Free From School
By Rahul Alvares

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Chapter 10: Crocodile Dundee

December was the most eagerly awaited month of my one year sabbatical. All decks had finally been cleared for my long awaited trip to the Crocodile Bank at Mamallapuram. Nearly three months earlier my dad had written to Romulus Whitaker the legendary snakeman who now runs the Croc Bank asking whether I could spend some time there. There had been no reply largely because Rom travels quite a bit but also because, as I discovered, writing replies to letters is about the last thing these animal-dedicated persons have time for.

I was in fact beginning to feel quite frustrated thinking that my trip would not work out when Srilata Swaminadhan (with whom we stayed in Jaipur) told my father that her sister lived at Mamallapuram and would help out. Phone calls back and forth and finally it was all organised. I was overjoyed when my dad’s phone call came to Uncle Mano’s house saying I could go.

Babu, Uncle Mano’s nephew, reached me by bus to the Croc Bank on the 9th of December and I spent one glorious month there, the nearest I got to living in the wild. Although I was supposed to return home for Christmas I begged to be let off and was in the seventh heaven when my parents agreed. In fact I enjoyed my stay so much, that in March, I returned to the Croc Bank again (for a brief while), as that was the breeding season for crocodiles.

The Croc Bank is situated at Mamallapuram which is about 37 kms from Chennai. It is a huge place with a beach just behind it.

Croc Bank is home to thousands of crocodiles, all of them housed in pits of varying sizes with sloping walls to enable water to collect at the centre so that the crocs can sunbathe on the upper part of the slopes. Some of the huge crocodiles have individual pits but usually the species is kept separately, male and female further separated from each other. A large enclosure divided into several sections houses the baby crocs.

In addition to crocodiles, snakes also have a significant position at Croc Bank for snakes were Director Romulus Whitaker’s first love, and he is still known as the Snakeman, having founded Madras Snake Park several years ago. There is, in fact, a big snake pit at the Croc Bank, in which various kinds of snakes are kept. Here, snake venom is extracted from the snakes by the Irulas. There is a separate fee for visitors for entering the snake area. While the poisonous snakes are kept in pots in a snake room, the King Cobras, of course, have special separate rooms.

Croc Bank also has enclosures and pits for various kinds of turtles and large aquariums with fish in them.

At one end of the campus is the library, well stocked with books and magazines on all these creatures. Adjacent to it are the residential quarters of researchers and guests (there were mainly foreigners at the time I was there) who come to stay at Croc Bank from time to time. The residential quarters are quite simple but comfortable. Each room has a bed, desk and table, and an attached bath and toilet. I occupied one of these rooms during my stay here.

The Irula families live in a separate area close to where the Snake pits are located. The permanent staff which includes the Director, Deputy Directory and others have their own individual houses located in various places within the Croc Bank.

During my stay I became good friends with many of the people at the Croc Bank including the six foot tall Director, Romulus Whitaker, whom everyone calls Rom; his wife, Zai Whitaker; their sons Samir and Nikhil; Harry Andrews, the Deputy Director who hails from Kerala; Romaine, his wife and their son Tharak, Gerry the snake-catcher from Bangalore and many others.

My stay at Croc bank was exciting throughout and I learnt a lot. For the first few days, I was given my first assignment i.e., treating a 2-foot long turtle with infected skin. I used to apply ointment to its feet and then put on some bandage. The next day, before repeating the treatment, I had to feed the turtle with cabbage in water.

From turtles, I moved to big lizards i.e. monitor lizards and Green Iguanas. The Green Iguana I handled was quite big-about the size of an average dachshund. His tail measured two to three times the length of his body if not more. From head to tail, he must have been about two and a half metres long. But he had been in captivity for so long that he was very friendly, though he had sharp claws and a spiny back and head. Sometimes, when I used to guide special guests around, I would take him out so that they could have a feel of his sandpapery skin. I was surprised when Harry, the deputy director, told me the Iguana was as old as I was.

Sometimes, I also handled monitor lizards. They were very strong, had sharp claws and a very bad bite. Every time I jumped into the pit to handle them they would rush into the water. I soon learned to be quick enough, and would get them before they could reach the water. Once they were cornered they would whip their tails about and inflate their necks, hissing dangerously. Of course, you had a few of them running up trees and then you couldn’t do anything about it. I soon discovered that though it looked scarier, it was easier to catch them in the water.

