The seven-foot-long mugger crocodile lived a solitary, tortured life at the Madras Aquarium on Marina Beach for at least 15 years. His aquarium was just as long as he was. With no dry land on which he could haul out, he floated in water all the time. Not even a beam of sunlight sneaked in to warm his cold-blooded body. His keepers fed him a monotonous diet of fish. Any other creature would have gone mad under these conditions.

Rom had just discovered the sorry plight of wild crocodiles after he completed a countrywide survey. He felt they had to be bred in captivity to improve their future propects. He persuaded the director of the aquarium to give him the 14-year-old mugger croc.

For being submerged in water for such a long time, the crocodile had surprisingly no skin lesions. Although it’s usually hard to divine what reptiles feel, it was clear he was delighted with his new outdoors enclosure at the Madras Snake Park, adjacent to Guindy Deer Park and the Raj Bhavan, in the heart of the city. He thrashed the water with élan and strutted around his enclosure. He was named Periyor, meaning ‘the respected one’ in Tamil.

Before Periyor arrived in March 1973, wild bonnet macaques slaked their thirst at the pond in his enclosure. But they somehow missed his showy display of possession, and one afternoon, trooped down to the water’s edge as usual. Periyor charged out of the water and caught one. Living cooped up in an aquarium hadn’t blunted his predatory instincts.

The breeding programme needed a female mugger. More than 200 kilometres south of Chennai, at Porto Novo, now called Parangipettai, Snake Park’s sea turtle survey team found a stunted, six-foot crocodile at a marine fisheries laboratory. The lab was glad to be rid of the animal and she came to the Snake Park.

Rom put her in with Periyor, and stood by, ready to break up any skirmish. Instead, these two mugger crocs that had never seen another of their kind for most of their lives started courting. Nobody at the Snake Park knew if mugger crocodiles would breed easily in captivity, nor did they know the mating or nesting season. This pleasant and auspicious start of a breeding program was a surprise. Rom named her Nova.

When a keeper almost lost his leg to a suddenly aggressive Nova, Rom ordered her isolation, and probed the soil until he found the nest. A debate ensued: let the eggs incubate naturally or take them to an incubator. Eventually, he covered up the nest and let Nature take its course.

A couple of months later, Nova swam around the pond with an arrangement of hatchlings on her head. Rom and his team felt as proud as new parents. Little did he know 20 years later, he would have more than 2,000 mugger crocodiles on his hands.

To extend the enclosure, Rom broke the wall and erected a makeshift chain link fence in its place. These clumsy, stubby-legged creatures weren’t likely to climb, were they?

In the morning, Periyor was missing. The tracks led from the chain link fence, crossed under the Snake Park’s barbed wire perimeter fence, and headed across the woods and a grassy meadow of Guindy Deer Park. Beyond lay the Raj Bhavan.

In the 1970s, the governor’s stately residence wasn’t surrounded by a wall, but by a mere hedgerow. The ground was hard and the tracks were indistinct, but Rom was certain Periyor had made for the duck pond, within sight of the august mansion. Every morning, Governor K.K. Shah went for a brisk walk, and Rom hoped he hadn’t seen the runaway crocodile yet.

Rom didn’t waste any more time following the tracks. He rushed back to the office and was making arrangements to catch Periyor when the Forest Department called. The croc had been sighted at the duck pond, and the governor had issued orders to shoot it on sight.

(To be continued)