A mugger crocodile on the banks of the Chambal river, Uttar Pradesh, November 2017. Photo: Charles J. Sharp/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Our survival instinct ensures we fear large carnivores. The people in flood-hit Sangli, in Maharashtra, likely experienced this recently when large crocodiles crawled onto their roofs, into their gutters and onto their roads when heavy rainfall flooded the area.
Many of these crocodiles eventually managed to find their way home or were rescued by the forest department. No persons were severely harmed or killed.
Yet, several English and Marathi news channels and digital publications said the crocodiles had had a “field day” “terrorising” humans and that they had turned Sangli into “crocodile city”. Few clarified that the crocodiles had in fact been displaced by rising flood waters and that many had returned to the river nearby as soon as the waters receded.
“Crocodiles have a strong homing instinct,” Nikhil Whitaker, a conservationist at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, told The Wire Science. “This means if they’re displaced, they will keep attempting to find their way back to their habitat.”
The presence of displaced crocodiles in Sangli didn’t constitute a human-animal conflict – but many commentators reported it as one, probably for lack of awareness. Sensational headlines grab eyeballs but they also spread fear, create misconceptions about animals and promote conflict. And in a flood-hit region like Sangli, encouraging fear and a sense of being in conflict can be detrimental to both human and crocodile populations that call the area home.
There is a history of crocodile-human conflict in Sangli, brought on by human interference.
The Krishna and Warna rivers here have long been home to more than a hundred mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) – but the conflict has become more pronounced in the last two or so decades thanks to increasing sand-mining and agriculture.
“Sand mining and practices like the bifurcation of river beds can lead to a loss of area for crocodiles to lay eggs,” Whitaker said. Whitaker put together a report of crocodile-human conflict for the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in 2007. It included an instance of a fatal crocodile attack in an area known for heavy sand-mining. News reports have also linked sand-mining and farming near rivers to the destruction of crocodile habits, eventually leading to conflict as both human and reptile vie for the same living space.
Another by-product of crocodile-human conflict is retaliatory killings, in which humans destroy crocodile eggs or kill hatchlings or crocodiles in retaliation. Whitaker’s report speaks of an incident in Digras Wadi village, Maharashtra, in 2003, when villagers destroyed a nest of eggs after a crocodile attacked and killed a young boy. In another incident in Odisha, people responded to the death of a woman by killing two mugger crocodiles.
“Retaliatory killings of crocodiles are rare, but when they do happen, the human killers come in mobs because they have lost a village member or because they are frustrated at the forest authorities’ inaction,” B.C Chaudhary, executive trustee of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, said. “People avoid individually seeking out crocodiles because they know they’re protected [under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972], but in large mobs, they will either poison the crocodile or beat it to death.”
“Retaliatory killings against mugger crocodiles are rare, but they’re also underreported for several reasons,” Tarun Nair, a conservation biologist, said. “For instance, the local administration is often under pressure to ‘do something’, and turning a blind eye or expressing helplessness to retaliatory killings often serves to assuage public anger, although this would amount to condoning mob justice.”
This said, encountering a crocodile doesn’t always mean an attack is in the offing. “Crocodiles also use river banks to bask1,” said Ajit Patil, a wildlife warden in Sangli. “If they see a person approaching too close while they’re basking, they tend to leave and return after half-an-hour or so.”
Patil also said these crocodiles can’t see beyond 100-150 meters in front of them, which means a person would have to get quite close to get a reaction out of them.
“The potential for conflict does increase the most around February to June/July, when crocodiles are nesting, as mother crocodiles grow more protective while they lay eggs,” he added.
But the people themselves, according to Patil, are intimidated by the reptiles’ sheer size. “They often tell me they’re terrified of how much the crocodile is able to eat – but the truth is that crocodiles will eat half a kg of food daily at most, which is nothing to fear.”
Knowing these habits of crocodiles can help people get along with them better – aided, of course, by more sensitive reporting.
Education and rescue efforts led by conservationists like Patil have helped allay some of the fears of locals who live near crocodile-occupied waters, but TV news and WhatsApp forwards constantly erode their efforts. And this experience isn’t unique to Sangli.
Writer and conservationist Prerna Bindra said it’s common to see some phrases associated with reports of human-animal conflicts – or in fact reports of a tiger, a leopard or an elephant straying into a village or town – “like ‘blood thirsty tiger on the prowl’, ‘leopard menace’ or ‘killer jumbo’. But “the mere presence of an animal doesn’t mean there is a conflict situation.”
“Such baseless, sensational reporting lacks perspective, reinforces stereotypes and worsens the situation,” Bindra added. “It fuels unnecessary panic and can make the situation worse, causing harm to people and animal both, or pressure to trap or relocate the animal, which again is not a solution and has been shown to worsen conflict, as the animal tries to make its way to its home base.”
Indeed, Indian officials frequently perceive relocation to be the ultimate and unavoidable solution for “problem” animals. This is why the Maharashtra government and the Wildlife Institute of India are even now studying a plan involving tracking crocodiles, eco-tourism, local education and safe bathing spaces for citizens living along the Krishna river and its tributaries.
The project is likely to take several years to implement and cost up to Rs 1.4 crore – while there have been just 10 documented cases of death by crocodile attack in the last 20 years in Sangli district, according to the Maharashtra forest department.
“These projects become necessary … because of human discomfort with sharing a space with the crocodile, which is mostly an animal that won’t attack unless necessary,” V. Clement Ben, the chief conservator of forests in Kolhapur, told The Wire Science. “There is a significant local and political push to relocate the crocodiles because of the fear of people who want to bathe in the rivers or visit it for religious purposes.”
A news report from 2019 suggested that the same plan will translocate crocodiles from the Krishna and Warna rivers to more ‘secure’ areas. But Ben said translocation is not in the books except during emergencies like the recent floods. “Search and rescue parties are moving displaced crocodiles to the Chandoli National Park now, but in normal circumstances we wouldn’t move crocodiles because the river is their habitat,” he said.
Ideas like relocation are also fed by rage and helplessness born of having to share space with larger animals – made worse by the lack of accessible information about the animal’s biology and behaviour.
Nikit Surve, a conservationist who has seen similar problems while working to raise awareness about leopards, said, “Many people who lived near leopard habitats had never seen a leopard. Their perceptions of the leopard were fuelled by media reporting on leopards, which meant they thought of the animal as a huge villain. Leopards are much smaller in real life.”
Surve and his peers dealt with this issue by bringing together media personnel, biologists and other stakeholders to help understand the leopards that lived among them, with more focus on realistic solutions and conservation. According to a study published in October 2017, by researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Wildlife Conservation Society–India and a forest conservator:
Our results show that proactive engagement with the media, even over contentious issues, can lead to changes in how conservation issues are covered – eventually aiding in the conservation of the species and, in this case, even the welfare of the people through reduced conflict.
For now, the Maharashtra forest department has set up six centers in Sangli and the nearby areas to rescue and rehome crocodiles displaced by the floods. One of the major goals of these rescue centers is to prevent conflicts that may harm crocodiles. Search and rescue teams are also working to rehabilitate several crocodiles displaced near Sangli and return them to the forest department.
“It is important to realise that crocodiles in Sangli are dealing with the same problems that the locals are – they have been displaced and stranded due to the floods,” Surve said. All both want is to return home.”
Aditi Murti is an independent journalist reporting on health, science, biodiversity and cities. You can find her on Twitter @aditimurti.
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