The mugger crocodile dug into the sand with her stubby forelegs. Rom and I watched her silently with our chins and arms resting on the enclosure wall. The moon was obscured by clouds, and the Madras Crocodile Bank was in darkness. Bright white torchlight disturbs animals, so we had covered ours with a transparent red film. Mosquitoes complained around our heads, unable to alight on repellent-sprayed skin.
When the pile of sand the croc had dug started to pour back into the hole, her hind legs heaved it off the site, raining sand on her spouse. The large bull croc lay submerged in water, blinked a few times, and continued to watch the proceedings.
My legs began to tire from standing, and I wished the reptile would hurry up. When she heaved again, a white blob flew out and landed on the slope. A sand-crusted hatchling hung out of the eggshell, squawking in a small nasal voice. Instead of going to the little fellow’s aid, mama croc probed the hole with her snout, picked up two eggs, and rolled them gingerly in her jaws. A chorus of baby squawks answered the first hatchling’s cry. Then the bull croc crawled up the slope.
I whispered urgently to Rom, “What’s he going to do?”
The croc picked up the hatchling in distress, carried it to the water, and chomped a couple of times.
“Is he eating it?” I was stricken with horror.
Free of its egg shell, it swam daringly near the large croc’s head. Leaving the little fellow bobbing in the water, the father turned around and climbed up the sand bank all the way to the nest. He butted the female croc, who was half his size, out of the way and picked up babies and eggs from the nest. One hatchling’s head was caught between the conical teeth, while its body dangled in mid-air. It waved its legs awkwardly, but dad didn’t notice. He slid down the bank, propelled by his forelegs.
With the big chap out of the way, the mother went back to work. But daddy croc was having none of it. He chased her away and ferried more babies to the water until the nest was empty. I was touched by the bloke’s concern for his offspring and how gently he picked up the little ones.
The next morning, we visited the enclosure to see the family. About 25 hatchlings were resting in the shallows in the shade. Dad was in attendance, guarding them from crows, egrets, and herons. Mother was also in the water but at a distance. The staff of the Madras Crocodile Bank gathered to watch this marvel of a hands-on father.
In the Chambal, researchers from the Croc Bank are studying gharial behaviour. A dominant male gharial probably fathers almost all the babies born in his territory. Come hatching time, hundreds of offspring from many nests gather together in one large crèche guarded by dad. He may be a macho male with white battle scars on his face, but he allows the hatchlings to take great liberties. They pile up on his head, eyes, and nose, the safest perch to catch the sun’s rays. He even indulges them with joy rides. But should a threat appear, he roars forward, rudely scattering his babies in the water. They swim ashore, while dad showboats up and down the river.
It’s not just the muggers and gharials who make such caring fathers. When Siamese croc babies hatch at the Croc Bank, they cluster at the far end of the pond, away from tourists. When the parents are fed, the hatchlings nibble on any tidbit that floats their way. If the breeze blows the piece away from them, the father picks it up, and drops it in front of the little ones. Over the course of an afternoon, he may ferry the meat chunk numerous times.
Crocodilian fathers have been tender gender benders long before humans came up with the term.