An edited version of this story first appeared in Down to Earth in December issue.
Vardhan Patankar & Vrushal Pendharkar
Away from the shores of mainland India, an unusual conflict has been unravelling in the picturesque islands of Andamans and Nicobars. These islands are one of the last remaining bastions of saltwater crocodiles in Indian waters. Here, in the last six years, the encounters between humans and crocodiles are building into a potentially worrying situation.
Since the tsunami of 2004, there have been 22 attacks, between 2005 – 2015, out of which 11 were fatal and other 11 were injuries. This in comparison to 20,000 deaths every year due to rabies in India is minuscule. Prior to the tsunami from 1986 to 2004, there were 20 reported attacks. So essentially, the attacks have more than doubled in a short time. According to Harry Andrews, an herpetologist with 20 years experience on the islands, the seeds of increasing human-crocodile interaction was sown a decade before the tsunami. The influx of people settling on the islands from the mainland increased from 2,80,000 in 1991 to 3,60,000 in 2001. Current estimates are close to 3,90,000. To support more people, mangrove vegetation, which is the preferred habitat of crocodiles, found along the 1982 km of coastline and freshwater creeks were cleared. More than half of population are settlers from Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. They brought the culture of fishing along with them. With dwindling food resources and habitat, according to Andrews “it is becoming increasingly difficult for crocodiles to find space, especially during the breeding season when they prefer freshwater creeks and marshy areas to lay their eggs.” Most of the attacks have occurred during this time which coincides with the monsoons.
As a result of the tsunami, 3,730 hectares of coastal vegetation of the North Andaman was denuded with 7.5 % of mangroves damaged along the creeks of Little and South Andaman. According to a report compiled by Ravi Sankaran, the late scientist who pioneered research in Andamans, in 2005 the tsunami caused 50% greater impact than anthropogenic disturbances on these islands. Due to the tectonic shifts of the earthquake which triggered the tsunami, areas like Diglipur and Mayabunder on, islands of North and Middle Andaman heaved up by 1.2 meters while the South and Little Andaman and Nicobar group of islands went down by 1.6 meters. In areas of Bamboo Flat and Saithankhari mangroves were damaged while inundation in low-lying areas and agriculture fields of Sippighat, Saithankhari, and Tirur, mangroves changed to mudflats. Mudflats and vegetation around them form vital basking and nesting sites for crocodiles. With an increase in mudflats, crocodiles are being frequently found in areas close to human habitations. Pankaj Sekhsaria, an author of Last Wave – a novel based in the Andamans, hypothesizes “where submergence took place and where wetlands increased these could be areas of conflict.”
The Loha Barrack crocodile sanctuary is a 22 sq.km area from Wandoor to Khurma Dera in South Andaman created for a protection of crocodiles in 1983. Islanders Mohan Halder and Subhash Dey, Panchayat Pradhans of Tushnabad and Chouldari respectively accuse the forest department of setting up the sanctuary without fencing the area and consulting the villagers. Out of the 11 attacks in the last 10 years, the now infamous attack on an American lady in 2010 is the only fatal count in clear open water while the rest of the ten have been in muddy creeks found across these islands. Mukanda Roy fell victim to a recent attack close to the Loha Barrack sanctuary on August 31. Other muddy water areas of attacks are Ograbraj, Manpur, Mundapahar and HutBay in southern parts of Andamans.
According to Vanjulavalli Shridhar, Divisional Forest Officer, Mayabunder, such attacks are due to “negligence of people who venture in crocodile inhabited areas in hope for a better fish catch.” Another reason for crocodile attacks is the common practice of improper disposal of solid waste directly into creeks, canals, and the sea. Untreated organic waste consisting of kitchen waste, discarded chicken, and fish, etc could also be a factor for attracting crocodiles close to human-inhabited areas. Negligently dumped waste has also caused the local dog population to increase, luring crocodiles towards habitation. Unauthorized slaughterhouses in Ograbraj village are known to dump their raw meat waste callously in the waters. This village was the site of a crocodile attack on an elderly lady in 2012.
Such incidents are the recent phenomenon in otherwise largely peaceful cohabitation between these reptiles and settlers and indigenous people who have lived alongside for many decades. To mitigate any further escalation in a potential conflict, the administration has recently proposed several measures. Naveen Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forest, South Andaman, says, “joint patrolling team of panchayat members, police, and forest personnel are being formed to keep a watch on creeks and waterways close to human habitation.” He also suggested reducing dependence on creeks by drawing water through pipelines might help in reducing the conflict. Similarly, installing warning signages, deployment of lifeguards and erection of watchtowers on sites frequented by people will serve as early warning systems. Directives to restaurants, resorts, and even fishermen to avoid dumping untreated solid waste in water and advisories to villagers to stop using creeks for bathing and washing utensils will go a long way in avoiding contact with crocodiles. Vanjulavalli has conducted door-to-door campaigns and held 15 awareness camps in the past two years to sensitize people in ways to coexist with crocodiles. In Australia and Sri Lanka where saltwater crocodiles are also naturally found extensive scientific research is undertaken. Accordingly, effective communication initiatives are undertaken involving various stakeholders like government agencies, business and tourism sectors, the media and public at large for effective conservation of crocodiles.
It is often that people living in close proximity with crocodiles bear the physical and economic costs of attacks. At a precarious time when space available to support increasing human and crocodile population is shrinking, will they continue to coexist as they have for centuries?
We would like to thank Dr.Pankaj Sekhsaria, Dr. Ravichandran, Mr. Ram Vikas, Mr. Jason John, Mr. SK Thomas, Mr. Arun Singh, Dr. Manish Chandi, Dr. Harry Andrews, Mr. Denis Giles, Mr. Zubair Ahmed and Mrs. Vanjulavalli for providing necessary information and pictures.