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A date with the dragons

One of the Komodo dragons at The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology.  

At 3 p.m. on a scorching afternoon, the marsh crocodiles in pen no.18 are snoozing. One fellow, about 10 ft long and with formidably scaly skin, waddles out of the water and falls on the sand. He picks himself again, waddles another inch and falls over another, slightly smaller co-inhabitant of the pond, who snoozes on, unflinchingly. After yet another effort at moving, he lies stagnate, like the 100-odd crocodiles around him. “You should see them when it’s time to fight, eat or mate; they can be fast and aggressive. But, right now, they have evolved to master the art of living in a hot place,” laughs Vineeth Mario Vincent, educational officer at The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology.

Others from the crocodilian family, like the Yacare caimans, are resting underwater too, while the snakes curl up in a puddle of water within their enclosure.

Way down, beyond the gaze of spectators in the quarantine zone, four new inhabitants of the Crocodile Bank are feeling the heat as well. The Komodo dragons are nowhere to be seen; they have disappeared into small make-shift burrows they’ve dug out. Hold on. Komodo dragons? In Chennai? “This is the first time we have Komodo dragons in India and we are lucky, because this is the perfect climate for them, similar to the one in Komodo,” explains head curator Nikhil Whitaker, son of Crocodile Bank founder Romulus Whitaker.

Komodo dragons, indigenous to Indonesia, were famed for being exclusively found in the Komodo islands. “The first ones were bought to England and a couple of other places way back in the 1900s. In that era, the people who brought them back were probably sailors who had never seen anything like them, and hence, named them dragons,” says Nikhil. Komodo dragons, known as the largest living species of lizards, are now bred in captivity in American and European zoos. Nikhil explains that in such places, they have to be kept indoors with an expensive set-up that involves heating pads. “For us, the most expensive part of keeping them here is making sure they don’t escape,” says Nikhil and points to the metal lips that surround the enclosure and the trees planted within it, to prevent the dragons from scrambling.

Four different enclosures each house three males and one female, all three years old, who have recently arrived from Bronx zoo in New York. “They can’t be kept together because they’ll fight; it’s in their nature to do so. When they mature, we have to do a supervised introduction of the males to the female, make sure everything’s okay and then separate them again,” says Nikhil.

Suddenly, one dragon, about five ft long, makes an appearance. She’s black, with small yellow spots near her head and orange ones covering the rest of her body. As she gets larger — she can grow to about 10 ft and live up to 25 years — she’ll get darker. She looks frightening even now, as she incessantly sticks her long, deeply-forked tongue out, to take in her surroundings. “That’s her sensory system. She’s catching particles of pheromones around here, which is then sent to the brain to process. She could be looking for predators, prey or even places to hide,” explains Nikhil. She’s highly perceptive and inquisitive about her visitors, but her male counterpart, who makes a brief appearance, soon decides to go back to his burrow.

“She’s aware that people are around, but doesn’t know if we are going to do maintenance work or feed them,” smiles Nikhil. Right now, they are fed lab mice and emu meat, but the curators who do so feed them from a distance. “The males, in particular, are very territorial, and even at this size, will charge and try to bite. Given what they feed on in the wild, and combined with their saliva, you can catch a nasty bacterial infection.”

So, aren’t they ready to be seen by visitors? “They just came out of quarantine last week. They are okay, but we won’t be moving them till we build new enclosures. We are currently fund-raising for the same and looking for people to adopt the dragons.”

A weekend at the Croc Bank

Attending a weekend workshop at the Crocodile Bank might make for an interesting EVS lesson. Listen to interesting tales, work with the animals, help with husbandry and learn about the 2,000 animals of nearly 50 species that are housed in India’s largest reptile zoo. “At night, this place comes alive, as our nocturnal residents wake up,” says Vineeth. Wine snakes hang from the trees, and frogs, toads and insects crawl all over the place. But, isn’t that dangerous? Vineeth laughs, “Why are we scared of animals who are scared of us? The wine snakes, for example, are only mildly venomous. But they have no reason to inject a person with venom. Venom is meant for those they prey on, usually geckos and small birds, and are injected only when half inside the mouth.”

Just a walk around this research facility will teach you about those from the crocodilian family — crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials. There are also green iguanas, aldabra giant tortoises, a 15-ft python and all the marine life from the beach that serves as the crocodile bank’s backyard. There is also a morning walk with the Irula community to learn about Nature in a way one cannot in a classroom. “Kids have a lot to learn from in this environment,” says Vineeth.

The weekend workshop can be tailored for families, children and students. It costs Rs. 1,500 and is inclusive of accommodation and meals. For details, call 84895-14463.


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 12:41:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/A-date-with-the-dragons/article14244076.ece

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