our boat trips that I met the beautiful Spanish senorita Felicia Lopez, then working as a veterinary surgeon for the International Animal Rescue, an organisation involved in the sterilisation of stray dogs in Goa. Ours was a slow burning, susegad romance; we got married four years later in England, in 2004.

This is our first trip to Goa with our three children.

Besides the crew Franky and Royston, who conduct crocodile safaris for small groups from October to May, there are eight of us on this boat: Felicia and I, our three children Javier, Felix and Sofia, their cousin Shannon, Rick Hollands, Felicia´s former boss from England who is holidaying in Goa, and Neil Alvares. After we closed Southern Birdwing, our wildlife eco-tourism venture, I moved to England and Neil migrated to Canada in 2005. He works as an environmental inspector in Calgary and is an avid wildlife photographer. Now Neil is down in Goa for his brother’s wedding. That’s two welcome coincidences.

Franky and Royston impress Neil and I from the start by spotting a Terek’s Sandpiper, a small nondescript wader with an upturned beak and orange legs, out on the mudflats.

It’s 12 o’clock; I preferred a morning trip, but had to settle for a noon start because that way we get the low tide both ways, which is ideal for spotting crocodiles. Wildlife watching depends on two factors: luck and planning. We strike gold on both counts.

Elsewhere in India, muggers are found in freshwater bodies. In Goa, they live in brackish environs. Photo: Harvey D’Souza

WHISPERING OF THE MANGROVES

Our tiny craft manoeuvres into the narrow side creeks, flanked on either side by thick mangrove cover. The children edge up to the front of the boat, intently observing the multitude of life forms that thrive in the mangrove ecosystem. They delight in the fiddler crabs, the mudskippers and the needlefish; even the bewitching aerial roots of the mangroves fascinate them.

But it is the birds in the mangroves that command their attention, perhaps more than the crocodiles.

The striking Black-capped Kingfisher with its coral-red bill and bright purple-blue plumage makes us gasp in delight. Heinz Lainer, our birdwatcher friend from Anjuna, says it’s the most beautiful kingfisher of them all. Spain can boast of just one kingfisher, the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis. We record five Alcedinidae species in the Cumbarjua that day!

While the Black-capped Kingfisher looks dressed to kill, the children know it is the Collared Kingfisher that is prized more, simply because it can be spotted in only a few places in Goa. One perches on a branch a few feet away; we watch it with bated breath, honoured to be treated thus. During our Southern Birdwing days, we used to organise boat trips to spot the Collared Kingfisher.

In the distance I see some fishing poles planted in the river. Excitedly, I scan them, hoping to see another familiar friend from yesteryear. Sure enough, there she is, seated on her favourite post, looking as regal as ever. “Osprey up ahead!” I proclaim triumphantly. Franky draws close, careful not to spook the raptor. We gaze at it in awe; this is a proud female, with a distinctive black necklace across the breast, bright yellow eyes, and not about to relinquish her post. Except for the whirr of Neil’s camera and the low hum of the outboard motor, there is silence on board.

In 2005, Felicia and I drove to Loch Garten, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) nature reserve in Scotland. Among its many touted delights is the osprey nesting site. We spent the entire morning in the RSPB hide with a dozen others intently peering into telescopes, hoping to spot the osprey. An RSPB volunteer entertained us with anecdotes about the osprey’s romance with Loch Garten, aided by short film clips.

However, our chief guest never turned up. In the end we gave up looking for the osprey and drove on to Loch Ness.

We’ve come a long way, seated 15 metres away from an osprey in the middle of the Cumbarjua river, and me sipping a Kingfisher beer. I swear I’ll never forget that beer.

The Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus is a common, but captivating resident of the Cumbarjua. Photo: Harvey D’Souza

THE LORD OF THE MANGROVES

The Brahminy Kite, or the biryani kite, as nicknamed by Sofia, is common in the mangroves, but is still one to behold. Come April it will start nesting, and the air will be rent with its incessant calls. Deep in the foliage is another treat for discerning eyes: Black-crowned Night Herons and flying foxes roost in silence. Many a traveller must have passed beneath them, blissfully oblivious of their presence.

