Malini Shankar, Port Blair, Aug. 19: 22 year old Ajay Kallu of Bakultala village in Northern Andamans was the 5th victim of crocodile attacks in the Andaman Nicobar Islands. The fatal attacks from estuarine or salt water crocodiles – endemic to littoral areas of the Islands of south East Asia – have noticeably increased since the attack on American tourist in Havelock Island in April 2010.

Estuarine crocodiles or Salt water crocodiles – also called Salties are native from the east coast of India all along the island states of South East Asia till the Northern coast of Australia. Attacks on human beings are common as Salties are the one of the 2 most aggressive crocodilians in the world – the other being the Nile Crocodile. Salties have accounted for the death of hundreds of human deaths all across South Asia’s Island creeks.

With human population increasing and their consumption of natural resources only increasing, notwithstanding pollution and disturbance to nesting crocodiles, and ofcourse climate change, the crocodile attacks are a factor that the human race has to contend with.  Additionally, there are the repercussions of the tsunami to reckon with. “In my view, destruction of large tracts of mangroves by 2004 Tsunami is the reason behind rising incidence of crocodile attacks.

Crocodiles have been there since long and locals have been discarding all kinds of wastes into the sea all through, but there were no attacks (compared to 5 deaths in the last two years) except at Little Andaman. Forest dept must spare efforts to regenerate those mangroves and justify their presence” says Debkumar Bhadra a geophysicist in Andaman Nicobar Islands.

“Two weeks after the incident we have not yet recovered the mortal remains or the clothes of the deceased, possibly because the tides have washed away the mortal remains far out to sea. We have laid traps to capture the crocodile for relocation. It is a very unfortunate incident; if only the villagers of Bakultala had reported to the authorities earlier that possibly the same crocodile had killed 2 cattle in the same creek in the past one year, the forest department could atleast have kept a watch” Shashikumar the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Wildlife said in Port Blair.

“Crocodiles have started invading land now” says Mohan Haldar, the Pramukh of Tushnabad Panchayat in Ferrarganj.

“That is because after the Mega Earthquake (that triggered the Asian Tsunami) land in the Andaman group of Islands heaved up, leaving sea water in the creeks to run off – leaving lesser habitat for the crocodiles. Here people have started using the extra land for paddy cultivation”, says wildlife researcher Manish Chandi of Andaman Nicobar Environment Team in Port Blair. So it is no wonder then that crocodiles are now increasingly visible on land.

Sapan of Ograbraj village holds the forest department entirely to blame for the increase in crocodile attacks. “It is because they have relocated crocodiles and introduced them in places where there was none” he alleges. This is dismissed by Shashikumar, the forest officer. “Infact we relocate aggressive crocodiles found near human habitation to the Loha Barack Crocodile sanctuary, not the other way around”. “Humans have been cultivating for eons but why do we suddenly stare the man eating crocodile?”asks Sapan, a tad bit incredulous. 

“Callous disposal of wastes like meat leftovers, chicken feed, food leftovers, blood from the unauthorized slaughterhouses etc have attracted crocodiles (to feast on these) inside human habitation, that is why crocodiles have lost fear of man and are now attacking humans” says Abdul Haneef, Secretary of the Industries Department in the UT Administration in Port Blair.

“Ok in Ograbraj there are unauthorized slaughter houses but what about Manpur? There are no slaughterhouses there! A lady herding her cattle through a creek was fatally attacked by a crocodile” alleged Sapan. “Crocodile attacks have increased all over the Islands Madam… do something he pleads…; if necessary the forest department must kill the crocodiles” he heaved.

“If a Nallah is not safe for a crocodile where else can it live?” asks Zubair Ahmed editor of Light of Andamans in Port Blair. “A crocodile has every right to live the way it wants in its habitat. I am happy to live in harmony with the crocodiles and have no complaints” Ahmed added. A crocodile cannot be found fault with for preying on the unfortunate lady. She ought not to have waded into a crocodile infested creek. You cannot reason with instinct driven wildlife.

“In Hut Bay a crocodile entered the village and devoured a child exactly on the 7th anniversary of the Asian Tsunami. The child had survived the Asian tsunami albeit having lost its parents to the killer waves but the orphan was destined to die at the jaws of a crocodile – hmm ironically – on 26th December 2011” Sapan said, very perturbed. 

This is part of the repercussions of the Mega Earthquake and Asian Tsunami. “Like the land heaved up in Andamans during the earthquake… in Nicobar group of Islands, land subsided. That led to sea water making incursions into land. Crocodile habitat has increased” said Manish Chandi. Thus it has lost fear of man with familiarity.

Mohan Halder went on to add “that scores of Jarawas have perished or have been attacked by the crocodiles when they have gone on fishing expeditions in the creeks. Only a handful has survived; this was reported to me by the Jarawas from Baratang and they spoke in Hindi to report to me” he stressed. Now how can we verify this given that Jarawas are “isolated” from the mainstream? I asked Shashikumar about the veracity of this claim but the forest officer dismissed it “as a figment of imagination”.

Manish Chandi explained that “human encroachment of habitat of wildlife in the Islands has increased in the last 70 years”. Over fishing, discharge of effluents, callous disposal of wastes like chicken feed, fertilisers, food leftovers will only attract the scavengers like jackals, dogs and crocodiles which can scavenge when in dearth of food. Crocodiles are likely to lose fear of man with increasing encroachment of habitat.  

Learning to live with the crocodiles means learning to respect the instinct driven wildlife behaviour. Wading through creeks for fishing or cattle herding is foolhardy. So is disturbance of crocodile nests. It is as good as committing suicide.

Compensation to victims’ families, relocation of aggressive crocodiles are short term measures which will not really solve the problem. Long term measures are necessary to mitigate human animal conflict. Inviolate disturbance of wildlife habitat is mutually safe … for both man and beast.

If human beings are to live peacefully in crocodile endemic areas habitat shrinkage must decrease, disturbance to the beast must minimise, human development must not harness natural resources for “livelihood security”. Intelligent, evolved Human Beings that we are… we must develop human potential in such a way that human talent is exploited, not natural resources. There is only so much that natural resources can do to support our livelihood. The human race has evolved far beyond that stage. Today’s world order – even in remote Island states like Andaman Nicobar Islands – revolves around complex interwoven economic systems and infrastructure networks that does not have to always depend on nature’s capital. It is economically viable and behooves of “upward mobility”, a sociological phenomenon, / a social instinct that has been with Man ever since recorded history began.   It is a win-win situation for both man and beast and can usher in a social / wildlife harmony for long term prosperity and peace. The human animal conflict can be a thing of the past.

- Text and photograph by Malini Shankar, a wildlife photojournalist, radio broadcaster and wildlife filmmaker based in Bangalore, India.