Crocodile tears in Andamans

Razors Edge
Last Updated 16 July 2010, 14:46 IST

This one may have made its way from the creek to the mangrove swamp along Corbyn’s Cove searching for food.  But it was an aberration and raised a disturbing question. How safe are the islands from these reptiles?  Equally pertinent is the question, how protected is the crocodile population in the seas off Andaman Islands?  

In the Andamans, this conflict between humans and wildlife has its roots in the first  settlement after independence when freedom fighters were relocated to the islands. Another stream came from erstwhile East Pakistan, presently Bangladesh, in the aftermath of the Partition.  Yet another category of settlers, were convicts deported to the islands from different parts of India. The profile of the new settlers on the islands was then mixed.  They retained characteristics of their parent regions while establishing a new way of life on the Andamans.   

What this brought sharply into focus was the differentiated approach, each had to the island’s ecology.   Communities who came from coastal regions had naturally an affinity with the island, its mangrove swamps. For others from landlocked states, the affinity was not inborn but acquired over the years. This reflected in the response to the wildlife in the mangrove swamps. Settlers from Bengal would have an intrinsic idea of the lines between human and dangerous wildlife whereas those from landlocked regions would be taken by surprise. There were mishaps, as human beings came into contact with an even earlier settler.  “In early settlement days, there were many accidents, fatal too, where people were seriously injured by crocodiles, particularly in Kalighat area,” said Nagen Haldar, an elderly man  from Diglipur in North Andaman. 

“During our childhood, the crocodile menace was at the peak,” says  Sukhram Ekka, Village Pradhan of  Kalighat. 

In recent years though, the  number of such horrifying events has gone down which a senior wildlife officer attributes to the sad instance of  settlers having killed the crocodiles indiscriminately and eaten them. 

Despite the conflict, manifesting itself at times in a very stark way as when Lauren Fallis, a US national was killed by a crocodile, according to sources, crocodiles in many areas in North Andaman are a threatened lot. The locals allegedly kill them for fat, hide, meat and gall bladder that is said to be an aphrodisiac.  Not everybody buys that argument though.  Nagen Haldar says,  “Crocodile is a thinking animal. It might have found it a losing battle of survival in Kalighat Creek and relocated itself. ”

Nevertheless there is a need for caution between these diametrically opposing views. The illegal trade of animal parts is a  live-wire issue.  It is yet unclear whether the authorities are trying to maintain the present crocodile population or increase their numbers.  

The lack of credible data leaves one floundering. One does not know if the crocodile population is diminishing or growing or is it static.  DR Negi, Chief Wildlife Warden admits that the Department has no current data on population.  Nor does previous data exist.
For instance there is no way of comparing the present figures with 1972, when the Wildlife Protection Act was adopted. At the Crocodile Sanctuary at Loha Barrack in South Andaman, baby crocodiles are being bred.  They will be released into mangrove swamps in South, Madhyottar Andaman districts and Little Andaman. According to Mahadev Majhi, Pradhan of Tusonabad Panchayat, South Andaman, “ The crocodile sanctuary ends at Kurmadera beach. But the wildlife officials release hatchlings at the culvert in Manpur, the centre of populated villages.”  He says there are two or three accidents every year. 

Things have become all the more strained post-tsunami, which swallowed up agricultural land.  The pressure on fishing and crab hunting as a livelihood option has increased. The Department of Wildlife needs urgent course correction as also a viable system of tabulating the present crocodile population to determine the ideal figure that the islands can support comfortably. 

What is required simultaneously is to invite the participation of all the stakeholders, the hospitality industry; fisher folk and communities settled near mangrove swamps and launch a coordinated effort and turn the protection of crocodiles, into a community campaign.

Only then it will sustain. The sooner the authorities realise this and allow the voice of sanity and harmony to prevail, the better it will be for all the life forms in the Emerald Isles to co-exist peacefully.  

(Published 16 July 2010, 14:46 IST)

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