A timely tale that has brought to life a vanished crocodile

The Kochi lake, the northwest limb of the Vembanad lake system, was once home to saltwater crocodiles; the hefty reptiles slowly vanished from the lake with the setting up of the port, habitat loss from destruction of mangrove marshes, increase in human settlements along lake’s rim

Updated - June 12, 2024 10:48 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2024 06:33 pm IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

A saltwater crocodile (image for representation only)

A saltwater crocodile (image for representation only) | Photo Credit: AFP

A gripping new story by writer N.S. Madhavan has turned the spotlight on a reptilian giant of the ‘Cochin’ backwaters that vanished altogether from the Indian southwest coast in the past century — the saltwater crocodile.

Serialised over three recent issues of the Mathrubhumi weekly, Madhavan’s timely tale of man-animal conflict, titled Bheemachan, revolves around a spirited, early 20th-century crocodile hunt and the Captain Ahab-like obsession of a local fisherman.

Sadly, not many people today remember that the tranquil expanse of the Kochi lake — the northwest limb of the Vembanad lake system where it connects with the Arabian Sea — was once home to the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). Currently, crocodiles are found in the Neyyar sanctuary in Thiruvananthapuram district, over 200 km south of Kochi. But they are the ‘muggers,’ the freshwater cousins (Crocodylus palustris) of the estuarine Bheemachan. In India, saltwater crocodiles (also, estuarine crocodiles) are today confined to a few locations on the east coast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Crocodile hunt

Madhavan has dedicated his compelling work to C.S. Gopala Panicker, whose 1906 account of a crocodile hunt in Cochin appeared in the Rasikaranjini, edited by Kunjukuttan Thampuran, under the title Oru Muthala Nayattu. “Scholars often treat Gopala Panicker’s account as the second short story in Malayalam after Vasanavikruti (by Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar, 1891),” the acclaimed author told The Hindu on Monday.

Several British-era chronicles mention the crocodiles of Cochin. The Fauna of British India Including Ceylon and Burma published in London in March 1931 records the range of Crocodylus porosus as, “The east coast of India and the southern extremity of the west coast as far north as Cochin.” Over the subsequent decades, the hefty reptiles slowly vanished from the lake, where a major port began taking shape in the 1920s. Habitat loss from the destruction of mangrove marshes and the explosion of human settlements along the lake’s rim, triggering human-wildlife conflict, hastened their disappearance.

“The estuarine crocodile was one of the animals that our region lost with the destruction of the mangrove ecosystem,” notes K.G. Mohanan Pillai, former director, Forestry Information Bureau, Kerala, and former faculty, Wildlife Institute of India, who was part of national-level crocodile surveys.

Indian Crocodiles - Conservation and Research, the proceedings of the first Indian crocodile researchers’ symposium held in January 1979, noted: “Except for a breeding population each at Bhitar Kanika — off the Chandbali coast of Orissa (Odisha) — and Sundarban in West Bengal, the saltwater crocodile is definitely known not to occur in any other former distributional limit of the species in the Indian mainland ranging from Cochin in the Kerala coast to all along the east coast.”

Some early accounts

An earlier work gives insights into the Kerala connections of the Crocodylus porosus. “Accidents, sometimes fatal, are of frequent occurrences around Cochin from these animals,” observes the Land of the Permauls, or Cochin, Its Past and Its Present, an 1863 book by Francis Day, the naturalist who was Civil Surgeon of British Cochin and Medical Officer to the Government of the Rajah of Cochin.

It further notes: “The size of this animal is often very great, and though personal observation is limited to 18 or 20 feet, the natives declare that it grows to 30.”

Day presents chilling accounts of some of these ‘accidents.’ “In one instance a fisherman in the early morning, went to visit the nets, from which shortly afterwards awful shrieks were heard, but owing to it still being dark, nothing could be seen: many fishermen being near, they raised a great shout, and by the time they reached the nets, they saw their comrade in the jaws of a crocodile, which became so alarmed at the noise that it let go its prey. The poor man was so terribly bitten that he died the same day.”

Two other incidents, the first concerning “two lads” who accidentally hooked a crocodile on their fishing line, and the second about two girls “who were separately pursued by a crocodile” within the space of a month” also find mention in this work.

Old accounts from the region also draw attention to a ‘crocodile ordeal’ that required people accused of crimes to swim across a crocodile-infested river to prove their innocence.

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