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Jaws III, the crocin captivity

JANAKI LENIN
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THE CELIBATE CROCODILEJaws IIIPhoto: Soham Mukherjee
THE CELIBATE CROCODILEJaws IIIPhoto: Soham Mukherjee

Jaws was one of four salt-water crocodile hatchlings imported from Singapore by the Central Leather Research Institute, Madras, back in the early 1970s. The organisation planned to slaughter them after five years to assess the feasibility of crocodile farming.

In 1973, when his surveys showed that wild crocs were almost gone, Rom wanted to start breeding crocodiles at the Madras Snake Park, and went to the Institute to have a look at the reptiles.

As he walked around the murky pond with Rajamani, an Irula friend, one of the three-foot salties suddenly erupted out of the water and grabbed Rajamani's leg. This was their first encounter with the species, and they realised it was a very different croc from the easy-going mugger they were used to.

Rom proposed to the Institute's director that he would rear the salties and provide all the measurements annually in return for custody of the animals. The director thought it was a great idea; the expense of rearing the crocs would be Snake Park's and the animals didn't have to be killed. Eventually those four salties came to the Croc Bank.

When they reached adolescence, one began outstripping the others in size. Using his larger size to advantage, he beat up the others every day. In one of these skirmishes, he lost a part of his tail but gained a name: Jaws III, after the infamous shark movie. Rom built five ponds in the same enclosure and visually barricaded each from the other. But no, Jaws was having none of that. He chased the others out of all five ponds. During the heat of the day, he'd have a choice of water bodies while the others had to skulk on land in the shade. By this time, he had reached ten feet and the others were still lagging under seven feet. Clearly, he was the champion of the litter and had to be given his own enclosure.

For all his possessiveness about space, Jaws was a sitting duck when a vicious visitor thrust a sharpened stick into his eye, blinding him while he lay basking next to the enclosure wall.

Rom has always wanted to breed Jaws and pass on his ‘giant genes'. One afternoon in 1996, I sat in one corner of his enclosure, filming, when a nine-foot female saltie was introduced. As the unsuspecting croc walked down towards the pond, Jaws' 15-foot torpedo body flew out of the water, grabbed her by the middle and shook her like a ragdoll. When he tossed her onto the bank, the crew took her out of the enclosure before Jaws attacked again.

A few years later, Jaws' enclosure was divided in half and another female saltie introduced. They could see and smell each other through the gaps in the fence but he could do her no harm. During the course of the following year, they were often found eyeballing and bubbling at each other across the barrier. The prognosis was good. But when the fence was removed, Jaws was back to domestic violence; he chased her right out of the pond. Over the years, other unsuccessful attempts were made, and today we are all resigned to Jaws remaining celibate for the rest of his life.

Dealing with such a large animal can sometimes be awkwardly dangerous. Once, Jaws had to be moved to a bigger enclosure. After his ropes were untied, everyone was to jump off at the same time at the count of three. Rom began counting “One…”, and his nervous crew immediately leapt off the reptile's back, leaving him alone, straddling Jaws' shoulders. Feeling the weight on him lighten, the croc moved forward and Rom fell back. Thankfully, the animal was more interested in getting into the water.

Today, at 16 feet plus and weighing between 500 and 600 kg, Jaws is the largest croc in captivity in India.

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)

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