Our article in Deccan Herald: The Unusual Victim
The unusual victim
Incessant killing, increase in fishing and the abundant demand for crocodile skin has led to a huge reduction in their number. Arefa Tehsin & Raza H Tehsin find out how our careless exploitation is destroying an important ecological link
Crocodiles survived the dinosaurs. But they may not be able to survive humankind. Steve Irvin had envisaged, “Take the crocodile, for example, my favourite animal. There are twenty three species. Seventeen of those species are rare or endangered. They’re on the way out, no matter what anyone does or says, you know.”
All that looks beautiful is not good. All that looks ugly is not evil. But we have little sympathy for the creatures we find ugly — be it snakes or crocodiles. And, we have even lesser sympathy for life, if it serves our commercial gains.
At the time of independence, the water bodies of India were teeming with crocodiles.
They are one of our windows to the prehistoric era. Although it is a cold-blooded reptile, crocodile doesn’t hibernate in winters. It has a different mechanism to regulate its body temperature — store the heat in the insides of its mouth by keeping it open in the sunlight during the day and utilise the stored heat during the night to keep itself warm. The mouth acts like a solar battery.
In Banas River in Rajasthan, it was an ordinary sight to see 20-30 crocodiles in one pool or on its bank, lying with their mouths open. The three kinds of crocodiles found in India — gharial, salt water crocodile and marsh crocodile were in abundance in the 1950s throughout the country. They were soon to be wiped out, thanks to the rising prices of crocodile skin, money-driven populace and short-sighted government.
Today, the crocodile population of India is facing a crisis. Excess utilisation of water by humans tends to dry water bodies in summer. Dams have been constructed on rivers, and forests are reclaimed for the expanding human population, thereby shrinking the crocodile habitat. Crocodiles lay their eggs on sand and excess sand mining for construction has left them with hardly any place to propagate.
In the wetlands that remain, regular fish contracts are issued by the government. This leads to severe food shortage for the crocs. There was a time when crocodile contracts were granted by the government like fish contracts. And crocodiles were killed much more mercilessly than the fish.
Contractors invented various methods to slaughter them. One was for a group of armed men to approach a crocodile on the shore during a dark night. The men would throw spears at it simultaneously with the help of torchlight, incapacitating the reptile. As it lay helpless and in pain, they’d attack it with daggers and stab it repeatedly.
Only the belly skin of a large crocodile was of any value and the damage to the upper skin was acceptable. It was the smaller or baby crocodiles whose full skin was of commercial value.
Another method was to float a dead animal on a plank in water. While it just looked like a harmless bait, the animal’s belly was filled with quick lime — that undergoes an exothermic reaction when mixed with water — releasing intense heat.
When a croc gulped down this animal, the reaction took place in its mouth, throat and stomach. The excruciating pain and burning sensation made it twist and turn and emerge on the shore. Men lying in wait attacked the suffering crocodile with daggers.
A technique, much used in Udaipur, in Rajasthan, was to float a chunk of meat with three big hidden hooks on a heavy wooden plank. The head of the hook was attached to a 4-feet-long chain tied to the plank. As a crocodile took a bite and dived down the water, the hooks cut deep in its flesh — around the mouth or throat.
The pain made it go deeper but the floating plank attached to the chain thrust the creature upwards. The reptile writhed in agony but to no avail. Overpowered with pain and fatigue, when the crocodile came out on the bank, the men lying in wait finished it with daggers.
Techniques adapted to kill crocodiles have always been ruthless. During the time the British ruled India, the locals used to ‘fish’ crocodiles in Sindh. The practice has been listed in detail in the book Big Game Encounters, edited by Stanley Jepson (1936).
A few divers dived down and searched for a crocodile resting in the depths. Once they located it, they planted a couple of long wooden poles, which would jot out of water, beside it to mark its position. Gulping in mouthfuls of air the divers again went down, tickled the croc so that it would lift its legs and slipped in loops of rope around it.
The next step was to tie a net around the mouth of the sleeping crocodile. The divers pulled the ropes and brought the crocodile on land. The croc with its mouth tied in net was killed by excited locals with any sharp object available.
With the rising prices of crocodile skin bags, shoes, purses and other items, and the government contracts, crocodiles were butchered, and they disappeared from many regions. Finally, the government had to stop issuing crocodile contracts and put a ban on crocodile hunting. Breeding centres and zoos have helped in restocking some lakes and rivers with these reptiles, but their battle with us is far from over.
While several animals and birds have become locally, regionally and nationally extinct with the depleting forests and increasing human population, crocodiles have been subject to a three-pronged attack — habitat destruction, legal commercial hunting and food shortage.
Also, deforestation has caused increased erosion, which fills the bottom of lakes reducing their depths. The wetlands that used to be full all year round, now dry up in summers. Humans who took the help of deceit, treachery and trickery to hunt them down are now indifferent towards their plight.
We have proved ourselves to be ‘colder-blooded’ than the cold-blooded crocodiles. Quoting Steve Irwin again, “Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they pretend to be your friend first.”