With pristine beaches, clear blue waters and unhurried pace, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have become a popular vacation idyll. These islands were swept into the conscience of mainland India with the tsunami of 2004, which brought large scale destruction to many parts of southeast Asia. However, in the years after the tsunami, Andaman and Nicobar have been grappling with a different kind of problem.
Since the tsunami and more recently, from 2010 onwards, saltwater crocodiles are coming in contact with the human inhabitants on the islands with increasing frequency. In 2016, four people have fallen victim to attacks by saltwater crocodiles.
One such victim was Jasinta Silwanus Tirkey of Ranchi basti from Tushnabad of South Andaman who was attacked while washing clothes in a nallah near her house on 4 September. More recently on 6 October, Hemant Das, a 56-year-old resident of Kadamtala village in Middle Andaman was seriously injured while returning from a fishing trip. In the years since the tsunami, there have been — on average — two attacks per year. Out of these, half have been fatal for the person attacked. That is one human death a year at the jaws of these crocodiles.
[In comparison, close to 2,000 people die each year on the tracks of the Mumbai local trains. Nearly 1,50,000 were killed in traffic accidents in 2015 in India.]
Do these attacks mean there is no place in Andaman and Nicobar for these prehistoric creatures?
Saltwater crocodiles are thought to have been a part of the islands since they diverged from their parent genus, Crocodylus, around 12-6 million years ago and evolved into a separate species. The aboriginal tribes of the Andamans are thought to have inhabited the islands 30,000 years ago. Saltwater crocodiles were previously found all along the eastern coast of India and Kerala on the western coastline. The last few saltwater crocodiles south of Orissa were reported from Tamil Nadu in 1935, another was shot in Kerala post-Independence.
Along with the destruction of suitable habitat and breeding grounds, the crocodiles were extensively hunted throughout its range in India. Today, they are found only within the protected boundaries of Bhitarkanika National Park in Orissa and the Sundarbans in West Bengal. With large scale hunting of crocodiles for their skins and meat, by 1970s, their numbers were in serious jeopardy. Before the end of the decade, they were brought under highest level of protection and classified under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of India. With this protection extended even to the Andaman islands, their numbers rebounded. According the first-ever population census conducted by the forest department, the estimates stands at 450 to 550-odd crocodiles in the Andamans.
So what has changed in the period post-tsunami that is responsible for increased interaction between crocodiles and humans?
For one, the space available to accommodate the recent rise in the number of crocodiles has shrunk drastically in the past decade. A study published in 2013 by the Department of Disaster Management of Pondicherry University documented the land use and land cover changes wrought by various developmental forces on South Andaman. Changes in land use pattern could be attributed to rise in tourism and civil infrastructure, and land allocated for defence and fishing purposes. With increasing number of migrants settling in and around Port Blair, the area converted into settlements has gone up from 1,640 hectares to 12,080 hectares in the past three decades.
Much before the tsunami, the first recent wave of settlers arrived on the islands post-Independence in 1947. But the influx of migrants looking to settle on the islands exploded 15 years before the tsunami. From close to 2,80,000 people in 1991, the population increased to around 3,60,000 in 2001. Harry Andrew, a researcher who has worked on crocodiles for nearly two decades on the islands, says “the habitat of crocodiles started to be encroached on for agriculture and settlements very rapidly” to support the increase in human population. Saltwater crocodiles are large bodied reptiles who show fidelity to nesting sites. They are also known to be territorial. With their preferred freshwater mangrove habitat being destructed, they travel vast distances looking for suitable sites. Sometimes these are close to human habitation. Especially during their breeding season, they use freshwater creeks as they prefer secluded places to lay their eggs.
Unregulated proliferation of tourism infrastructure like restaurants and resorts, is another possible cause of increase in human-crocodile interaction. Some of the development has occurred in contravention of the prescribed Coastal Regulatory Zone rules and within 200-500 meters from the sea. Resorts have mushroomed on Havelock, Neil, Little Andaman island, and in areas around Port Blair, Corbyn’s Cove, Mundapahar and Wandoor. The Andamans now receive a footfall of close to 2,50,000 tourists annually. This floating population is more than half of the resident population. Improper disposal of solid waste directly into creeks, canals and the sea is a common practice. Port Blair generates one of the the highest per capita waste generation in the country with 75 tonnes of solid waste per day. Garbage disposal sites over time end up attracting crocodiles looking to scavenge for food.
[Caution: Graphic image below]
To mitigate any further escalation in potential conflict, the local forest department has decided to tap various resources. They have included members from the local villages and police department to form Joint Patrolling Units who would alert the forest personnel in case crocodiles are sited near habitation. According to SK Thomas, divisional forest officer for South Andaman, “the department is also conducting extensive awareness campaigns on basic precautions public can take especially from June to November which is the breeding season for crocodiles”. A recent attack was reported on a fisherman who was dangling his feet in the water. Being aware of certain areas which crocodiles are known to use would go a long way in reducing such instances.
The forest department has also been relocating captured crocodiles to areas away from human habitation. Tarun Nair, a crocodile biologist points out “such practices of capture and relocation of 'problem' crocodiles will only exacerbate conflict occurrence as crocodiles are known to return to original capture sites due to their ‘homing instinct’”. Hence, relying on scientific studies to disseminate precautionary measures would help in making informed decisions. Sensitising people on sharing land and water with these ancient creatures will greatly enable peaceful cohabitation for both man and animal.
Vardhan Patankar is a marine biologist researching in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Vrushal Pendharkar writes on science and environment.