Conservation efforts have paid off too well among the crocodile population

From being on the verge of extinction in the mid-70s, the crocodile population in India has seen a steady growth owing to conservation efforts. However, this has also resulted in increasing human-crocodile conflict.

Experts have raised concerns over human activity in crocodile habitats, which have cost human as well as crocodile lives.

Before conservation efforts took off, instances of conflict were reported mostly from West Bengal, Odisha and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But now, conflicts now have extended to other areas such as Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Endangered list

Of the three crocodilians found in India, mugger crocodile and saltwater crocodile are on the endangered list of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) while gharial, found only in the Indian subcontinent, is listed as critically endangered.

‘Numbers have gone up’

According to B.C. Choudhury, member of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, the number of crocodiles in the wild has gone up from a few hundreds recorded in 1974 to several thousands now. “In the last 35 years, about 10,000 crocodiles were bred and released into habitats. Nearly 8,000 mother crocodiles are in captivity at 39 crocodile centres and 17 zoos across the country,” he told The Hindu.

Though the Union government has imposed a moratorium on the release of crocodiles into the wild, he said some States are still translocating them without considering the carrying capacity of the habitats.

Bivash Pandav of Wildlife Institute of India, who presented a paper on the Bhitarkanika mangroves in Odisha, at the Symposium on Human-Crocodile Conflict at the 2nd Asia Regional Conference of the Society for Conservation Biology here on Thursday, mentioned the high density of saltwater crocodile in one part of the mangroves while the other part had a sparse population. “The population of crocodiles, which was less than 100 in 1976, has now crossed 1,600.” The distribution, however, is skewed, he pointed out.

One of the reasons for the conflict is that the crocodile breeding season tends to overlap with the agricultural season, Mr. Choudhury said. Crocodiles, being highly territorial, tend to be overcautious while protecting their nests.

Why the conflicts

Livelihood-based sustenance activities such as fishing and agriculture, illegal fishing in protected habitats and increase in the use of water bodies for recreation purposes among others are bringing crocodiles into conflict with humans.

According to Nikhil Whitaker, curator of Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), factors in crocodile attacks include self-defence, mistaken identity and defending nests and the young. But, he added, in some locations, indigenous people have lived with the reptiles without any conflict.

Dietary shift

Shift in dietary habits and increasing number of stray dogs are also among the reasons for human-crocodile conflict. Mr. Choudhury said: “In the Andamans, migrants, who prefer chicken over seafood, have brought the chicken culture. Chicken waste is disposed of in the creeks, attracting crocodiles to human habitation.” Likewise, stray dogs attack crocodile nests looking for eggs.