By Risidra Mendis
The death of yet another victim of a crocodile attack, has once again brought to the surface, the human-crocodile conflict, and the need to introduce stringent measures to protect the large aquatic reptiles, whose population is rapidly diminishing in the country.
Crocodiles are strictly protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and are an important part of the environment.
According to Environment lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena, the salt water crocodile, or the estuarine crocodile, and the mugger crocodile or the marsh crocodile, are strictly protected in Sri Lanka, under Section 30 of the FFPO.
“Any person who kills, maims, harms or captures these crocodiles is punishable under a non- bailable offence. Anyone, destroying crocodile nests, or eggs, or having in possession of crocodile skin or flesh, or a product made out of crocodile skin or equipment, such as hooks used to catch crocodiles, can be charged under this ordinance,” Gunawardena said.
Negligence of people
However, due to the negligence of people, there has been a spike in the number of crocodile attacks on humans in recent years. The growing human toll, deaths and injuries, have had a far more detrimental consequence on the crocodiles, with the villagers being provoked into poisoning, trapping and killings these reptiles, in anger.
Three deaths due to crocodile attacks, reported from the Nilwala River in Matara this year, and the human retaliation has drawn the attention of wildlife officials to the plight of these aquatic reptiles. The officials are now in the process of demarcating a special area to relocate the remaining animals.
The growing human-crocodile conflict has also won Sri Lanka the distinction of hosting the world’s biggest crocodile conference later this year.
According to Anslem de Silva, herpetologist, Regional Chairman, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Species Survival Commission (SSC), and Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) for South Asia and Iran, the World Crocodile Conference-based on the slogan ‘Living with Crocodilians’ will be held from 20 to 23 May at the BMICH next year.
“The aim of the conference, which has already caught the attention of foreign experts and interested parties, is to educate people on the importance of crocodiles and to protect them for future generations,” de Silva said.
De Silva bid for and won the event for Sri Lanka with the support of the Lanka Exhibition & Conference Services (LECS) and the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau.
“A symposium on the Human-Crocodile Conflict will be part of the conference, where world experts will discuss how people and crocodiles can be saved, as virtually after each human attack, many crocodiles are killed,” de Silva explained.
For 2012, three deaths have been reported due to crocodile attacks, while around 20 salt water crocodiles and 30 mugger crocodiles have been killed in the same year.
The latest incident was reported on 9 September, when a 12-year-old boy from Akuressa was dragged away by a crocodile when he went to bathe at the Nilwala River, with his grandparents.
In early April, a young woman who had gone to bathe in the same river near Akuressa, was also attacked by a crocodile and killed.
The 18- year-old woman, a resident of Udahaduwa, had reportedly gone to the river to wash her face, when she was attacked and dragged into the river by a crocodile. The woman’s body was found after a search operation was conducted with the use of boats.
Later the same month, a young student, who went to wash his face in the Nilwala River, was attacked by a crocodile. Soon after these incidents, villagers in the areas attempted to catch the remaining crocodiles and relocate them.
Carcasses of animals
However, eyewitnesses claim a few days after one of the crocodile attacks, carcasses of animals were seen floating down the river. The animals were suspected to have been poisoned by the angry villagers.
Meanwhile, ecologist and IUCN, World Conservation Union, SSC, CSG member, Sameera Karunaratne, said people in the area know there are crocodiles in the river, but don’t take precautions when wading in for a bath.
“Crocodile fences built along the river to prevent attacks from crocodiles are not up to standard and have resulted in attacks from the animals,” Karunaratne said.
Earlier, Ruchira Somaweera (now in Australia) and de Silva, received a grant from the Chicago Zoological Society’s Chicago Board of Trade Endangered Species Fund for their study on ‘Usage of traditional knowledge to minimize human-crocodile conflict and conserve crocodiles in Sri Lanka’.
“Crocodile Excluding Enclosures (CEE) have been traditionally used by people in the Southern wet zone, where humans frequently use rivers inhabited by saltwater crocodiles. The CEE is a simple device where three sides are fenced with wooden poles and is successful in segregating humans from crocodiles (de Silva, 2008, 2010). However, locals in the Northern dry zone are unaware of such structures,” de Silva explained.
He went on to say segregating the two components, humans and muggers, would be the best solution for this emerging concern, and added this could be achieved by introducing a traditional system of CEEs inside which, residents could perform their daily needs safely.
