Ten steps into the Madras Crocodile Bank and you are greeted by an enclosure filled with mugger crocodiles (Indian Marsh Crocodiles). At first sight, with their jaws wide open, some lying one on top of the other, the crocodiles look like statues, and I had to wait for a full five minutes for one of them to show any sign of life.
“Crocodiles are very chilled out like that. They don’t move very often, like us humans. They look like they’re on an eternal vacation,” laughs Arul, the zoo instructor.
I also learn that they keep their jaws open to thermoregulate their body temperatures and that muggers are the most social ones among the species, most of which are very territorial. “So it’s alright for us to put them together in enclosures like this,” he explains.
Muggers at the bank
The Madras Crocodile Bank was started in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker and a few other like-minded people. Back then, it housed just one natural pond and 20 muggers.
The 74-year-old conservationist, Romulus, was recently honoured by the Indian government with the Padma Shri. Although many perceive that the award is coming to him a little too late, Romulus still possesses the vigour that he started out with, more than 40 years ago.
The Bank in Chennai began as a gene pool and a breeding ground for species that were later released back into the wild. Then came the snap in 1994 when the government regulated captive breeding and releasing animals into the wild.
So now, the Bank does not release the crocodiles back into the wild – many factors have contributed to this, including increasing human encroachments and a steep rise in man-animal conflicts.
So what role does the Madras Crocodile Bank play at present?
“As an education and training centre for young, aspiring herpetologists, Croc Bank is no. 1. We may have helped bring crocs back from the brink of extinction, but now, with success, we have to also deal with teaching people how to live with crocodiles,” says Romulus, who has affectionately been dubbed the ‘Snake Man of India’.
True, the muggers are no longer facing the threat of extinction and the Bank alone has hundreds of them. But, you may be surprised to know, the Bank doesn’t just house crocs anymore.
“We’ve now got 1,800 crocs covering 17 different species, in addition to turtles, tortoises, snakes, and lizards,” says Ajay Karthik, assistant curator at the Bank.
They also have an active turtle conservation project in both India and other parts of the world for giant musk turtles, red-crowned roof turtles and the critically endangered northern river terrapins (of which only 300 or perhaps less remain in captivity worldwide).
Mexican Giant Musk Turtle
The Bank also has a variety of migratory birds that nest on its trees, and some even give close company to the reptilians.
The Bank’s latest additions are the komodo dragons – the largest lizards in the world. “This one’s from the Bronx Zoo, New York. It is currently 6-feet-long and they can grow up to 9- or 10-feet,” beams Arul.
Banks' latest addition, five-year-old Komodo Dragon on exhibit
He also tells me that reptiles found on islands are usually larger than the rest of their species, while mammals on islands tend to be smaller than their counterparts in the rest of the world (example the Sumatran elephants are smaller than their African counterparts)
Studying animals under captivity helps us understand their behaviour and characteristics better. It is little wonder therefore that the Bank has several in-depth studies about these reptiles.
“For instance, we've been able to study that if the eggs are kept at exactly 32.5°C during incubation, all the hatchlings born are male, but if it is any temperature above or below it, the hatchlings are female. Now, with this, we can understand how climate change affects crocodiles,” says Arul.
Romulus has also spearheaded some research projects across the country – two of the most important being the Agumbe Rainforest Project and the Gharial Ecology Project.
“The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) is now 12 years old and we've done the first detailed study, using radio telemetry, of the king cobra and its habitat. Many MSc students of the National Centre for Biological Sciences are 'graduates' of ARRS, and new wildlife and forest research projects are being hatched,” says Romulus.
Picture Courtesy: Madras Crocodile Bank. Rom Whitaker teaching children about snakes, Tamil Nadu,1985
Allwin Jesudasan, Assistant Director at the Bank, tells us that this is the only place in the entire country that supplies anti-venom serum.
“Understandably, it’s not a one-size-fits-all serum, because the venom of a snake found in West Bengal is very different from what is found here. We’re delving deeper into this subject,” he adds.
Romulus is also actively involved in an educational program called Global Snakebite Initiative.
“Under the Global Snakebite Initiative, of which I'm the Project Manager (India), we are working on a multi-pronged programme to educate people about snakes and treatments for snakebite. This includes collecting venom samples across the country in order to find out if one anti-venom serum is effective throughout the country. We are working in collaboration with the head of the Australian Venom Research Unit in Melbourne,” he says.
Evidently, as part of their conservation projects all over the country, they’ve also reached out to various local groups, who were earlier considered threats for the species they worked with – the Irulas (for snakes) and the fishermen (for gharials).
On the human-animal conflicts, there is an absence of awareness and a dire need to educate locals, Romulus says: “The Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative helps the Irulas make a living from legally catching snakes for venom to save lakhs of snake-bitten people in India each year. We need to not only educate locals, but involve them in conservation.”
Picture Courtesy: Madras Crocodile Bank. Rom with Irula Chief Chockalingam, taken by Shekar Dattatri
Likewise, Arul explains that as part of the Gharial Ecology Project, the local fishermen are now being trained to catch them, so they can be tagged to for further studies.
Romulus adds, “The Gharial Ecology Project is ongoing and has successfully radio-tagged over 50 gharials, and we are learning more about this critically endangered species than ever, thanks to the energy and skill of the chief investigator Dr Jeffrey W Lang.”
Ajay tells us that the best time to see these eternal holidayers in action is from October to January – their peak breeding season. “You have the males showing off their dominance through their jaw claps and grunts, and there’s a whole lot of activity when it comes to courtship. It is interesting to observe the species during this time.”
The busiest time for Croc Bank is 4.30 pm on Sunday afternoons. This is when the star of the Bank, Jaws III, is fed. Jaws III is the largest crocodile in captivity (he is 17 feet long and weighs 500 kg.
“He is my favourite here,” laughs Romulus. “I've had a long history with this guy, who was born in 1970. I used to carry him under my arm once and now he's big enough to carry me around (but, of course, that could be dangerous!).”
Why was he christened Jaws III though? “He was probably put on display around the time the film released,” Ajay shrugs.
The Bank also houses two Thors – one a saltwater crocodile and the other a komodo dragon (not on display) – the underwater star, Garfield the gharial, a west-African dwarf crocodile named Jumbo, Allie the Alligator and Smaug the Komodo dragon (on display) named after the dragon in Lord of the Rings.
Garfield the Ghariyal on underwater display
While there are extensive projects for the conservation of mammals and even birds, unfortunately, projects lack this urgency when it comes to reptiles and other smaller species.
“Certainly more attention needs to be paid to conservation of 'lesser' life forms, but I must say that things are looking up in India now. A real interest is growing in the world of reptiles and amphibians. No time for slacking though, we have to keep showing people how important and fascinating and downright beautiful these creatures really are,” says Romulus.
The Bank currently spends Rs 6 lakh a month on food for the reptiles and the management of these reptiles is not without its challenges.
“Now, as many as 5 lakh visitors come to the Croc Bank each year and learn about reptiles. We have 17 of the 23 species of the world's crocodilians and we plan to get the other 6 too, including the Chinese Alligator. The biggest challenge we now face is to revamp and modernize Croc Bank under a brand new master plan, approved by the Government of India's Central Zoo Authority. Raising the money needed to achieve the new master plan is currently the big challenge,” says Romulus.
The Bank also runs a crowdfunding program for their various activities. For the wildlife enthusiast in you, Madras Crocodile Bank has a flurry of activities, like the night safari – that is conducted six times a week – weekend talks and demonstrations, workshops, camps and monthly snake walks that you can sign up for.