SUNDAY SPECIAL | Other States

Croc attacks surge in the Andamans

In this file photo, forest officials are trained in capturing crocodiles in Haddo.

In this file photo, forest officials are trained in capturing crocodiles in Haddo.  

On November 12, 2017, Bishnu Hari Mandal (21), died after a salt water crocodile (‘salty’) dragged him away while swimming at the popular Wandoor beach. A week after this, five salties were caught from the same place, including one that was 4.25 metres long. Water-based activities were temporarily suspended in Havelock island later in November 2017, and in Corbyn's Cove in early December 2017, after sightings of paw marks and a crocodile, respectively.

In 2016, Vardhan Patankar, a marine biologist affiliated to the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET), found that there had been 22 attacks by crocodiles in the A&N Islands over the decade from 2005-2015. Half of them were fatal, the remaining 11 resulted in injuries.

Interestingly, Patankar noted that 20 crocodile attacks were reported in the nearly two preceding decades, between 1986-2004, indicating a doubling of such incidents after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. This has led to an intriguing question posed by several ecologists. Could the tsunami have spawned the surge in the number of crocodile attacks? And if so, how?

One view is that the tsunami, by destroying the natural habitat of the salties, has brought them closer to human habitations.

“The geological uplift and subsidence of coastal land over 4-5 years after the tsunami caused extensive loss of mangrove forests, natural habitat to salties,” says Ajai Saxena, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Goa, who dealt with cases of human crocodile conflict (HCC) over his work in the islands between 1986-95 and 2008-12. An estimated 3,730 hectares of coastal vegetation in North Andaman and 7.5% of mangroves in Little and South Andaman were damaged by the tsunami, vast tracts irreparably so. As a result, the tsunami turned low-lying areas and agricultural fields near human habitations into mudflats, favoured basking and nesting sites for salties, raising the possibility of HCC.

Artificial increase

The change in ecology was not the only thing the tsunami wrought. The scale of destruction also caught the nation’s attention which, ironically, resulted in an increased interest in visiting the islands. As author Pankaj Sekhsaria notes in a 2009 paper published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS), tourism was aggressively promoted after the tsunami. As many as 4,87,000 tourists arrived in 2017 alone. The growth of tourism has resulted in increased human activity along the coastline.

“The dumping of untreated kitchen waste, including raw chicken, fish and meat, by hotels and eateries that have mushroomed along the coast, has never been as rampant as it is now,” says B.C. Choudhury, retired scientist and visiting professor, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. “Such practices create an unnatural or artificial increase in crocodile population and sightings.” Unregulated slaughter houses disposing offal into the water is another problem.

The increase in the islands’ population, from 356,152 in 2001 to 3,80,581 in 2011, is cited as another reason. “As crocodile conservation programmes succeed, and human populations expand, interactions between the two become more frequent and problematic,” says a 2014 report in the JBNHS. Ecologists say mitigating HCC requires a crocodile survey and management plan focused on 'problem' or 'nuisance' salties (territorial adult males of the species). Also, most attacks occur in narrow creeks near which human and crocodile populations overlap.

Managing the conflict

In response to the increased incidence of human crocodile conflict in the Andamans, a salt water crocodile survey was launched over two years ago. On January 30 and 31, 2016, 125 teams set out in as many boats to 122 major creeks in the islands armed with GPS devices and PH meters for a crocodile census. Such a large and concerted exercise was being attempted for the first time.

“We identified 83 vulnerable areas based on crocodile sightings and movements,” says Dr. K. Ravichandran, currently Chief Conservator of Forests, Daman & Diu and Dadra Nagar Haveli. He was based in the A&N Islands from June 2013 to October 2017. A follow-up exercise timed for the monsoon breeding season in 2017 had to be called off due to inclement weather on both days. Data from the first leg remains unavailable.

A ‘Human Crocodile Management Action Plan' has been formulated by the Department of Environment and Forests, A&N Islands. It requires, among other things, beat officers monitoring the movement of ‘problem’ crocodiles, preventing eateries from dumping food waste into the sea, updated signage, patrol dinghies, and sanitising beaches for salties before tourists arrive and after they leave.

“The Andaman and Nicobar Administration took a lot of initiative in mitigating human crocodile conflict but despite its best efforts, one or two unfortunate incidents happened,” says Dr. Ravichandran. The current status of the plan is unclear.

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Printable version | Sep 29, 2020 10:55:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/croc-attacks-surge-in-andamans/article23402531.ece

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