Dhalapahar, the female mugger croc, was at the far end of the large pond, disobeying the caretaker’s loud calls. A crowd of pilgrims waited to offer chicken and chunks of mutton. Dhalapahar was more interested in guarding her nest.

Khalapahar, the big male, didn’t know how to say no, and responded half-heartedly when summoned to consume yet another chicken. Feeding crocodiles is a ritual at the mausoleum of Khan Jahan Ali, the 15th Century Sufi saint and ruler of Bagerhat, Bangladesh. Dhalapahar and Khalapahar were among the last three remaining mugger crocs in the country.

In 2003, Rom was called to investigate why these reptiles hadn’t made babies for 15 years. As we found out at the Madras Croc Bank, mugger crocs are really scaly rabbits, each female producing at least 20 hatchlings a year. If these animals had trouble making babies, something was radically wrong.

Rom tried to catch Dhalapahar to get her off the nest. She was so fat her neck was wider than her head, and the noose wouldn’t stay on. A long struggle later, an exhausted and sweaty Rom trussed her up. After excavating her nest, Rom examined the eggs. None of them had the opaque band that indicates fertility.

When Rom solemnly shook his head with the bad news, a ripple of resentment went through the crowd of kadem, hereditary caretakers of the shrine and its holy crocs, watching the operation. One kadem insisted Khan Jahan Ali would fertilise the eggs at a later date.

Despite the bluster, we knew the kadem were anxious about their impotent mugger. If Khalapahar and Dhalapahar died, the shrine’s revenue would suffer. As a conservationist, Rom felt this was a good place to spark a programme to bring mugger back to Bangladesh.

Khalapahar and Dhalapahar were grossly overweight. As in humans, obesity can make crocs impotent. The two crocs had to go on a diet immediately. But pilgrims believe their wishes come true if they feed these crocs. The only way to keep everyone happy was to spread the offerings among many mouths.

Rom offered 50 fertile eggs from Madras Croc Bank to replace Dhalapahar’s infertile ones. She was a good mom, and the 60-hectare pond was excellent habitat. Instead of welcoming the ingenious idea, the kadem were vehemently opposed to it.

“Your crocs are heathen,” they said.

Rom replied, “Once the hatchlings drink this water, they’ll become blessed.” Then a kadem said they preferred to artificially inseminate Dhalapahar rather than bring Madrasi crocs over. At that time, the technique hadn’t been successfully used in crocs. For the rest of the day, the debate raged between Rom and a vociferous group of 30 kadem mediated by a translator. I grew bored of watching this exchange, alternating between science and superstition, and wondered when Rom was going to pull out his trump card.

After dark, we walked around the perimeter of the pond while Rom scanned the water with a spotlight. Suddenly, we heard a splash. Rom waded in to get a clear view, and to our surprise, pinned under the sharp beam of light was a young salt water crocodile. Apparently, the worried kadem had found another solution.

Next day, Rom went on the offensive: If Madrasi mugger crocs were not holy enough, how could a different species of crocodile be acceptable? He warned that allowing a salt water croc to live among people was disastrous. The kadem would ignore this advice at their peril.

With the kadem caught on the back foot, Rom finally pulled out the black and white photograph taken in 1941 in Karachi, Pakistan. I had been waiting for this moment. A hush descended on the crowd as everyone craned their necks to see over the shoulders of others. The photograph showed numerous mugger crocs sprawled over each other at Manghopir, a Sufi shrine like Khan Jahan Ali Mazar. Rom said softly, “Your pond could look like that some day.”

The kadem agreed to take the Madrasi crocs.

(to be continued)

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