Sundarbans Diary – The Enormous Estuarine Crocodile

Cruising through the
backwaters of the Sundarbans in India, Jennifer Nandi marvels at the
estuarine crocodile, even as her thoughts turn to the conflict
between these fascinating reptiles and the ecosystem’s human
inhabitants


Estuarine crocodile sunbathing in the squelchy ooze

The plan for today begins
with breakfast on board. Once again, to ensure a fairly decent meal,
I do what it takes. It is rather surprising that the guide, the camp
crew and boat crew have little idea of what standard quality of a
meal implies. Nevertheless, all are co-operative and aim to please,
which is a wonderful attitude to work with, and so my suggestions of
difficult alterations to the breakfast menu are charmingly accepted.




To be fair, the Jungle
Camp itself strives to show that tourism can benefit the locals.
There is no question that the Sundarbans is indeed a fragile
ecosystem and it needs all the help it can get. The sustainable
development of the local community and the conservation of wildlife
and flora of this ecosystem is financed by Help Tourism and is
implemented and managed jointly with the Bali Nature and Wildlife
Conservation Society. There are free medical camps, a non-formal
school, tailoring training, a community sanitation programme,
scholarships for poor students, garment and medicine banks, nature
club movements and other awareness programmes for students and
teachers of local schools. This is a huge endeavour and it deserves
our acknowledgement and support.

Mangrove trees with their stilt (left) and air-breathing roots

All these mitigating
thoughts crowd my mind as we cruise at a leisurely pace. Unlike the
steep banks of the Bangladesh Sundarbans, here waders glean for food
on large expanses of tidal mudflats. Unfortunately our access to
smaller channels is prohibited by the authorities. Tourists in small
country boats paddling into the quieter channels is deemed too
dangerous so we content ourselves looking at oversized estuarine
crocodiles that warm themselves on spits of sand. They are wary of us
so it’s difficult to get close-up photographs.

Survivors from the Great
Age of Dinosaurs, crocodiles are the world’s largest reptiles. The
Saltwater or Estuarine crocodile that ranges from India to northern
Australia is armed with strong jaw muscles that enable it to snap
shut and hold prey securely, its lower teeth fitting into sockets in
the upper jaw. And when these jaws are snapped together, great
pressure is created which their superbly adapted massive skulls can
withstand. The roughened texture of the crocodile’s skin – horny
with shield-like scales called scutes, dupes you into thinking its a
floating log.

Spotted Deer grazing on the banks, form the primary prey species for the large crocodilians

On occasion these great
banks of muscle would slip into the shallows that border the thick
mangroves, and hang in there as if in ambush for an unsuspecting
spotted deer or wild boar. Then, I imagine, having spied its quarry,
it would dig its feet into the river bank to lever its body upwards
and leap out suddenly to seize its surprised prey. If the victim is
not knocked off balance, the crocodile would have to twist its body
around it, and then drag the prey to the water’s edge to drown it.
Deer and wild boar have little chance against this efficient hunting
machine. Even a tiger would need to keep a respectful distance from
this quickly-moving, powerful body. The extremely strong neck muscles
attached to long, bony extensions of the neck bone and its very
flexible backbone made up of ball-and-socket joints secure its
tug-of-war win against large mammals. For the present, though, these
crocodiles are simply sunbathing.

Wild boar are another important prey species for both tigers and crocodiles

I had to wonder, though,
how many men and women lose their lives to these great reptiles each
year. For all along the banks there are women and sometimes men
scouring the shoreline, stripping it of fish fry and crustaceans to
obtain tiger prawn seedlings for the market. Cluster roots of the
mangrove species, Excocaria agolacha, and those of the
Abyssinia genus provide impenetrable jungle and no easy escape
route for humans. On a branch of one such tree sits the dark morph of
a Changeable Hawk Eagle. Below, on the mud just ahead of the murky
water, bobbing its rear end and running in short spurts is a solitary
sandpiper. We watch the drama unfold as the big bird flies lazily
down to the water’s edge and without pause scoops up the sandpiper
with its feet. The victim lies limp in the embrace of unyielding
talons. Up on the eagle’s perch, the little bird’s cradle of
death opens and a powerful bill shreds it to pieces.

As cruel as it seems,
predation is not a matter of morality; it is a matter of living
together. Brutal as the crocodile may be to the individual spotted
deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Animal predation is
indeed a horror from the point of view of the individual prey. But
from the standpoint of the group and of its gene pool, it is
indispensable. Without predators to cull the herd, the deer would
overrun their habitat and starve. In fact all suffer – not only the
deer but the plants they browse and the species that depend on those
plants.

A crocodile disappears quickly into the water

As if on cue, a large
wild boar disappears into the thicket of mangrove prop roots and a
spotted deer, browsing on leaves stops to have a better look at us.
On the opposite bank seemingly devoid of mammalian life lies the
largest crocodile we’ve seen today, with a very swollen belly. Of
the twenty-five or so crocodiles we’ve counted since this morning,
many appear to measure at least 18ft long. Additionally they are a
minimum of 3 ft across. There is certainly no dearth of prey for this
ectotherm!  



Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi


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