The adventures of a crocodile stud

Updated - May 18, 2016 09:57 am IST

Published - February 21, 2014 06:13 pm IST - chennai:

Periyor, the escape artist. Photo: Rom Whitaker

Periyor, the escape artist. Photo: Rom Whitaker

In 1974, the governor ordered Periyor, a mugger crocodile that had escaped from the Madras Snake Park, be shot on sight.

Rom entrusted his assistants, Rajamani, Motorcycle Mani, and Gundu Mani, with the job of putting together a catching team and gathering up ropes, while he rushed to the Raj Bhavan to meet the governor. He explained Periyor was a tame crocodile and no danger to anyone. On Rom’s assurance he would catch the animal, the governor rescinded his order.

Periyor gave the catching team the runaround in the half-acre pond. His head would pop up on one side of the pond, and when the men rushed over, he’d submerge. Hours passed as the team waited for the crocodile to resurface. Periyor may have had a calm temperament, but he displayed all the cunning of a hunted animal. Perhaps just the tip of his snout came up for air without creating a ripple. If Periyor couldn’t be seen, how was Rom to noose him?

Someone suggested isolating the croc to one side of the pond. They lined up a row of scarecrows dressed in football jerseys, but the croc wasn’t intimidated. Rom baited a trap with chicken guts, but wily Periyor evaded capture and ate the bait. Within a couple of days, the catching operation became a public spectacle.

Back then, Raj Bhavan didn’t have the security we now take for granted. People walked in from the road to watch the futile catching attempts. Popcorn and peanut sellers set up stands. Rom grew increasingly embarrassed by his own ineptitude, and the governor was becoming impatient. Rom needed to somehow sweep across the breadth of the pond in one fell swoop.

Eventually, he came up with a plan. He sought a trawl and some sturdy trainees from a fisheries’ training institute. The 40-feet-long and 20-feet-wide net was heavy. With long ropes tied to the ends, 20 muscular men trawled the pond. As the net was being hauled up, everyone expected a croc to come out, thrashing and snapping. Instead, decades of rotting mesquite thorns surfaced, and a dozen turtles scrambled around. The bottom of the net was inert and heavy with debris. Had the croc given them a miss again?

Thorns scratched the disappointed men as they removed the turtles. When the net was fully opened, a slush-disguised Periyor charged forward, snapping his jaws. Relieved that the public spectacle was over, Rom hauled him back to the Snake Park, and patched up the enclosure wall with concrete.

Two years later, Periyor and Nova moved to a spacious enclosure at the Madras Crocodile Bank on the coast. At 10 feet, the stud male, the biggest croc and the star attraction, lorded over a harem of female muggers. He was also remarkably light-coloured for the species, which led to many jokes of him being a white foreigner like Rom.

Mugger crocs dig tunnels during the dry season. Digging is easy in the sandy soil, and if left alone, crocs could breach the foundations of the enclosure walls. Before the facility opened to the public each morning, keepers at the Croc Bank filled these tunnels to prevent crocs making their escape. One summer morning in 1983, Periyor went missing. Had he escaped once again?

Two days later, keepers discovered him. He had dug a deep tunnel, and the roof had collapsed on him. Since the mouth of the tunnel had also collapsed, no one had known of its existence. The weight of the sand had killed him.

Rom was in distant Papua New Guinea when he heard the sad news. The easy-going, calm-natured animal had a special place in Rom’s heart — Periyor was his first crocodile.

The croc that survived spirit-crushing solitude for 13 years with equanimity and a governor’s threat sired hundreds of babies in his decade-long career as a crocodilian stud.

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