With salt-water crocs, gharials, muggers and 20 other species, the Madras Crocodile Bank in Mammallapuram, has one of largest collections in the world, writes Aparna Karthikeyan

Six crocodiles doze in one corner of the sandy pit, while nine pairs of eyes glint from the water. The conical beam of the torchlight picks out open jaws and scaly backs. “They’re huge,” I whisper. “No, no, these are small ones,” Bahadur, the watchman, tells me, as he leads me to the beach, to watch the sunrise.

It’s 5.25a.m. and Madras Crocodile Bank is very quiet; all I hear is the distant whoosh of the waves. Bahadur opens the back gate, and I step into the deserted beach. The sea, fifty feet away, is sherbet pink; waves leap and fizz, whisking the shoreline white. Soon, the sun appears from behind gilded clouds; it paints the sea orange, plates the sky gold.

Swallows and sea-gulls circle overhead, as I make my way back in. I stop by an enclosure, where a caiman strikes the classic croc-pose — eyes, nose and ears above water, the rest submerged. “That’s Melanie, she’s a beauty, isn’t she?” asks Colin Stevenson, director, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. I agree, admiring the sleek South American black caiman. “They’re not vegetarians, but they eat vegetarians,” he smiles. “They can sit there for days, waiting for a prey to come to the water’s edge. They then move explosively to catch it.”

We walk over to the salt-water crocodiles. All along, wide pathways and roomy enclosures are ringed by mature trees; crows, egrets and kingfishers sit out of reach of open jaws, and cunningly forage left-over croc food. A fly sits on the lady salt-water croc’s eye, but she does not bat her eyelid. Her breed, Colin tells me, is especially territorial and the boys are notorious for their noisy fights over the girls.

The gharials, however, have a more subtle way of attracting mates. “The males develop a bulge over their nose when they’re sexually mature, and the females find this attractive.”

The Madras Crocodile Bank, set up by Romulus and Zai Whitaker at Mamallapuram in 1976 (to conserve salt-water crocs, gharials and muggers) now houses 20 other species, making it one of the biggest collections in the world. As if to underline it, we stand before the enormous enclosure no:16, where 320 crocodiles doze companionably in shafts of early morning sunshine. “Crocs have a ‘v’ shaped jaw, while alligators have a broader ‘u’ shaped one,” Colin says. And some species — like the Chinese alligator — are even more endangered than the panda.

A Morelet’s crocodile family though were doing their bit to keep their species going. “The mummy’s over there, and the daddy is behind those plants; and that’s the nest,” says Colin, pointing to a conical heap of sand. Interestingly, crocs not only regulate their body temperature (being cold blooded) by the sun’s warmth, the sex of their offspring is also determined by temperature (warmer temperatures resulting in males).

Since it’s still pleasantly warm, at 7.30a.m., the crocs sunbathe; some crawl over and rest their fat bellies over another’s nose. I spot a whopping big one, beneath a mangrove tree, with a hard scaly snout, large pointed teeth, and deep, white mouth. “Crocodiles have one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom,” Colin informs me. I walk away quickly to coo over baby caimans.

Behind us, two women and a man are getting into a pit; the man — Gangadurai, has a wooden staff, the women — Mohana and Kumari, carry brooms and bins. “Every morning, the enclosures are cleaned,” Colin says, “and the crocs are used to the routine, of people getting into the pit at this time of the day.” I impulsively ask if I can go into the next one, with the cleaners; they agree, asking me to stay close behind. I climb down the ladder with them, into enclosure no:16, with 320 crocs. Most crocodiles (muggers) are sunning themselves; when they see Gangadurai — who’s been croc-keeper for 30 years — they scuttle into the water like obedient puppies, scoring the sandy pit with their claw marks and belly tracks. Mohana and Kumari then walk behind Gangadurai, sweeping the croc poo into bins. When a croc refuses to budge, Gangadurai prods it with his stick; the big ones turn back and show teeth; but when he does not flinch, they meekly crawl into the water. The sand is cleaned in about 15 minutes and we climb out.

Visitors stream into the croc bank, as I watch a croc eat (Colin gives me a demo of the weekly feed — he throws meat; croc opens mouth; a second later, the food’s gone). My last stop is the underwater viewing area. I marvel at the 12.5 ft. gharial swimming with unexpected grace, for such a large animal. The movements — as meditative and calming as the sea behind us — also tells me what formidable predators they are in water… there’s barely a ripple when the gharial surfaces! And thanking the Lord I wasn’t small fry, I make my way back home.

For more details: http://www.madrascrocodilebank.org/cms