The croc bank is filled with pits. Each of these pits is an enclosure varying in size, depending on the size and type of reptile, and the number of them in it. Every pit has a pond of sorts filled with water for the reptiles to swim in or to drink. Most of the crocodile pits were bare, but the monitor lizard pits were usually filled with trees which they could climb to the highest branches. The branch ends were kept within the range of the pits so that the monitor lizards did not get out by trying to climb other trees or jumping out from the high branches.

The ponds of the monitor lizards were almost waist deep with dark murky water and you had to feel around until you touched the head, leg or body of the monitor (they are less likely to bite in water). Then I would feel around till I got the tail, slowly lift it to the surface and grab the neck under the water. Their necks were so huge that I could hardly get my fingers round them. On land, catching them by grabbing the tail was much faster, but one had to avoid the biting head by quickly grabbing the neck.

Once, when the Croc Bank staff wanted to get some monitors down from the trees, they just took a long stick and pushed them over from the height of almost a two storey building. They fell on the ground but suffered no damage and just continued running around. I recall the day Gerry challenged Nikhil “the bodybuilder” to pull a monitor lizard that was half out of a burrow. At first he thought the monitor’s tail would break but though he tugged with all his might his rippling muscles couldn’t move an inch of the monitor.

In the mornings, I helped the workers clean the croc pits, a task which I thoroughly enjoyed. We would jump into the pits with big sticks and chase all the crocs into the water. Then we would clean out the croc shit and the left overs of their food which included a lot of bones. This exercise was usually done with a male worker first chasing the crocs into the water. Then the remaining 3 to 4 women would help with brooms, baskets and spades. Occasionally, we would have a crocodile wanting us to get out of his pit instead. No matter how hard you hit him on his nose he would chase you around until he would finally give in, so to speak, and dash into the water with a big splash or sometimes, glide gracefully to where he could join his friends who sometimes numbered a thousand! (The Croc Bank had around seven thousand crocs at the time I was there.)

I also had occasion to participate a few times in the operations involved in shifting crocodiles from one location to another. That was quite an adventure in itself!

One day Rom and Harry decided to shift the largest male Gharial in the Croc Bank from one pit to another as it had broken its upper jaw in a fight with another male during the previous breeding season.

Normally you try to catch a croc by throwing a sort of a small anchor in and when the croc latches on to it you try and pull it out. Once it is out, about 10-15 people quickly jump and sit on it. (That’s the only way to prevent a croc from getting back into water!). With its mouth bound by rubber bands, the croc is then rolled onto a ladder, bound to it, lifted and carried to the pit that it has to be transferred to. An average adult croc is about 250 kg and about two to three metres long. It takes 15-20 people to carry it.

Once it is released in the pool the ropes and rubber bands are removed and the last unfortunate or brave man, depending on how you look at it, makes a run for his life over the edge of the pond onto the safety of dry land.

As we were transferring the male Gharial into a female mugger pit, Harry jokingly yelled: “What do you think we will get-a Ghammer?” Of course crocs only mate with others of their own species and there is no way a Gharial and mugger will get together. We were in fact transferring the male here in order to give it a period of rest and recovery from fighting with other males.

Another time the exercise was because `Jaws III’ needed female company. Jaws III is the biggest captive salt water crocodile in India. He is about 16 feet and ranks may be, 3rd or 4th in the world in terms of his length. Therefore, after Part II of `The Great White Man-eating Shark’ was produced, called Jaws II, the Croc Bank rightly decided to name its crocodile `Jaws III’.

Jaws III was a loner and would kill anything including other crocs which fell into his pit. So he lived a lonely, if majestic life. Whenever we jumped into his pit to clean it he would come charging at us even if he was in the water. He seemed to give us more exercise than all of us put together gave him. Anyway, the Croc Bank, after ten years, finally felt it was time to find a him bride. Since he had on more than one occasion bashed his head against a wall sensing a female in the opposite pit, we knew he was ready!

The first female we caught was about to be thrown into his pit when I asked to examine her. (I had just learnt how to sex them). I began to feel inside the crocodile and felt a hemipenis! “It’s a male,” I shouted. “Can’t be,” said Gerry, “let me check.” After a few seconds there was a reassuring nod from Gerry: “Yes, Rom, it’s a male!”

“Rahul, Champion Sexer,” cried Gerry.

