The Zai Whitaker column | A lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank
Of enclosure manoeuvring, felled trees, and rescued cobras: An account of three action-packed months at the Madras Crocodile Bank while in lockdown.
Old-growth trees are priceless and I’m not talking about money, but eye and mind candy, and carbon mulching. (And certainly more difficult to grow than crocodiles.) So it was a sad event for us when this old giant in one of our croc pens came down on the night of 11 June, in one of those intense localised wind storms that are becoming more and more frequent around the world. It was a rain tree, planted in the early days, so at least 40 years old. It had become a rookery for egrets and herons and perfect basking spot for the 25 resident marsh crocodiles. It fell half on land and half in the pond.
Cutting and removing the branches was a challenge because of the social distancing and other safety issues for staff, and we finally decided to leave the larger logs in the water and only remove the ones on shore.
As always, our staff were innovative, motivated and animal-centric, making sure there was minimal disturbance to the inmates of the enclosure even if it meant working in the heat of mid-day when the animals were in the water.
There was an initial anxiety about feed reaching our animals when lockdown began in March, but then zoos were added to the list of essential services and there has been no problem in receiving chicken, fish and other feed… such as vegetables and fruit for the chelonians.
Zoos sometimes have to separate animals to avoid conflict and injury. Casuarina poles make ideal partitions: cheap, easy to transport, and quickly installed and removed.
Animal handling has been minimised during lockdown, to maximise (human) distancing but sometimes it’s necessary. When it was noticed that a casuarina barrier between two isolation pens — for a mugger and a saltie — was rotting, we decided to move the mugger since salties tend to be aggressive and we couldn’t take a chance.
It was a smooth operation, on 7 July. The curatorial team came up with capture ideas that allowed distancing and used the minimum number of keepers. For example, instead of a "regular release", they devised a technique so that rubber bands could be removed from the jaws by tugging on a rope. This meant the animal did not have to be restrained for the release part of the operation.
The last task after the mugger’s removal was dismantling the dividing fence. Untying the lower rope links was easy but then for the higher ones, Jani had to perch on top of the fence. It’s not as dangerous as it looks! He’s on the safe (vacant) side of the enclosure. The saltie is now gratefully enjoying the additional space.
Then, on the evening of 28 July, came an interesting and intriguing “snake! snake!” call from the village across the road from us… that there were 'many' cobras in a disused underground septic tank who were 'guarding' a bunch of eggs. To our assistant curator Ajay Kartik, it sounded like the usual fairy tale produced by the fevered human imagination, on seeing a snake. Collecting snake hook and bag and suitably masked, off he went.
But the story turned out to be at least partly right. There were three cobras (two male and one female) inside the tank, and the female had scattered her 18 eggs all over the floor!
The bigger male (almost 6 ft) had a stark white scar-tissue mark along one side of the body. Perhaps a burn mark, from fire or hot water: desperate measures people use to move a snake out of their home.
The tank was about 6 ft deep, and Ajay tried every possible way to get them out using long snake sticks: getting into a septic tank is no fun anyway, and even worse when three irritated cobras are added to the experience. But there was no way around it; he’d have to get in. A ladder was brought. It was dark by now, and the ring of watchers provided light with their torches and mobiles. Fortunately, big snakes tire quickly and after some hissing and lunging, the spectacled cobras were bagged and the eggs collected.
Much speculation (pun intended) followed. We sent the details to Rom, whose response was: “It's likely the female was gravid, searching for a safe place to lay eggs and her scent trail was followed by the horny males hoping to mate with her and then they were unable to get out of the tank. Cobras are indeed cannibalistic, like many other species, and the bigger one could have eaten the smaller ones over a period of time, and eggs also.”
Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology
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