<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 121 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 5, 2003

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Crocodiles In Peril


What if there are no crocodiles left in Bangladesh? What has happened to the freshwater ecosystems where there are no marsh crocodiles any more? What will happen if there are no saltwater crocodiles in the Sunderbans mangrove ecosystem? Or no gharials in our large river systems, especially the Padma and the Jamuna? Do we lose anything?

Only researchers and scientists of wildlife can answer such questions. This requires extensive research which is an area where we are lagging far behind. Money is not the only factor. There are very few career options or training opportunities in this field. Add to that the lack of adequately trained staff in the various fields of wildlife science, lack of planning and organisational discipline and to some extent lack of interest of students and you have a discipline that is as endangered as the crocodiles. A more curious constraint is a certain bias against a particular group of wildlife. For example, the wildlife branch of the Department of Zoology, University of Dhaka, which houses the roots of wildlife studies in Bangladesh, have appointed academic staff members who have earned their PhDs only in ornithology (the study and science of birds) and none from any other major wildlife groups.

That was a little detour just to give you some background information on some debatable aspects and shortcomings of wildlife studies in Bangladesh. Coming back to the crocodiles, Bangladesh once had three species of crocodiles in the wild namely, marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), and gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). According to the IUCN-Bangladesh Red Data Book (2000), marsh crocodile is extinct in the wild and the remaining two species are critically endangered. Only three individuals of marsh crocodile, a male and a female in semi-captive condition at Khan Jahan Ali (R) shrine pond at Bagerhat, and a captive male at the Khulna Cantonment Zoo, now survive in Bangladesh. The gharials are also headed for extinction.

The female marsh crocodile atop her nest on the bank of the KJA shrine pond.

It is estimated that only two pairs may survive in the wild now. The chances for this population to survive are bleak since habitat destruction and human disturbances have eliminated most of its breeding grounds. The same grave situation prevails over the saltwater crocodiles in the Sunderbans where the population is declining alarmingly.

So how can we help these crocodiles survive? For arguments sake some may even ask, why should we? Crocodiles are carnivorous reptiles and often play the role of top-predators in an ecosystem. It is not only that they feed on the fish, which is the cause of contention with the fishermen but also in return contribute to the 'health' of the ecosystem. So how do they do that? They often feed on the large carnivorous fish allowing other fish to grow. They also feed on weak and sick fish and so keep the fish population and water clean by scavenging on dead animal matter they keep the aquatic environment uncontaminated. That's why crocodiles are also termed as 'indicators' of a clean aquatic environment. The actions needed involve the government's political will in its entirety, the honest endeavours of multifarious government agencies, putting the right persons at the right places, enforcement of the Bangladesh Wildlife Act 1974, and much more. Many of these issues are inter-related and prioritised based on merits or objectives and/or economics of the various government agencies and hence deserve co-ordination among all relevant departments and personnel. The mystic recipe for this conundrum of co-ordination to unfold includes ingredients from politics, bureaucracy, academia and the public in general.

Sundarbans mangrove forest, home of the saltwater crocodiles in Bangladesh.

The problems threatening the crocodilian species in Bangladesh deserve to be addressed individually. Understanding the biology of the crocodiles will solve half the problem. Very often conservation projects are launched without proper understanding of the biology and the needs of the target species but instead revolves around the social perspectives of human beings that is already in chaos and the project is doomed. Each species or population deserve to be treated separately. The urgency in taking appropriate steps is also often overlooked, which further pushes the viability of the target or endangered species to a state of no-recovery.

Let's look at the present state of the crocodilians one at a time, beginning with the marsh crocodiles. Information based on extensive surveys over the years indicate that the last of the wild marsh crocodiles was killed in 1962 at Sullah (near Ajmiriganj) located on the banks of the river Kushiyara in Habiganj District. The only remnant and semi-captive population of marsh crocodiles in Bangladesh is in the pond of Khan Jahan Ali (KJA) shrine at Bagerhat and counting the last days of extinction unless something is immediately done to save them.

