The coast is not clear: Crocodile attacks on the rise in the Andamans
On November 12, Bishnu Mondal was picnicking at the popular Wandoor beach in the Andaman Islands when he dived into the waters and never emerged. Then someone caught a glimpse of him and screamed.
Mondal’s friends — men in their twenties, all migrant construction workers — rushed in to help. The group had been swimming inside a tattered safety net, meant to shield revellers from the reptiles of the Lohabarrack Crocodile Sanctuary a few hundred metres away. A 16-ft crocodile was entangled in the net. It had Mondal by the neck.
The men yanked out the poles holding the net together and approached, hoping to thrash the beast into submission. But nobody dared go too close.
By now, hundreds had gathered. Some turned on their cellphone cameras, others scrambled to get help. The lifeguard said he was trained in CPR, not croc attacks. The Wandoor wildlife department said the rescue equipment was at their headquarters, 30 minutes away at Port Blair. The police also put their hands up: “Our duty is on the land, not the sea,” said a constable.
By the time a wildlife patrol steamer roared in from Port Blair, it was too late. Rescue men pulled up next to the animal and jabbed a harpoon in its back. It let go, and the body of Mondal, 21 — a brother, son, uncle, friend — sank into the depths.
Over the following week, the wildlife department laid traps along the Wandoor coast and caught five crocodiles. One was a suspected man-eater; it had been caught, marked and released after a similar attack on a Home Guard in 2015, but had returned to the same spot — not unusual, given their homing instincts.
The residents of Wandoor were livid. The crocodile menace, they said, had only been growing in recent years. An endangered species in the 1970s, these predators were now often spotted in creeks and streams. To them, it was an unintended consequence of a successful four-decade conservation programme led by the union environment ministry.
Saltwater crocodiles, known as ‘salties’, are native to eastern India, South-East Asia and Northern Australia. Before conservation efforts started in these countries in the 1960s, they were often poached for their skin, meat and as trophy kills.
According to a report published by the Wildlife Institute of India in 1999, salties in the union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N) numbered only about 31 by the 1970s.
The Indian government launched its conservation effort, Project Crocodile, in 1975. Saltwater crocodiles, like tigers and rhinoceroses, were given ‘Schedule 1’ protection under the new Wildlife Protection Act. Their killing was punishable up to seven years in prison. In the newly constructed Haddo zoo in Port Blair, they were bred for release in the creeks and streams.
A possibility of conflict with humans could never be completely eliminated, but it was not considered probable that such conflict would occur, given the small numbers. After all, the islands’ aboriginal people had coexisted with them for millennia.
According to the forest department of A&N, there have been six croc attacks since 2014; media reports peg the number at 15. Either way, the stakes are high, for the island’s residents and its tourism economy. The number of tourists coming to A&N has risen from 430,000 in 2016 to 500,000 in 2017, also raising the risk of more attacks.
“Par yahan aisa hai,” says a local resident and contract worker with the local government, “ki jab baarish rahega tabhi chatri ki yaad aati hai (But the way it is here, officials only start to think about an umbrella once the downpour has begun).”
One way to read this is as a tale of animal conservation gone wrong. Streams, creeks and coasts in the south Andamans are now dotted with signposts that say: ‘Beware of Crocodiles’, ‘Never dangle hands or legs during boat rides’, ‘Please avoid entering into the sea’. At one end of the Wandoor beach, the warnings turn rather sinister: ‘Survivors will be prosecuted’.
But the bigger picture is more complex. As the population of crocodiles grew, that of humans boomed. The crocodile habitat in A&N had been shrinking steadily ever since the Indian government began encouraging human settlements in the largely virgin 572-island chain, since 1947.
In 1949, tens of thousands of refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan were moved here. Over the following decades, thousands more headed to the islands from across India. In 1951, the population of A&N was roughly 41,000; by 2011, it had grown to 3.8 lakh, according to the Census.
As the government doled out land parcels for cultivation and opened up the seas for fishing, many entered areas near crocodile nesting sites.
On December 26, 2004, a tsunami struck South and South-East Asia. Waves up to 6 metres high invaded the islands, killing nearly 2,000 people, submerging villages and displacing about 40,000 residents.
Apart from damages worth billions of rupees, the earthquake also caused a movement of tectonic plates. The northern part of Andaman rose by 1.5 metres and the southern sunk by 1.2 metres. By the wildlife department’s assessments, it caused the crocodiles in the north to move down to the south. The result: crocodile sightings – and conflict – started increasing in these villages. On average, attacks on humans rose to two a year.