As the boat edges onward, Felix shouts, “Hey, there’s a crocodile!” Sure enough, there’s a small mugger, camouflaged superbly against the mud bank. I am chuffed that eight-year-old Felix has spotted the first crocodile of the trip. You may think it’s no big deal to spot a striking fella like the croc, but you couldn’t be more mistaken. Greased with muck, lying motionless in the mangroves, a crocodile is all but invisible. Even a three-metre mugger out in the open is a task to be spotted; beware that log of wood or pile of muck, it may well be a crocodile! I remember pointing to huge muggers on our boat trips; tourists would stare at the spot for ages and shake their heads in desperation, unable to register the crocodile!

I have often wondered what people think when they see a crocodile in the Cumbarjua. Are they thrilled to observe an animal in the wild? Perhaps they are also overwhelmed to see an animal that they would have been unlikely to spot in their backyard? I know the marsh crocodile is not on par with the Bengal tiger, but does anyone realise that this reptile made its appearance some 240 million years ago, about the same time as the dinosaurs – and has outlasted the dinosaur! Crocodiles are clever predators, far cleverer than most people think. They have been recorded using tools to hunt; they possess a keen sense of hearing, and have good vision underwater and at night. They can stay underwater for up to two hours and are protected by a tough, scaly skin with bony plates called osteoderms. Their slow metabolism enables them to survive for months without food, and their jaws deliver the strongest bite in the animal kingdom. They are fast swimmers and, uniquely, they have integumentary sensory organs (ISOs) all over their body that help them detect physical and chemical stimuli, enabling them to distinguish prey on land even when they are underwater.

Yes, there is reason enough to be awed by the marsh crocodile, to be filled with silence when you face the Lord of the Mangroves. But the wonder does not end there.

Every day the Cumbarjua has a different tale to tell. Today, we spot 26 crocodiles, an astonishing record. The most we ever managed on our Southern Birdwing boat safaris were 13 muggers!

I imagine that some of these crocodiles are ours. Between 1999 and 2004, Neil and I released about 44 crocodiles into the Cumbarjua river, an initiative that was highlighted by Animal Planet, BBC Radio 4 and other news media. But, as Neil rightly points out, there’s no way of telling which crocodiles are ‘ours’ as their tags would no longer be visible. Romulus Whitaker of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology showed us a simple method of tagging the crocodiles by cutting one of the scales on their tail, the only downside being that the scale would grow back after a few years.

Still, the thought lingers at the back of my mind, like a shy crockle that stays put deep in the mangrove undergrowth.

The most beautiful and the rarest. The Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata (left) is arguably one of the most beautiful kingfishers. Photo: Neil Alvares

IT’S TIME TO RETURN

I would like to travel further up the river to see if the Peregrine Falcon still sits high up in the pylons and if the huge three-metre plus male crocodile still favours his mound in the mangrove thicket where the river meanders, and if the Stork-billed Kingfisher continues to hunt from under the Banastarim bridge.

But some things are best left for another day.

It’s been a great day out for us, an exclusive treat. There were no other boats on the river – not even the fisherman who casts crab nets along the river, before grabbing a siesta in his canoe in the shade of the mangroves.

As we leave the Cumbarjua, relaxed and happy, I hear a strange call. Not loud, not shrill, but so soft it cuts straight to the bone. I look around. Perhaps the others have heard it, but don’t recognise the beast.

I do. I have a sinking feeling I know who it is.

It is the call of my friend Crocky Wock, asking me to return.

I look at my children. Javier, 11, is sprawled face down across the bow, studying the ripples in the wake of the boat. He has told us that he would like to return to India and take up wildlife research. Felix, eight, still has his binoculars trained on the mangroves, hoping to spot another raptor. Sofia is five, and can identify more birds than most girls twice her age. She is a tad miffed that she hasn’t been able to spot a crocodile before the others, but that is the only gripe on this boat.

I sigh. The call of the wild must never be ignored, underestimated or treated lightly.

The author (right) and his wife Felicia with their children Javier, Felix and Sofia. Photo: Harvey D’Souza

One part of me will forever walk the Cumbarjua. Yes, Crocky Wock, we will return.

Author: Harvey D’Souza , First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 6, June 2018.

 
 
 

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