Only a pair survives now, observed during a recent visit to the KJA shrine pond. The female, around 3 metres, is overfed, heavy and probably quite older than the male. The male, around 4 metres long is also overweight and both of them are quite sluggish in their movements. Others present during this visit included Romulus Whitaker and Janaki Lenin from the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), who were visiting Bangladesh under WINROCK's Farmer-to-Farmer Programme, Dr. Barua (WINROCK), Rafiqul Islam (RUPANTAR), Nirmal Haldar (Forest Dept), Mushtaq Ahmed (EcoFarms Ltd.)

We found the female guarding her nest. After dislodging the female from the nest site, the nest was opened and eggs collected. Of the total of 21 eggs, seven were rotten and ten were candled to check if they were good and had embryo and the remaining four eggs were left in the nest. All seven rotten eggs had no signs of any embryo and the ten candled eggs were also infertile. We suspected that the four eggs left in the nest may also be infertile.

The problems with the last two surviving marsh crocodiles at the Khan Jahan Ali (R) shrine were revealed and discussed with the relevant authorities and stakeholders. Several ideas were put forward. One was that the female was probably older and the male may not be attracted to her. Mating and reproduction was not successful as suggested by the infertile eggs produced by the female (this has been happening for the last 12-13 years), Another reason for infertility could be that the male may not be producing viable sperm. The crocodiles were also overfed and so were accumulating too much fat in their bodies, which probably may have been making them lethargic and so unable to mate.

To help the semi-captive marsh crocodile population revive, three do-able options were suggested. One is to bring back the crocodile donated to the Khulna Army Zoo, which belongs to the same bloodline of the crocodiles surviving in the shrine pond. Another is to bring in good eggs from outside (from MCBT) and mix them with the infertile eggs laid by the female and allow hatching, so that the female is able to carry out her parental duties, and nurse them. The third option is to bring in adult marsh crocodiles from other countries within its geographical distribution range and introduce them in the shrine's pond. The next breeding season is between February and March which makes the situation urgent and the government must take quick action to save the marsh crocodiles. WINROCK, in consultation with the Zoo and Forest Department authorities and local experts has already initiated some liaison in implementing some of the proposed options. Crocodiles play a significant role in the income of the khadims, who rely on the payments in cash or in offerings of the devotees who like to touch the crocodile for good luck. Thus the crocodiles safeguard the livelihood of a large number of descendants of Hazrat Khan Jahan Ali (R).

Calling 'mum'. A saltwater crocodile hatchling getting its first gasp of air after emerging from the egg.

Another man-made problem has been the introduction of a saltwater crocodile in the shrine pond by the khadims. We observed this saltwater crocodile during our night survey in the pond and adjacent areas. The consequences of this could be grave since the saltwater crocodiles are very aggressive and can grow up to 9m in total length. An accident is waiting to happen and it is very likely that some devotee or khadim may be killed or badly injured by the saltwater crocodile. The khadims have brought on trouble for themselves for the sake of making money. It has also been reported that some of the khadims corner this saltwater crocodile and beat it with wooden sticks and/or iron rods in an effort to tame or condition it. This saltwater crocodile needs to be captured and released into the wild immediately.

The author touching the marsh crocodile at KJA shrine pond for 'good luck' and praying for their survival.

The second species under threat are the saltwater crocodiles in the Sunderbans, the population of which is declining at a frightening rate. No factual figures are available, as no scientific population estimation studies have been conducted yet. It is however estimated, that about 250-300 crocodiles survive in the largest single stretch of mangroves in the world, which is far below the carrying capacity of the Sunderbans. One of the possible reasons attributed for the decline is that during the late 1950s, 2000-3000 crocodiles were killed under a government order and their skins exported. Adding to this plight is the increase in the magnitude of human presence and human disturbance and fishing activities in the Sunderbans whereby a lot of the crocodile hatchlings get caught in the fishing nets and are killed by the fishermen. The crocodile population has not been able to recover from the 1950s killings and then with limited recruitment in the wild, the population is being further pushed to a point of no recovery.

The male marsh crocodile at KJA shrine pond. The open mouth is not to frighten you but for regulating its body temperature.

