Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
The Environment Ministry is increasingly seen as a ministry that understands nothing about the environment, wildlife, water preservation, pollution control. Almost every decision that comes out of it is a destructive one, and it works on the basis of politics rather than science.
Every vested interest in India has understood this and is trying to take advantage. Every local animal/environmental officer has, by now, lost interest in his duties and takes/ives orders that are bad in law and environment. This makes me so frightened for India.
The Chief Wildlife Warden of Andaman and Nicobar islands, the man who is supposed to be protecting the wild animals on the islands, has actually written – the first time in India’s history that a CWW has done so – to the Ministry of Environment, asking that the saltwater crocodiles be killed on the grounds that a few tourists have been attacked.
Saltwater crocodiles are severely endangered and have been given the highest protection in the Act – Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. This Tarun Coomar wants this protection removed so that he can kill them.
One interesting point is that crocodile skin sells for lakhs. It is smuggled outside the country and sold to make handbags and shoes. Many requests for “culling” have usually got this background and, no doubt, someone is doing business there as well.
Why do I say this? Because the proposal has no basis in science or fact. The Chief Wildlife Warden is lying through his teeth.
Records reveal that only 23 attacks by saltwater crocodiles have taken place in the last 13 years, and none of them have been in a single place. They are spread out over the vast archipelago.
In truth, the tourism industry wants the land to build hotels and take over the beaches. So the LG and the CWW take on the role of “facilitation agents”. Even the figures they have given, of the number of salties, are far more than what actually exist (and that too, without a head count). Field biologists state that the numbers, being published by the administration at Andaman and Nicobar islands, have been falsely stated at 1,700. There are only about 500. Are these 500 crocs, spread out and so vital to the survival of the inhabitants of the ocean, going to be killed so hoteliers can destroy the coast?
Here is the proof of “facilitation”. The “Expert Committee” set up by the local administration to find a “solution” to these rare crocodile attacks has no scientific people on it, no field researchers, no environmentalists. But one of the members, M Vinod, is the head of the Andaman Association of Tour Operators. This is his statement: “The fear has impacted both the tourism and fisheries industries, which are our main source of revenue. Can you imagine a tourist visiting an island destination and not going onto the beach and indulging in water sports?” And if an entire species has to be wiped out so that a tourist can go water skiing, so be it?
Saltwater crocodiles are millions of years old. They are the largest of all living reptiles and can reach 7 metres in length. They are found in small groups in South-east Asia, Northern Australia. In India, they are native to the Sunderbans, Bhitarkarnika in Odisha, and the mangrove forests of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. They swim long distances. Though they spend much of their time in the water, they must come ashore to warm up in the sun and to nest.
Females lay about 50 eggs at a time, of which only one or two survive even though the mother looks after the nest carefully. Overheating, flooding and predation by lizards, dogs and feral pigs claim a high proportion of victims. Once they have reached maturity their only enemies are each other and humans.
Before the Act was made in 1972, they were poached for their skin, meat and as trophies. The species was reduced to 31 individuals when the Government of India launched a special conservation effort in 1975, Project Crocodile, and they were given ‘Schedule 1’ protection.
While the preservation of the species, in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, is counted as a success story, the fact is that saltwater crocodiles have taken decades to even reach these small numbers. It has taken almost 45 years to grow to about 500 animals. Now, if killing takes place (and if my suspicions are right, they will kill 300 and then claim they have killed 30) they will never revive again, because the gene pool is already stretched, they are all related to each other and, as hotels and tourists fill up the beaches, more and more eggs will be lost.
The move has attracted international concern. There is a great deal of literature on how to deal with man-crocodile conflict, and wildlife agencies are happy to provide the information – except that the local government doesn’t want to know.
This is what can be done easily to protect humans and salties:
- Make a thorough study to conduct a risk assessment in the areas where crocodile-human conflicts have occurred.
- Geo-tag the crocodiles to understand, and/or track their movement patterns.
- Create safe swimming zones, creating an exclusive crocodile zone (wilderness areas where crocodiles take precedence).
- Identify rogue crocodiles and put them into captive animal shelters (tourists pay to watch crocodiles as in Australia).
- Coexistence zone (where people can be helped with enclosures, fish disposal areas, etc.) and exclusive tourist zone, where there is proper netting for people to swim with regular patrolling and monitoring.
- Put up warning signs at crocodile conflict zones.
- Raise awareness among local communities, so that they do not see crocodiles as a threat, and secure and monitor tourist bathing areas on a regular basis.
Every year, from 1986, there is no more than one attack annually – if you go by government figures from 1986. But the number of tourists has increased enormously – from 4, 30, 000 in 2016 to 5, 00, 000 in 2017. This has led to unplanned and haphazard growth and increased activity along the coastline. Most attacks occur in narrow creeks near which human and crocodile populations overlap. Even after a number of warning signs, tourists invade restricted areas. No attempt has been made to regulate tourist behaviour. Beaches abroad have life guards. We have none in the islands. We don’t even have wildlife rangers to patrol the crocodile areas. And these crocodile areas are shrinking rapidly, with human settlements increasingly taking over the crocodile’s land.
Most importantly, the attacks take place in the monsoon season which is the breeding season. This clearly shows that there is human encroachment on crocodile territory when a croc is at its most defensive, with males vying for females. Crocodiles are not human hunters.
Local tourist operators claim that there are far more crocodile sightings in human areas round the coast. The dumping of untreated kitchen waste, including raw chicken, fish and meat, by hotels and eateries that have mushroomed along the coast, has never been as rampant as it is now. Such practices draw the creatures. Has the local administration done anything to restrict this? Illegal slaughterhouses throw blood and offal straight into the waters. This will draw more crocodiles around the area.
Culling is going to have no effect on the human crocodile conflict. Crocodiles are territorial. If an adult male is killed, the vacant area will fill up with other adult males.
Salties are an important check on rodent populations, which are actually dangerous on an island ecosystem and have been brought in by ships. They also prevent illnesses spreading through insects. For example, river blindness among humans was caused by slaughter of crocs, whose young fed on snails which harboured the parasite responsible for the malady.
Salties prevent overpopulation of fish species in coastal regions and wetlands, which is pivotal in keeping these aquatic ecosystems healthy and balanced. Reduction of crocodiles in the Nile has led to great losses in the fishing industry, as there has been a boom in the population of the carnivorous fish and disease carrying fish, which were kept under control by crocs.
Salties play a role in clearing dead animals/fish/offal, keeping the area clean and disease free.
Crocodile excrement fertilizes the coastal land and waters. The nutrient content of their faeces feeds the invertebrates and the fish. This allows smaller aquatic organisms to thrive. Only when these organisms thrive the bigger fishes can live. Crocodile excreta also helps in the growth of healthy corals.
Down-listing the animal under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and removing the safeguards of a Schedule I species, will severely jeopardize the fate of this species across the country, as it could open up the flood gates for other states (like Sundarbans in West Bengal, Bhitarkarnika in Orissa) to seek permission for culling of salt water crocodiles on similar grounds, depending on which crocodile skin traders have moved in, and how much they pay the local officers.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)