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T K  Thomas
Opinion

Threat to endangered crocodiles?

One of the saddest if not disturbing news one came across last week appeared on the front page of the Indian Express on January 24th. The story was about shifting of crocodiles numbering about 500 from what is known as Pond 3 locally known as “Magar Talav” or crocodile pond near the now famous Statue of Unity on the Narmada river bank in Gujarat built to perpetuate the memory of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the Iron Man of India and the first Deputy Prime Minister of India who unified over 550 native princely states in the Union of India. The purported reason is to prepare this pond to be set up as a landing terminal for seaplanes after evacuating the nearly 500 crocodiles which had made this pond their natural habitat.

One has no intention of critiquing the Sardar Patel statue, the tallest one in the world reportedly built at a cost of over Rs.3000 crore. This piece is not meant to highlight the alleged politics behind this wonderful Statue of Unity whipped up by the forces opposed to the present political dispensation at the center. Nor is one interested in the two crore something expenditure on publicity [some of which was contrived and not exactly imaginative]. But as a lover of fauna, one considers the evacuation of these hapless crocodiles included in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act which covers the most endangered species, very sad.

According to the report, the decision was taken after proper studies by “a multi-level Committee comprising officials of the Civil Aviation department and Gujarat government had cleared” the pond in question as a seaplane landing terminal. This terminal would connect cities of Gujarat to the Statue of Unity site.

Obviously the Patel statue site is being developed also as a commercial tourist spot and for those who can afford a flight to the spot in a seaplane it will be an added attraction. The world over, such statues and monuments have been developed as commercial tourist destinations. It is a legitimate part of the tourism industry and isn’t the promotion of nationalism in the process an added advantage?

The question one raises is of preservation of endangered species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. The Indian Express has quoted Dr. Jitendra Gavali, Director, Community Science Centre, Vadodara who called the transfer of such large number of crocodiles, against the Act and warned that they may be harmed. He affirmed that, “releasing them into the dam reservoir would mean that the female crocodiles may not be able to nest, if the slope of the dam is more than about 40 degrees. Crocodiles need space on land to nest and also to come out of the water during winters. If the government has spent crores of rupees making the Statue of Unity, “it should spend some more money to make an artificial pond landing the seaplane without disturbing the ecological balance and natural habitat of crocodiles.”

According to the Press Trust of India [PTI] the water aerodrome for sea planes has not been confirmed by the Gujarat government. PTI reports that the crocodiles are being relocated from the vicinity of the Patel Statue for the safety of thousands [an estimated ten thousand tourists visit the statue every day, the Gujarat Chief Minister says] of tourists thronging the area and 20 cages have been set up along the banks of the ponds to trap the crocodiles. According to PTI, Aradhana Sahu, Conservator of Forests [Vadodara wildlife Circle] denied reports that “the crocodiles were being removed from the dykes to make way for a proposed seaplane service to cater to SoU tourists.”

On 23rd January, PTI quoted Gujarat Civil Aviation Minister Bhupendra sinh Chudasama that a seaplane service connecting Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad to the Statue of Unity would commence soon…. S J Haider, Principal Secretary, Gujarat Civil Aviation department said a location for a water aerodrome near the Sardar Patel memorial had not been decided yet. The location will be decided after consultation with DGCA.

From the above PTI reports, one gets the impression that there is no clarity as yet on the water aerodrome and exact reasons for shifting the crocodiles. Is it for building a water aerodrome for seaplanes to land and take off or is it for the safety of thousands of tourists? Either way, the lack of clarity reveals the tentative manner in which the Statue tourism, much hyped has been planned.

Without going into further details on the harm the transfer of crocodiles may cause, one is constrained to say that such ‘‘developmental activities’’ have been the nemesis of natural habitats of animals and plants. If providing the novelty of a seaplane experience to people with means is considered a priority instead of protecting endangered species, is that not an ecologically dangerous approach?

Even when the Narmada project was in the making, considerable number of villages and farm lands had permanently gone under water against which the activists under Medha Patkar had agitated. Now it seems this is a case of the takeover of the natural habitat of the crocodiles for promotion of tourism. It is thanks to man’s greed that we have lost many species of flora and fauna. In Delhi the large vultures and the little sparrow have all but disappeared.

In the man-animal conflicts, it is the animals that are victims even as there are dangers to the precarious ecological balance. One is reminded of a friend who made a film on the monkey menace in Delhi. “Rogue Monkeys” as they have been referred to by the man in the street, were being projected as a menace. In the capital’s Raisina Hills and the citadel of power of Delhi monkeys [bonnet macaque] have a free run. Most of the major ‘Bhavans’ housing union ministries have been almost occupied by monkeys who indeed have become a nuisance if not a menace. They enter office rooms, snatch food and even stationeries and sometimes terrorize the employees. ‘Langurs’ are being ‘employed’ to keep the monkeys at bay. Even members of the security personnel keep a vigil with catapults and lathis. Monkeys also raid residential areas and steal or snatch food from homes.

My filmmaker friend had a thesis. He tried to prove, and did succeed quite well that the adjective or sobriquet “rogue” should be man’s and not of the monkeys. According to him the entire capital territory regions had thick vegetation and trees and they were the natural habitat of the monkeys. In the process of development and the frantic building of residential blocks, the monkeys lost what was their natural habitats as a lot of trees were cut. The film maker was serious when he said that if man cut off all their perching trees and deprived them of their natural staple of fruits and leaves, it was natural for monkeys to share resources of humans, begging, stealing or snatching. Otherwise where will the poor monkeys go for sustenance?

Recently there were stories about freely roaming cattle destroying crops and the angry farmers shooing them off with their lathis. There were television news visuals of farmers in Uttar Pradesh pushing large numbers of stray cattle which destroyed their crops, into school compounds.

When it comes to wild animals, the man-animal conflicts are very serious. On Republic Day last week, there was an editorial in the leading Malayalam daily, the Malayala Manorama which highlighted the ‘menace’ of wild animals in populated areas with special emphasis on Wayanad district which has a 38% forest cover. Here are some pointers from it: Number of tigers and leopards which attacked and killed domestic animals have been trapped by people. There is also constant fear among people of attacks by such wild animals. Root vegetables are destroyed by wild boars. Peacocks and deer eat away grains from the fields. There are occasional raids by wild elephants and monkeys are a real menace. Droughts, withering of bamboo groves, lack of sufficient food in the forests are responsible for wild animals crossing over from forests to the country side.

So ultimately it is the failure of the human beings in protecting forests and the habitats of the wild animals responsible for the attack by the animals. They are only ‘sharing’, their legitimate right for food from their natural environs which we have encroached upon and destroyed!

The crocodiles in the ponds near the Statue of Unity on the banks of the Narmada are being evacuated to provide for a sea plane landing spot for tourists visiting the world’s tallest statue.

Incidentally, it is believed that the ‘vahan‘ [vehicle] of both river goddess Narmada and Ganga and sea god Varuna is the “Makara”[crocodile] which gives the reptile a mythological connection! Unfortunately, the existence of the poor crocodiles of Narmada is under threat; but tourists will enjoy and experience the thrill of a sea plane flight if the water aerodrome there actually becomes a reality. It is an unequal conflict between existence of an endangered species and entertainment for well to do tourists. But who cares?

TAIL PIECE:

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

[MAHATMA GANDHI].

- Prof. T K Thomas, Senior Journalist.

(The views expressed in the article above are those of the author.)