We walk down the main path of the Madras Crocodile Bank as we've done countless times before. But this time I ask Rom to narrate how the place took shape. “The process took 10 years at least,” Rom says.
In the early 1970s, crocs had a hard time worldwide. Rom did the first croc surveys in India and found the three Indian species struggling to survive. It was the usual gripe of habitat loss and poaching. Tony Pooley in Zimbabwe and Ted Joanen in the U.S. were breeding Nile crocs and alligators respectively and re-stocking wild populations. Rom felt he could do the same for the mugger, the gharial and salt water crocs in India. That was why the Croc Bank was set up.
Rom and his then-wife, Zai, invested their wedding gift of Rs. 14,000 in the new venture. Rom went farther and farther down the road to Mahabalipuram until he found land within his budget. Since it was sandy, he would just need to scoop out a hole to hit the water table and create a pool. Tourism was still a nascent industry, but Rom could see the potential. This was crucial as a long-term strategy as in later years, the gate collection was to fund many conservation projects in the wild.
Land was available in strips, just 10 to 20 feet wide, but about 1,000 feet long. Twenty different negotiations later, Rom had a 10-acre spread from the road to the beach. Each deal was sealed by the seller and the purchaser downing a litre of fermented palm toddy. Rom remembers staggering home by early afternoon.
We come to the large enclosure with thick granite walls, now called Enclosure Eight. It housed the first stock of 14 mugger crocs. Within a year, these animals produced close to hundred offspring. Rom didn't know then that crocs were scaly rabbits.
In those days, only a few spindly casuarinas trees grew on the land. Ignoring the accepted wisdom that only coconut trees and casuarinas would grow on the sandy beach, they sourced hundreds of broad-leaved native species such as pongamia and albizzia from Forest Department nurseries and Auroville. The staff's only accommodation was thatched huts.
Croc Bank was opened to the public in 1976, the first tourist facility on, what was later to become, the East Coast Road. Jimmy Yacob, a landscape architect from Johor, Malaysia, planned the central pathway with enclosures flanking the sides. Since the land sloped from the road to the beach, he levelled it into terraces.
Although Rom liked the solid walls of Enclosure Eight, money was short and more enclosures were needed for the gharial, salt water crocs and the baby croc nurseries. Brick walls were cheaper. But he didn't have money to make them the regular nine inches thick, so he made single-brick walls supported by concrete pillars every five to six feet.
We reach the end where the gharial enclosure is located. Since it is a riverine species, Rom says he created a pool that resembles a river bend. The excavated sand forms the Gharial Mound behind the enclosure. In the early 1990s, when I began living there, the hillock was a quiet place to laze under the trees, and read a book. If it was dull, I would roll over and watch tourists. On some warm afternoons, I'd fall asleep to the mournful creaking of the windmill nearby.
The windmill was meant to pump up water from the gharial enclosure to feed a waterfall at one end of the pool. But the windmill was badly designed and needed more headwind than blew off the sea. The waterfall remained a dream, and the windmill was consigned to the scrap heap.
Over the last 35 years, the trees have grown, while the collection has more than 2,000 crocs of 18 species, and, 19 species of snakes, lizards and turtles later. The Croc Bank is India's largest reptile park.