Residents started realising something wasn’t quite right when cattle, if kept in waterlogged fields, started to go missing. In 2005, Sukhada Sil from the Wandoor panchayat noticed a 4-metre something lurking around the local jetty. That year in Wandoor marked the end of the Durga Pujo tradition of entering the waters for idol immersion.
The forest department conducts awareness workshops in towns, panchayats and schools. Saltwater crocodiles, they explain, are opportunistic predators, meaning they eat any meat they can find. Too often, residents dump dead fish, kitchen and poultry waste into the islands’ network of streams, creeks and the sea. This attracts stray dogs, smaller animals and, at times, crocodiles.
But the residents have been using the interconnected streams for fishing and waste disposal for decades. “Most of us here are Bengalis,” says Ashim Dhali, 31, a farm labourer from Manpur village. “A Bengali has to have fish three times a day. We can’t afford to buy it all, so we also catch our own.”
In March 2015, a crocodile lunged at Dhali during a pre-dinner expedition at a neighbourhood stream. It sunk its teeth into his left arm and then his right leg. Dhali rammed his fingers in the reptile’s eyes and crawled to safety. For months after, he says, he would wake up at odd hours, drenched in sweat. It was always the same dream: he’s standing on an edge, someone pushes him from behind.
Jasinta Terkey, a 62-year-old farmer from Tusnabad, wasn’t as lucky. In September 2016, a crocodile attacked her as she was washing her lunch plate at a nallah in her backyard. Furious at seeing her corpse in the jaws of the animal, her neighbours stormed into the waters.
“They grabbed sticks, slippers, axes,” recalls Sarita Devi, the victim’s daughter-in-law. “They killed the crocodile.”
After the first attack on Wandoor beach in 2015, the wildlife officials put up nylon safety nets to keep swimmers and crocs apart. Two monsoons and a cyclone later, the net had slumped off its poles.
The death of Mondal acted as a wake-up call. Beaches at Wandoor, Corbyn’s Cove and Munda Pahar in south Andaman were declared no-swimming zones. The authorities also shut down Radhanagar beach in the neighbouring Havelock Islands for three days in November, after local fisherman spotted crocodile paw marks nearby.
“There are very few countries where a problem of man-saltie conflict exists,” says Naveen Kumar, deputy conservator of forests at Port Blair. “In Australia, authorities have the liberty to take down the animal when it grows beyond 4 to 5 metres. But our law is conservation-oriented.”
At the current rate, he added, such instances will rise. “We have to evolve a system to safeguard the interests of all, forest [department], tourists and locals. But we need time, we need technology.”
It might take up to 10-15 years to test the efficacy of its ongoing pilot projects — grille-gates along high-risk streams; chain-link fences along streams and creeks; polypropylene-net enclosures for swimmers — and come up with a comprehensive safety plan with all measures in place. And until then? “Restrict tourism. When you value a life, that is the solution.”
The tourism industry isn’t going to be as patient. Over the past 18 months, the number of daily flights to A&N has doubled to 30. Last year, the industry had an annual turnover of about Rs 1,300 crore and employed nearly a quarter of the islands’ 4 lakh people. A boom is predicted.
“Technically, we’ve only had one crocodile attack on a tourist till now,” says director of tourism Amit Anand. He was referring to an American woman killed while snorkelling off Havelock Island in 2010. In the aftermath of the Wandoor attack, Anand said no new tourist sites would be opened up without proper safety precautions and scientific study.
“The crocodile population is also an opportunity for us,” he said. “In areas where they are present, we can promote sightings.” Indeed, the Cage of Death experience, where humans in glass enclosures are lowered into a crocodile pond, is already a sought-after tourist attraction in Darwin, Australia.
But in the Andamans, initiatives to remedy the man-crocodile conflict hinge on a larger debate: To whom do the islands belong? Tarun Nair, member of the Crocodile Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is unconvinced with the current approach in the Andamans.
“Putting up nets in the sea gives a false sense of security. Relocating a crocodile after an attack doesn’t work because they are known to come back to the same site. Terming animals ‘man-eaters’ is inherently problematic. If you present yourself as prey, a crocodile will take you.”
The best way ahead, he says, is promoting awareness about animal behaviour and taking better precautions. “In this ecosystem, we are not the top organism,” he adds. “Once we acknowledge that, half the problem is solved.”