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Meet Pond Deva's laid-back crocodiles

Mugger crocodiles watch people going about their activities with as much interest as researchers watch them. Photo: Anirudh Vasava

Mugger crocodiles watch people going about their activities with as much interest as researchers watch them. Photo: Anirudh Vasava  

Pond Deva in central Gujarat with its laid-back crocodiles is unlikely to ever be a hit horror film

Pond Deva is the opposite of the 1999 horror film Lake Placid in every way. The difference isn’t in size alone but also in the temperament of the resident crocodiles. Women bathe, children play, and men fish in the pond with impunity as the reptiles mind their own business. (See Life on the Water’s Edge on February 18, 2017)

When Anirudh Vasava first arrived in the Charotar, central Gujarat, all he knew about the reptiles came from wildlife documentaries that showcased toothy, ill-tempered beasts, a few shades better than the fictional beast from the horror movie. Watching the real-life scenes of harmony between people and these aquatic predators, he was perplexed. “Are they really crocodiles?” he wondered. “Has this species forgotten its true nature?”

Change of plan

After studying large carnivores like tigers, Vasava had returned to his home state hoping to work on a species at odds with humans. He thought perhaps he’d study wolves, but when naturalist Vishal Mistry related stories of crocodiles living in village ponds, he changed his plans. Mistry became his field assistant.

“Even if you don’t know anything about tigers, you can still like them,” Vasava says. “But crocs are ugly and fearsome.”

They took some getting used to. He observed the reptiles from a distance for a year while chatting with villagers about their aquatic neighbours. With time, their nonchalance rubbed off on him.

When Vasava’s confidence grew, he wasn’t that afraid of approaching crocodiles to collect data. One took umbrage and chased him. Instead of blaming it, he rationalised that he had violated its personal space. He grew to appreciate and even like them.

Mistry and Vasava rushed to a village on being summoned. “I slept with the crocodile,” said the caller, laughing uproariously. Sometime during the night, an eight-foot crocodile had crept into his house, where it rested unnoticed by anyone until the morning. “The only difference was I was on the bed and the mugger below it.”

In the Charotar, mother crocodiles often dig their nest holes at the mouth of their burrows on the edge of the ponds. Vasava and his team peer inside the lairs before checking on the status of nests since protective females are known to charge. Some villagers use this behaviour for their own ends.

Once, the researchers discovered a large box containing an assortment of bottles filled with booze. A bootlegger had found the perfect hiding spot for his contraband.

Not really sleeping

To dispel myths, Vasava is making a documentary film about the life of crocs in these villages. To get a shot of one slipping into the pond, he and his filmmaker friend sat on the other bank and waited for hours. It seemed to be deep in slumber. Then when they looked away for a moment, it slid into the water. “This didn’t happen just once but several times,” he says. “You think it lies there doing nothing. But it’s observing everything. Who is coming, at what time, what are they doing.” Finally, they managed to get the simple shot.

“It may contradict what others believe, but a mugger crocodile is a gentleman,” says Vasava.

Trusting one another

What explains this docility? The best guess is the villagers’ long tradition of leaving them alone made the reptiles trust them.

Counting these reptiles is a necessarily night-time venture, an exercise that causes Vasava and his team to quake in their boots. Pond Deva has its own beast of horror, and it’s not a crocodile. The creature hates torchlights, which the researchers cannot avoid. If a light beam falls on it, the monster rises out of the water and charges, churning and splashing water and aquatic weeds. “Jalpado!” one of the team members screams and the others run for their lives. Even the crocs stay out its way. Jalpado, the furious, ill-tempered beast, is a feral bull water buffalo.

Pond Deva with its laid-back crocodiles and a monstrous Jalpado is unlikely to ever be a hit horror film.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 10:42:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/a-gentleman-named-mugger/article31755262.ece

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