Though roaming on the earth’s surface since pre-historic times, 17 out of 23 crocodilian species are endangered today due to human folly

She was young, vivacious and vacationing with her boyfriend in the idyllic Andaman Islands. All of a sudden she simply disappeared during a snorkelling session in the blue-green waters. The police suspected the boyfriend for her death but her own underwater video camera captured something more dramatic. The last images of the panic stricken woman, as she drowned to death, showed the culprit was a famished estuarine crocodile.

Similarly two young girls, 17-year-old Kaushalya and 11-year-old Tejal, were pulled from the water’s edge into the Vishwamitri river in Gujarat recently. The forest officials promptly caught the criminal which turned out to be a 14-foot mugger crocodile. Such stray incidents do bring a bad name to crocodiles, but for them human is just another morsel.

Crocodiles, alligators and gharials are the world’s largest and most riveting reptiles. These cold-blooded creatures are also great survivors and lingered unchanged since prehistoric period — enduring break-up of continents and the ice ages. They have witnessed the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and have even seen the evolution of mammals and birds. However, 17 out of the 23 species of crocodilians around the world are endangered today due to man’s folly.

In India, crocodiles are both revered and loathed as some consider them religious and others consider them a menace. The rain-god Varuna rides the makara as vahana and Kamadeva’s emblem is also makara . Even history describes how mighty Indian forts with massive moats were not only filled with water but also teemed with ravenous crocodiles to prevent invaders. Some soldiers even used the crocodile skin as body armour during war, a specimen of which displayed in a Pune museum. Musical instruments, axe handles, nut crackers, etc. were designed like crocodiles and even today crocodile skin is used for fancy bags and leather luggage.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some fishermen considered crocodiles as friends because they kept the rivers clean by eating carcasses. Some considered them enemies because they presumed crocodiles eat away their fish stock, pets and were man-eaters. Crocodile chronicles in the past and present are many and most of them are packed with misnomers.

We in India do not have alligators, instead have three species of crocodiles and one of which is unique to Indian subcontinent is the gharial. The adult male has a bump at the end of the snout resembling an earthen pitcher or ghara , hence the name gharial. The other two are the mugger or marsh crocodiles and the salt water or estuarine crocodiles.

Ironically, the gharials, harmless to man with low commercial value for its hide were most endangered. Sand mining at river banks and dam construction had greatly reduced crocodiles’ natural environment in free-flowing rivers. Additionally, rotting river waters and use of fishing nets resulted in the accidental ensnaring and drowning of many gharials. In 1970, it was estimated that a mere 100 gharials survived in the wild. While larger numbers of saltwater crocodiles and muggers were known to exist, they were not enough to avoid the extinction of the species. By the time crocodile hunting was banned in India in 1972, all three species were on the verge of extinction.

First priority was, therefore, given to ensuring continuity of crocodiles with assistance from the United Nations. The government launched a crocodile breeding and conservation project, initially in Orissa in 1975 and subsequently in other States. By the time the primary project ended in 1982, more than 1,000 gharials had been raised and released into sanctuaries, increasing the total population. But in recent years, human-crocodile conflict has once again drastically dented the population of crocodiles in the country. Today, everybody seems to have forgotten about the crocodiles and concentrate on tiger conservation.

At the Biodiversity Asia 2012 conducted by ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment) in Bangalore last year, crocodilian experts presented their plans to tackle the new problem of human-crocodile conflict and resolved to minimise this skirmish across the country. At the sidelines of the conference, it was discussed how movie makers were fascinated by crocodiles and at least 15 films were made on them spending millions of dollars — Crocodile Dundee , Blood Surf , Lake Placid , Rogue , Primeval, etc. But all of these movies depict the crocodiles as devils in disguise.

Renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, also the founder of the famous Crocodile Bank in Chennai, bemoaned that not much research has been done during the last few years. Similar to tigers, being at the apex of the food chain in forests, crocodiles are the ‘kings of the river food chain’. Contrary to popular myths, crocodiles help in increasing the population of fish. He said that they feed on predator fish that restrict growth of other fish; on the other hand, fish regulate the environment and the presence of crocodiles giving an understanding of the health of the water bodies.