The proposed study involves the installation of CEEs with the involvement of the vulnerable local people, introduce a system to monitor and maintain the setup and increase awareness on the importance of the crocodiles and the prevention of crocodile attacks.
“The traditional CEE is three- sided and usually made from kithul (Caryota urens) planks. However, kithul is not a commonly available plant in the Northern dry zone. At present, we have installed 12 CEEs in the Tissamaharama area and the last one was erected last month,” de Silva said.
He elaborated if a pole of a CEE has come out, it is the responsibility of the people to replace it with another one, pointing out when the detached pole is not replaced, it leaves room for a crocodile to creep in.
“When a crocodile attacks a human, the animal is branded as a human killer and a decision is taken to relocate the animal. However, relocating the animal is not always advisable as the two species require different types of habitats to survive. The gene pool of these animals will get depleted, if all the crocodiles in a particular area are captured and relocated,” de Silva explained.
According to de Silva, the world’s best mugger crocodile location is in Yala while the Nilwala Ganga has the best riverine mangroves in the country, and is the ideal habitat for the salt water crocodiles.
The salt water crocodiles are fierce in comparison to the muggers, and grow up to 20 feet, or a little more, while salt water crocodiles are very territorial and can be seen as loners.
The muggers need water tanks or waterways as their habitats and live in groups, while the salt water ones can attack the muggers as they are aggressive in behaviour.
“People are generally attacked by crocodiles, when they are knee-deep in water, or when they are fishing, washing clothes or bathing. Crocodiles normally observe a person for a couple of weeks or a month before attacking. But people tend to underestimate the intelligence of a crocodile, and think it is just another animal,” de Silva explained.
He stressed a crocodile lays around 10 to 25 eggs, out of which only one or two survive to become adult crocodiles, and added birds, fish, turtles, large water monitors, mongoose, dogs and even humans eat crocodile eggs.
The mugger crocodile lays its eggs in burrows, while the salt water one makes a mound and lays its eggs.
According to Karunaratne, removing a large crocodile from an area would only result in an increase in the population, as it is a known fact large crocodiles eat the smaller ones and this helps in controlling the population.
When the large crocodile is removed, the smaller ones will have a chance of getting bigger,” Karunaratne said, while adding, “The best way to solve the crocodile problem would be to create awareness among people, living close to rivers and waterways, where these animals are likely to be. People should be encouraged not to wash their faces and clothes at the same time every day, as crocodiles are very observant and note the movements of a person for days before an attack.”
“The villagers should be told they cannot catch, torture or kill crocodiles, and waste material should not be disposed of in nearby canals as this encourages the animals to come in search of food. Crocodiles are killed when humans encroach into their territory, which they do, due to a loss of habitat,” Karunaratna said.
Consumption of crocodile eggs, fishery-related mortality, accidental destruction of crocodile nests and threats to mugger burrows, are some of the threats faced by the remaining crocodile population.
Suggestions with regard to having crocodile parks to keep the captured crocodiles have, in the meantime, brought about mixed reactions. While some environmentalists say it is a good move to protect the captured crocodiles, others feel the park would only encourage politicians and others to encourage the capture of more crocodiles.
However, concerned environmentalists say it is good to have a crocodile park where a few problematic animals can be kept.
Meanwhile, a wildlife official confirmed a land has been allocated for the use of a crocodile enclosure. “We have put forward a proposal to the government and requested for funds, and are now waiting for approval to commence the project,” the wildlife official said.
Croc Confab in SL
Crocodile experts from Australia, USA, England, Germany, African countries, Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Japan, Philippines and most other countries, will take part in the Crocodile Conference, scheduled for May next year.
The CSG members of Sri Lanka are Ruchira Somaweera (Regional Vice Chairman for Sri Lanka), Jayantha Jayewardena, Manori Gunawardena, Ananda Nanayakkara, Charles Santiapillai, S. Wijeyamohan, Sameera Suranjan Karunarathna, Riyas Ahamed, Thasun Amarasinghe, Mendis Wickramasinghe, Dinal Samarasinghe, Majintha Madawala and Anslem de Silva.
Anslem has personally discussed with Dr. James Perran ROSS of the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, who is the CSG Red List Authority to help to organize an IUCN Red List Assessment for the three Sri Lankan crocodile species. courtesy: Ceylon Today