Vadodara's mugger menace returns to haunt
It's a scene seen on wildlife channels. In East Africa, a herd of wildebeests bends down at a river or waterhole to quench their thirst. Suddenly, a large Nile crocodile bursts out of the water, grabs a surprised animal and takes it towards deeper water to drown and devour it.
In September and October this year, this scene was replicated nearer home in Gujarat - this time with human victims.
Two girls, 17-year-old Kaushalya and 11-year-old Tejal were dragged into the waters of the Vishwamitri river Sep 29 and Oct 26 respectively. The location: Kodarvaya and Goraj villages in Waghodia taluka of Gujarat's Vadodara district. On Oct 7, forest officials caught Kaushalya's probable killer: A 13.5 foot long, 300 kg male marsh crocodile or mugger (Crocodylus Palustris).
"He was one of the largest muggers caught in India. He thrashed and broke a part of the cage holding him. They would have killed him. But better sense prevailed and he was released into a pond near the Narmada Canal," says Ashok Pawar, president of Vadodara-based NGO Crocodile Group that caught the beast.
The two killings almost led to a human-crocodile conflict in Waghodia, with villagers threatening to kill resident muggers if they were not translocated. What had added to their fury was that the two incidents were not isolated.
Experts say with 3.6 million people in Vadodara district living in close proximity with crocodile populations, such encounters are bound to have implications for both.
"People use the river, its tributaries and connected water bodies for bathing, washing clothes, fording, fishing and relieving themselves. They are bound to disturb the resident crocodiles, resulting in tragic encounters," said noted Vadodara-based herpetologist Raju Vyas.
And the figures reflect this.
Between 1995 and 2009, 19 mugger attacks occurred in the district, eight of them fatal. Conversely, 17 crocodiles were killed and four injured by humans when they appeared in human localities, mostly during the monsoon.
"In the last five years, human-mugger conflicts have averaged 2.5 incidents per year," says Vyas.
But why Waghodia? In fact, not just this taluka but neighbouring Vadodara city too has for long been plagued by instances of human-mugger conflict.
Vadodara district is the location of the Vishwamitri-Dhadhar river system and basin. The Vishwamitri, a seasonal river, flows 180 km from Pavagadh Hill to the Gulf of Khambhat. Its tributaries include the Dhadhar, Dev, Surya, Jambuva and Vaghali Nallah. There are a total of five dams on the Vishwamitri and its tributaries.
Of an estimated 3,500 muggers across India, 1,650 are found in Gujarat alone.
"Of these, the Vishwamitri basin is home to at least 500 individuals," R.N. Jadeja, Regional Forest Officer here, told IANS.
Jadeja feels that the crocodiles are not usually to blame for the attacks.
"The mugger, unlike its bigger cousins, the Nile and the saltwater crocodiles, is not a known man-eater. It is usually a case of mistaken identity or the crocodile's territorial nature."
But it was not always like this.
"Before 1890, there were no crocodiles in the Vishwamitri. Old photographs and paintings of eighteenth century Maratha-ruled Vadodara show people using the river ghats for various purposes," says Vyas.
Pawar agreed: "The two zoos in old Vadodara, Sayajibaug and the now-closed Fatehsinh Rao, were then private menageries of the city's Gaekwad rulers. It is possible that some muggers might have escaped from there into the river accidentally or in floods."
In the 1960s-1970s, muggers across India experienced a decline because of illegal hunting.
"Strict enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the species' adaptable nature have caused it to flourish," Jadeja told IANS.
But what about places like Vadodara?
"Gujarati Hindus revere the mugger as the mount of Goddess Khodiyar, a form of Shakti. But that is not enough," Vyas said.
He suggested a few measures.
"Monitor them regularly. Carry out a census every 5-7 years. Locate nests every year and artificially incubate them to control the population. Prevent river-bank encroachment. Remove 'rogue' muggers to zoos. Create awareness. Lastly, create a rescue centre for muggers at/near Vadodara," he said.
"It is important to conserve Vadodara's muggers as they are a unique instance of peaceful co-existence between man and beast," added Vyas.
(Rajat Ghai can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)