One cannot tell if crocs are male or female by their outward appearance. So, at the Croc Bank, after crocs grow to a certain length they are sexed and markings are made on their scales. But workers can sometimes make mistakes while sexing small crocs. That’s perhaps how the error occurred with the first bride we got for Jaws. I can’t imagine the plight of the poor chap had he been put in the pit with Jaws. He would have been turned into minced meat in minutes.

After that episode we physically examined every supposed female we caught to be doubly sure of not making any error and found that most of the supposed females turned out to be males! By then, most of the crocs had run into the deepest part of the pond and we had hardly any crocs to choose a female from. Rom suggested chasing the females out of the water onto the land, but that’s not easy at all. So he came up with another idea.

We got some iron gates and tied them together with a thick mesh net over it all. Then we had to wade into the green water with the net in front of us. This would effectively push the crocs from the deep water onto the land. But the best of plans can go haywire and, instead, the reverse started happening. The crocs from the land started coming into the water colliding with those being driven out by us. Thereafter there was general commotion in the water and all the crocs started thrashing about. One almost got my neighbour’s hand. I could feel the crocs at my feet through the iron mesh that I held grimly onto. However we finally accomplished our dangerous mission and when we had driven a sufficient numbers onto the land we were able to select a female for Jaws.

Imagine Jaws’ surprise when he saw a companion after all those years. She was exactly half his size in length and width. Perhaps he was just very excited or maybe it was due to a normal state of male aggression, we don’t know, because he just caught the hapless female croc between his huge jaws and thrashed her about. “Croc barbecue is delicious”, said Tharak expecting the poor creature to perish any moment. Fortunately or unfortunately, his wish was not fulfilled. The female survived although with quite a few bloody marks. Thereafter she kept her distance from the water as any sane creature would, avoiding Jaws like the plague.

Much later, when I visited Croc Bank a second time, it was the breeding season and there were a few nests to be excavated everyday. Each nest would occupy about the space of a medium size basket. Each egg was at least three times the size of a hen’s egg and they usually numbered around 30 to 35. Every female-and each one of these measured from about 2 m to 3.5 m-would determinedly guard her nest, refusing to budge when we tried to chase her into the water in order to clean the pit.

There is now a problem of excess population of the mugger crocodiles at the Croc Bank partly because they breed twice as much at the croc bank compared to in the wild and also due to their high survival rate. In the wild, at the most, one or two survive out of the 30-35 eggs as many are lost to predators, etc., but here due to artificial incubation, special enclosures, etc., a large number tend to survive. Therefore the croc bank has stopped all breeding of this species which meant that we had a surfeit of eggs for breakfast! We used to scramble the salty eggs and finish them off with sauce, although a larger number used to be sent raw for the monitor lizards’ breakfast.

I sometimes went snake hunting with the Irulas. The Irulas are tribals that are expert at snake catching. They formerly caught snakes for the snake skin industry. After the ban, they went out of business and found it difficult to make a living because they did not own land and did not know how to cultivate fields or do any trade at all. After the croc bank opened they were back in the business they excelled in, but this time it was to save people and snakes with snake venom extraction.

Carrying only a crowbar and a few cloth bags, they would set out, overturning every bush and digging any hole that showed signs of a snake in it. Their crowbar had three uses, namely: (1) to shine light into the burrow; (2) to dig the hole and (3) to handle the snake. During my outings with the dark, short, curly haired snake hunters, we caught striped keelbacks, ratsnakes and also black scorpions.

Apart from snakes the Irulas also caught rats. These rats, which destroy crops and fields, build their burrows within the bunds. After catching the rats, the Irulas would take away the rice which the rats had stowed away and cook it to eat with the field rat meat. These outings were long, hot and tiring but I found them nonetheless enjoyable.

The Irulas also taught me a lot about snake handling. I learnt to handle the four poisonous snakes of India (the “Big Four”, i.e. Cobras, Common Kraits, Russel’s Vipers, Saw-scaled Vipers) and also Pit Vipers and Pythons.

Snakes were kept in mud pots that were placed in the snake room (no different from an ordinary bedroom). Outside, a board merely announced: `Danger: Snakes Loose’. This was done to discourage intruders. But really speaking, snakes were let loose only under supervision. There was a small canal of water outside to prevent ants from entering the room. (You may not believe it but ants can reduce a snake to a skeleton.) Next, there was a little space outside the room and about 1 to 2 metres after, a smooth wall, about a metre high. I used to remove the snakes from their pots, put them to drink water in the canal and then clean the pots. During this exercise I would take the opportunity to improve my skills at handling the snakes. Basically one has to hold the tail with one hand and control the snake using the snake hook (a long stick with an iron hook at the end) with the other.

