“Crikey, mate. You’re far safer dealing with crocodiles and western diamondback rattlesnakes than the executives and the producers and all those sharks in the big MGM building.” I grew up listening to these words by my childhood hero Steve Irwin. An absolute legend, Steve was an environmentalist known for his chemistry with the creepy-crawly world. I always made it a point to watch his show “Crocodile Hunter” on Animal Planet, squealing with awe every time he handled a crocodile or rescued my biggest fear – Snakes!
A part of me always wanted to experience Steve’s life. This desire was fulfilled by Gerrard Martin (Gerry ) , a renowned herpetologist from India. Camping with Gerry in the Western Ghats of India, I became familiar with a variety of snakes ranging from the Rat Snake to the Malabar Pit Viper. (By familiar I mean I enjoyed appreciating them at a distance :p) . But what I wanted was to mingle with crocodiles and it was not long before Gerry took me along with my brother and best friend Trisha to volunteer at Croc Bank in Chennai.
The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (Croc Bank) was set up by the famous Romulus Whitaker in Chennai, India. Located just off the coast of the Bay of Bengal, Crock Bank is an ideal sanctuary to conserve diverse species of reptiles and amphibians (http://www.madrascrocodilebank.org/).
Reaching Croc Bank just before dawn, our sleepy eyes were greeted by their very friendly staff who helped us settle into our cottages . After indulging in a sumptuous breakfast, Gerry briefed us about this camp. The Madras Crocodile Bank allows researchers, herpetologists, wildlife enthusiasts and youngsters to volunteer at the sanctuary. This volunteering mainly involves zoo support and maintenance, helping out in feeding, cleaning of the croc pits etc to name a few. One can also engage in educating tourists about the reptile park and assist in various research projects at the park . Walking around croc bank, we first got familiar with the different type of crocodiles in the region. I kept humming the song, “Never smile at a crocodile” from the movie Peter Pan as I cautiously stared at the different crocodiles. There were croc pits with caimans (quite snappy creatures), alligators, gharials, muggers, and the big salt water crocodile who was named “Jaws”. I didn’t seem to shudder with fright looking at these crocs. They seemed very lazy , sunbathing and enjoying a deep slumber.
But these creatures are “party poopers” when it comes to their bowel movements! We realized this as soon as we started our first task for the day- ‘Cleaning the croc pits!’ This did take a few hours but we had a great time getting our hands dirty. It took me back to my childhood where I loved playing with mud. The only difference here was that this was croc poop :D. The best part after all the cleaning was the ‘beach time’ we treated ourselves to! The high waves of the Bay of Bengal were truly a blessing , removing all the muck!
The next day we started our actual “crocodile hunter” adventure. Heading to the pit of the caimans , Gerry explained that we had to help in grading the crocodiles and detecting the sex of each one of the caimans as it was required for a research project. I was completely oblivious to the fact that this would involve sitting on the caimans and wrestling them! Unsure of what to expect I walked with Gerry to the pond, deciding which caiman to “attack”. Carrying a rope, Gerry helped get the rope around one caiman which seemed quite nonchalant. But just as the rope entangled it’s neck, “SNAP” went its jaws. Trying not to panic I held on to the rope and tugged hard, till we managed to pull the caiman out of the water. This was quiet tedious as caimans are quite stubborn creatures and pulling them out did give me a good workout! To calm crocodiles down, the best thing to do is to put a rug over them. This also blocks their sense of sight making it the ideal moment to sit on them and tie them down.Detecting the sex of the caiman , needed us to flip the caiman over, so we had to first sit on it and tie the jaws. I really felt like a professional wrestler as I tried stopping it from being set free. I remember getting hit by its powerful tail but that is all a part of the experience. Within no time we managed to flip it over and detect the sex.This entire adventure with the caimans made me realize that crocodiles are quite dangerous and have to be dealt with very patiently. You never know when they can attack! Some needed to be handled by more than five to six people!
But the highlight of the croc bank camp was our experience with the Muggers or the Marsh crocodiles, found mainly in the Indian subcontinent ,with an alligator appearance. A BBC documentary, titled “Deadly 60” was going to be shot with the muggers, and WE WERE A PART OF IT! That’s when I really had my Steve Irwin moment! Entering the pit with cameramen I wasn’t sure if I was more nervous about handling the Muggers, or being a part of the documentary. (Hey I was getting my 30 seconds of fame , I had to do a good job!). But I guess it ended up being the Muggers. They were tough crocodiles to handle! With about 8 of us handling one mugger, pulling them out of the water was worse than a game of Tug-of-war. To top it all , the mugger I sat on, decided to pee on me! Yes I got peed on by a crocodile… “Now that is Crikey Mate!”
Unfortunately, these days the muggers are among the list of threatened species and protecting them is a must. Croc Bank in association with The Andaman and Nicobar Island’s Environmental Team(ANET) and Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) in the Western Ghats of India is working on more conservation projects to protect reptiles and amphibians.
Another exciting aspect of Croc Bank is that one also gets to mingle with the local tribals of the region called the “Irulas”. They take you for a trek in the nearby forest to learn about the snakes of the region. Not that I was very enthusiastic about that trek but it was an eye-opener. The Irulas are extremely knowledgeable and know how to handle the snakes in the right way. They also educate you about the different ways snake bites can be taken care of. Croc Bank has done a great job in uplifting the life of these tribals, by starting the Irula Snake- Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society (http://bit.ly/1CW52in). This makes the Irulas the ideal “go-to” people for any snake related matters.
The Madras Crocodile Bank was a place which truly gave me an out of the box experience. It was the place which fulfilled my childhood desire and is a great place to volunteer especially if you are a wildlife enthusiast or enjoy learning about snakes and other reptiles. You never know what awaits you there but I guarantee it will be “Crikey”