Dr. S. M. A. RASHID
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
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.
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.
female marsh crocodile atop her nest on the bank of
the KJA shrine pond.
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
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.
mangrove forest, home of the saltwater crocodiles in
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
'mum'. A saltwater crocodile hatchling getting its first
gasp of air after emerging from the egg.
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.
author touching the marsh crocodile at KJA shrine pond
for 'good luck' and praying for their survival.
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.
male marsh crocodile at KJA shrine pond. The open mouth
is not to frighten you but for regulating its body temperature.
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
recording the proceedings of marsh crocodile nest-opening,
while Romulus (with white cap) narrates the observations.
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.
and Nirmal examine the rotten crocodile eggs for any
sign of embryo.
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.
gharial, distinctly recognised by its long, and slim
snout. Adult males usually have a 'ghara' at the tip
of their snout.
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.
lifetime achievement -- losing one female saltwater
crocodile would mean losing so many eggs.
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.
often uses the same nest repeatedly, that's how this
saltwater crocodile was 'caught' in the act of laying
eggs in the wild.
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.
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