Bites! That’s practically the first question anyone asks me when I talk of my croc bank vacation. Did I get bitten? Yes, several times, mostly by accident. But sometimes I allowed myself to be bitten just for the heck of it. I recall once when a ratsnake gave me a bite on the nose. I tried to prevent Rom seeing it but he found out soon enough by the blood on my shirt. A bite from a ratsnake is not painful but it bleeds like a leaking tap. “Don’t worry, Rahul,” Rom said cheerfully, “the venom will not take effect for another half an hour.” (Ratsnakes are non-poisonous.)

Another time I was getting a picture taken of myself with a baby crocodile when it turned round and bit me. That was quite bad! Imagine a sawing machine running over your hand. But I was cool, and happy that I had been bitten by a crocodile!

Then I was dumb enough to try the bite of a wall lizard that Gerry had caught to feed to his pit vipers. The scar, still on my hand, reminds me also of the chequered keelback bite I got in Pune (the one which got so bad that I couldn’t wear my watch for a few days).

And on the last day of my stay at Croc Bank the red-eared turtle which I was taking away as my gift and souvenir from Croc Bank bit me so bad that I could see my flesh and I could barely use my hand for a few days.

Now when I look back I think I was collecting bites in much the same way that some people collect trophies. Although this may appear quite a foolish thing to do and perhaps it was too (some of the bites were quite painful), one good thing did come out of all those bites. I have no paranoid fear of such bites any longer. I am very careful when I handle reptiles and take all the precautions that I have been taught but I know that I would not be terror stricken should I get bitten and would know what remedial steps to take.

Apart from my practical studies, there was a huge library at the Croc Bank where I would browse through several books on crocs, snakes, monitors, turtles, the works. It was always with great pleasure that I would search for information about something that I had learnt or seen that day. And the best part is that although I didn’t have to memorize the facts for any examination, nothing of what I read has gone out of my head.

And then, there was always time for fun. Sometimes I would go to Harry’s house where Tharaq and I played music or recorded songs. Other times, I would watch a movie at Rom’s. There was time for barbecues of field rats, froglegs, frankfurters, parrot fish, chicken and beef, rounded off with chocolate cake. The beach at the back was for swimming during the day and catching crabs during the night.

One of the interesting happenings at the time that I was there was the arrival of a film team from the magazine National Geographic to film the King Cobras at the Bank. I became one of the many hands-on they had for the job: I would assist in various ways like holding the flash, helping with the setting up of shots, catching and re-catching the frogs as they scampered off during the numerous retakes.

One lazy afternoon Tharaq suggested a haircut for me. My hair was by then really long. In fact I had not put a scissor to it since the beginning of my sabbatical. So now it stood nearly at shoulder length. He told me he had one and a half months’ experience in hair cutting. I was thus persuaded to take up his offer of a “free” haircut in the “latest style”.

I explained in great detail to Tharaq how I wanted it cut and he nodded attentively making a few suggestions here and there. Then he started to work with the scissors, cutting and shaving here and there. When he announced that he had finished he produced a mirror and I looked into the face of an unrecognisable Rahul with a hairstyle of triangles sitting amidst shaved parts and a long strand of hair in the front. I looked crazier than any rock star! It was only then that I learnt that Tharaq did not know the ABC of haircutting, much less hairstyling and that he had just had a great time experimenting on my head.

Anyway I decided that now was a good time to try out the “bald look" and so I got to a proper barber and had my hair shaved off completely. It was truly liberating. I took several pictures of myself at this time with the reptiles at the croc bank to remember my days here and also to record for posterity my new look.

I felt truly sorry when it was time for me to leave Croc Bank. I promised everyone that I’d be back soon. I carried a souvenir with me-a red-eared turtle (which I still have) and some turtle eggs.

I travelled through the night on a bus to Bangalore. At my foot was the turtle in a box and I had left a small opening for her to breathe. Suddenly I noticed that the turtle was out and was already making for the door of the bus. I quickly caught her and put her back without any of the sleeping passengers noticing it except for a dear old lady who smiled and said, “Dropped your water bottle, son?”

Field Work Notes:
Crocodiles

Living millions of years before man, but today facing extinction...with many myths about them and very little known about their nature. Many are considered dangerous. None are considered useful. Who are these creatures? They are called crocodiles, alligators and lizards.