Strong administrative and management decisions accompanied by practical crocodile recovery plans are needed. The Forest Department (FD) is the only government agency managing the Sunderbans that makes it easier to implement administrative decisions. But there is a dearth of good intentions, skilled and committed personnel for wildlife management. Under the Sunderbans Biodiversity Conservation Project (SBCP) some praiseworthy initiatives were taken. For example, setting up of the crocodile rearing centre at Karamjal was a very appropriate initiative. But it failed due to lack of logistical support from the FD. Lack of money is often blamed but there are ways to overcome this particular problem. We do not need to hire, for example, foreign consultants (who take the lion-share of the project money) for this where professional local expertise is available. The FD personnel should also change their attitude and be more considerate in managing the natural resources since they are paid to do this.

The author recording the proceedings of marsh crocodile nest-opening, while Romulus (with white cap) narrates the observations.

Lessons may be learned from cases where similar situations were successfully handled in other countries and where wild populations of crocodiles have significantly recovered. For example, the population of saltwater crocodiles in the mangrove forests at Bitarkanika in Orissa, India declined significantly in the 1970s. Recovery programmes that consisted of hatchling rearing, education programmes for the fishermen and strict punitive measures initiated by the Government of India ultimately repaid the good intentions. The 110km2 mangroves at Bitarkanika now supports over 700 saltwater crocodiles while the Sunderbans has less than half the number of crocodiles but is more than fifty times larger in size than Bitarkanika. India is not a rich country but has good intentions in preserving its natural resources, an attitude we can also adopt for the sake of conserving our natural heritage.

Romulus and Nirmal examine the rotten crocodile eggs for any sign of embryo.

The last of the crocodilians found in Bangladesh is the gharial which is easily recognised by its unique, long, and slim snout. Some local senior citizens still recall the sights of gharials tossing the fish in the air in an effort to gulp it. Char Khidirpur on the banks of the river Padma near Rajshahi used to be its stronghold and gharials were regularly observed nesting on the banks till the late 80s and early-90s. Increase in human-induced disturbances at the nesting sites robbed it of this breeding site. Several other gharials were reported from the Jamuna river near Gaibandha. Some young gharials were captured in the fishing nets near Aricha and sent to the Rajshahi zoo in the mid-80s. Dhaka Zoo has three captive gharials, including a beautiful male with a 'ghara' at the tip of its snout.

The gharial, distinctly recognised by its long, and slim snout. Adult males usually have a 'ghara' at the tip of their snout.

In recent years a couple of gharials were sighted south of Aricha in Manikganj district suggesting that these endangered animals may have found a suitable new habitat. It is merely a miracle that amidst massive sand mining operations, increased human disturbances, river traffic, intense fishing, sedimentation, and pollution in our large riverine waters these reptiles have been able to adapt and find a niche to survive. Captive breeding programmes aimed at hatching, rearing and releasing them in the wild using the three captive gharials at the Zoo can be an option to help revive the gharial population. Similar successful attempts have been taken in India and Nepal to help the dwindling populations of wild gharials.

A lifetime achievement -- losing one female saltwater crocodile would mean losing so many eggs.

There is no Wildlife Conservation or Protection Policy adopted by the Bangladesh government for the conservation and management of biodiversity. However, being a signatory to several international conventions like Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), Ramsar Convention, etc., the government is under the obligation to meet certain conditions and take measures to protect the natural heritage of the country. Some initiatives have been taken towards this direction and baseline information collected under several projects, such as the National Conservation Strategy (NCS) and the National Environment Management Action Plan (NEMAP). However, priority actions focusing primarily on the endangered animals are absent. The Bangladesh Wildlife Act 1974 exists but the dearth of knowledge and awareness among the concerned people, and enforcement has simply ridiculed the Act.

A crocodile often uses the same nest repeatedly, that's how this saltwater crocodile was 'caught' in the act of laying eggs in the wild.

Protecting these endangered crocodilians and helping them to breed and survive is essential to keep our ecosystem in balance and make sure the aquatic environment remains clean. In addition to protecting the natural heritage of the country, the government can also earn substantial foreign exchange through commercial breeding programmes.

The writer is a wildlife biologist and works for Centre for Advanced Research in Natural Resources and Management (CARINAM). He is a member of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of World Conservation Union (IUCN).




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