When Tejas Jadhav, 28, first saw a marsh crocodile in 2011, he wanted to test a popular belief. Carefully, he began walking through the 3m-tall sugar cane in a field abutting the Warna River in the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra state, India. “I thought the crocodile would chase me,” he says.
To his surprise, Jadhav was wrong. Instead, the crocodile slowly moved towards the river, ignoring him. Jadhav was intrigued. “Growing up, I often heard stories of crocodiles tearing apart humans,” he says. The incident would eventually lead him to teaching an entire village to coexist with crocodiles.
Jadhav, who runs a roadside eatery in Khochi, never expected to see 35 crocodiles at once in his village, but that is what happened when floodwaters receded in 2005. “I thought this was a one-off case,” he says, but since then he has often rescued crocodiles of different sizes from wells or ponds in Khochi.
Though rare, marsh or mugger crocodiles, as they are also known, do attack humans. About 50% of these attacks are fatal and the muggers don’t eat the victims, which indicates that it is a territorial or defensive reaction rather than a predatory one.
But, justifiably so, villagers remain wary and the major challenge is preventing conflict between them and the crocodiles. “If you see an eight-foot-long crocodile basking in your field, you will obviously be scared,” says Jadhav.
This was certainly the case for farmer Dilip Jadhav, 55, who saw a crocodile in his field in 2013. “Immediately, the crocodile ran away, but I was scared and didn’t go to the riverbank for several months,” recalls Dilip.
Then Jadhav asked Dilip to accompany him on crocodile rescue operations and, six months later, his fear had subsided. “Crocodiles don’t normally harm humans. We should live in harmony with nature,” Dilip now says.
It has taken Jadhav years to teach the people of his village how to go about living peacefully with the crocodiles instead of fearing or killing them. First he trained five young men to catch the stray ones and then used each rescue operation – when “almost the entire village surrounds us” – to teach residents about the reptiles’ habits. For example, he would explain how, with rampant sand mining, eroded floodplains and the river changing course, the crocodiles are being forced to move into the fields to bask for warmth, hunt or even find water. Jadhav is proud that not a single conflict has been reported in Khochi.
Jadhav is a colleague of snake rescuer Devendra Bhosale, who introduced him to the non-profit Wildlife Protection and Research Society (WLPRS), for which both of them volunteer. Bhosale taught him how to rescue crocodiles using the least stressful methods so that they can be released safely.
Amit Sayyed, wildlife researcher and founder of the WLPRS, says the point of their conservation work is rescuing species and releasing them in their natural habitat to preserve the integrity of ecosystems.
About the rise in the number of crocodiles being observed, Sayyed says human interference is devastating their ecosystem, eventually forcing them to migrate long distances. “What is their migration pattern? Which fishes are in the river? How much is the pollution level in the area? These are the questions that the forest department needs to find answers to,” he says, adding that it has not even counted the number of crocodiles in the region.
Sayyed and Bhosale have trained several volunteers in wildlife photography and use the pictures to create awareness among the public, with captions in vernacular Marathi and English. “Every day, I put up at least one photo of a snake or any wildlife creature,” Bhosale says. “Often, people phone me or reply asking more about the photos.” Over the years, this has helped him prevent several cases of human-wildlife conflict.
Other threatened species
In India, monitor lizards are killed for their blood, meat and oil. Bhosale posts photos of these lizards to create an interest in the lizards and counter such practices. He also engages his audience by asking them questions about the birds or animals that can be found in their villages or towns and whether residents have superstitions about them. The answers have culminated in rescue-and-release operations.
Another endangered species is owls, which are poached, trafficked as well as killed because of superstitions and rituals promoted by mystics. Bhosale and his fellow WLPRS volunteers work hard to counter such beliefs and have seen some good results.
Superstitions and beliefs also play a role in the trafficking of snakes, says Pradip Sutar, who has worked with Kolhapur’s forest department as a rescuer for two years. “There’s a massive demand for the red sand boa because people believe it brings good luck and has supernatural powers.”
In terms of conflict, monkeys are problematic in villages, Bhosale says. Their range has become increasingly limited as their habitat is destroyed, which leads to them breaking into homes and stealing food. This has resulted in much conflict as they are regarded as a menace. But it is often humans who cause aggression in the animals, says Bhosale.
“Monkeys react to what humans do. If you hit it with a stone, poke it with a stick, obviously it’s going to get aggressive.” He has learnt that asking residents to rethink and re-evaluate how they treat wild animals goes a long way in lessening conflict. “These changes take time but once it happens, automatically the conflicts in those areas go down,” says Bhosale.
Rampant bauxite mining, coupled with climate change, deforestation, shrinking water bodies in the forests and vanishing food sources, have forced the Indian bison, the largest wild cattle in the world, to move nearer to farms and people too. This has led to conflict and bison being killed.
Around 2011, a bison hit Bhosale leaving him unconscious and hospitalised for a week. “The marks are still visible. It’s all a part of the learning,” he says.
Ramesh Kamble, a range forest officer in Kolhapur’s Karvir division, says the WLPRS volunteers are invaluable in helping to rescue these powerful animals and preventing conflict with humans. Kamble recalls a challenging rescue operation in August when a bison had entered Vadgaon. “With the help of their [WLPRS] volunteers, we were able to rescue the bison and avoid conflict.”
WLPRS officials never charge for rescue operations and the volunteers sometimes struggle because most of them earn daily wages in their variety of “real” jobs, not salaries. “Travelling longer distances sometimes becomes unaffordable,” says Bhosale.
While funding remains a major problem for everyone, other personal issues can also make the volunteers’ work harder. Wildlife photographer Smita Bagal’s parents disapproved of her passion for conservation and rescuing wildlife because they thought it was not something a woman should do. But they eventually changed their minds. “When they saw my photos published in newspapers, they felt proud and now they support me,” she says.
The challenges of their work may be immense, but for Bhosale and his team it has been a rewarding journey too. Their fieldwork has been acknowledged in research papers, but their biggest reward is when they succeed in preserving wildlife and lessening its destruction.
“It takes several years to build a ground network, but once you empower communities, they start conserving the wildlife themselves,” says Bhosale. “Often, researchers and wildlife activists fail to recognise that their work can go a long way if they start working together with the communities and empowering them.
“On paper, we don’t have a degree in wildlife, but you don’t need a degree to care for nature. All you need is empathy and a heart.”