There are 21 species of crocodiles and alligators in the world.

Three species of crocodiles are found in India, namely:

1) the Gharials-which are fish-eating crocodiles;

2) the Muggers; and

3) the Salt-water crocodiles.

The biggest and the most dangerous of all crocodiles in the world is the salt water crocodile, which can grow upto 25 feet. It is the only crocodile that can live in the sea for a long time. The Nile crocodile of Africa is yet another deadly species. Fossils of three other extinct species of crocodiles have also been found in India.

These cold blooded animals have evolved with dinosaurs millions of years ago and are more closely related to birds than to snakes or reptiles. Being cold blooded they control their body temperature by seeking shady, sunny spots or different levels in water. They often bask with their jaws open, which probably helps them to keep cool.

Their eyes, nose and ears are positioned in a straight line along with head and snout. They have good eyesight and a good sense of smell, and can hear very well. Their tail is very strong and helps them in swimming. They have a very low metabolic rate and thus need to hunt only every few days. They can decrease their metabolic rate and stay under water for a long time. Alligators have been known to stay under water for upto 6 hours. They do not make any unnecessary movements but can move very fast even on land when necessary. Small salties can gallop at a speed of 48 kph for short distances.

Crocodiles are found in large and small rivers, lakes, mangroves, and in brackish and fresh water. When a baby crocodile hatches, it is just about three quarters of a foot (25-30 cms) in length. In a few years it matures into an adult. Maturity depends upon size rather than on age. Generally males mature slower than females.

In the wild, a female will take between 5-7 years to mature whereas males will take 9-11 years. Gharials take longer to mature; about 8-10 years for the female and 12 years for the male. In captivity, such as in the Madras Crocodile Bank, females mature in four years and males in five.

The average size for maturity for a Mugger is-male (2 metres) and female (1.6 metres). Males of Gharials and Salties mature at three and a half metres and females at three metres.

Mugger crocodiles breed in between February and April. Salties breed in April and Gharials between the last week of March to the second week of April.

Breeding depends on environmental conditions. In the breeding season males often fight for the right to court with several females. During courtship each pair may blow bubbles, rub noses, raise their snout and periodically submerge and re-emerge. Different species show different courtship displays. Gharials, for example, often court each other by making a loud buzzing sound. Mating occurs under water with the male mounted on top of the female.

The average gestation period is between 35-60 days. The gestation for a Mugger is 35-40 days and for Gharials and Salties, 40-65 days. The temperature at which eggs are incubated and the moisture content of the environment (humidity) influence the sex within the embryo.

Crocodiles will either dig a hole about 30 cms deep or pile up leaves to incubate their eggs. They sometime splash water on the nest to control the temperature. In mugger crocs, females are exclusively produced at constant temperature of 28íC through 31íC. At 32.5íC only males are produced. Both sexes in varying proportion are produced at 31.5 to 33íC.

The female guards the nest. At the time of hatching the young start croaking so the mother (sometimes even the father) digs open the nest. Then she cracks some of the eggs with her teeth to set free the young and carries them to the water in her mouth. The adult crocodiles continue to guard the young until they are about 5-7 months old.

Crocodiles have many uses in nature’s ecosystem. They help keep the environment clean by eating the carcasses that would otherwise rot. They capture the diseased, wounded and weaker prey thus letting only the strongest survive and thus maintaining a healthy population and keeping up the genetic quality of their prey species.

In the dry season, wallows and tunnels dug by crocs provide essential water for other animals, turtles and fish. Many animals depend upon crocs for food for e.g. the sacred Ibis and monitor lizard will eat the eggs of the Nile crocodile. Crocs are also exceptionally resistant to disease and thus may be of great use in medical research.

Continue...

Chapter 1: A Fish Shop in Mapusa  •  Chapter 2: Learning a Bit of Farming  •  Chapter 3: Plant Festivals  •  Chapter 4: Learning about Mushrooms  •  Chapter 5: A Trip to Kerala  •  Chapter 6: Snakes Alive!  •  Chapter 7: A Vacation within a Vacation  •  Chapter 8: Earthworms  •  Chapter 9: Spiders  •  Chapter 10: Crocodile Dundee  •  Chapter 11: Learning to Teach  •  Chapter 12: You Have Sight, I Have Vision  •  Chapter 13: Surveying a Forest  •  Chapter 14: Chief Guest At Belgaum

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