Sundarbans Diary - The Enormous Estuarine Crocodile

Cruising through the backwaters of the Sundarbans in India, Jennifer Nandi marvels at the estuarine crocodile, even as her thoughts turn to the conflict between these fascinating reptiles and the ecosystem's human inhabitants

Estuarine crocodile sunbathing in the squelchy ooze

The plan for today begins with breakfast on board. Once again, to ensure a fairly decent meal, I do what it takes. It is rather surprising that the guide, the camp crew and boat crew have little idea of what standard quality of a meal implies. Nevertheless, all are co-operative and aim to please, which is a wonderful attitude to work with, and so my suggestions of difficult alterations to the breakfast menu are charmingly accepted.

To be fair, the Jungle Camp itself strives to show that tourism can benefit the locals. There is no question that the Sundarbans is indeed a fragile ecosystem and it needs all the help it can get. The sustainable development of the local community and the conservation of wildlife and flora of this ecosystem is financed by Help Tourism and is implemented and managed jointly with the Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society. There are free medical camps, a non-formal school, tailoring training, a community sanitation programme, scholarships for poor students, garment and medicine banks, nature club movements and other awareness programmes for students and teachers of local schools. This is a huge endeavour and it deserves our acknowledgement and support.

Mangrove trees with their stilt (left) and air-breathing roots

All these mitigating thoughts crowd my mind as we cruise at a leisurely pace. Unlike the steep banks of the Bangladesh Sundarbans, here waders glean for food on large expanses of tidal mudflats. Unfortunately our access to smaller channels is prohibited by the authorities. Tourists in small country boats paddling into the quieter channels is deemed too dangerous so we content ourselves looking at oversized estuarine crocodiles that warm themselves on spits of sand. They are wary of us so it’s difficult to get close-up photographs.

Survivors from the Great Age of Dinosaurs, crocodiles are the world’s largest reptiles. The Saltwater or Estuarine crocodile that ranges from India to northern Australia is armed with strong jaw muscles that enable it to snap shut and hold prey securely, its lower teeth fitting into sockets in the upper jaw. And when these jaws are snapped together, great pressure is created which their superbly adapted massive skulls can withstand. The roughened texture of the crocodile’s skin – horny with shield-like scales called scutes, dupes you into thinking its a floating log.

Spotted Deer grazing on the banks, form the primary prey species for the large crocodilians

On occasion these great banks of muscle would slip into the shallows that border the thick mangroves, and hang in there as if in ambush for an unsuspecting spotted deer or wild boar. Then, I imagine, having spied its quarry, it would dig its feet into the river bank to lever its body upwards and leap out suddenly to seize its surprised prey. If the victim is not knocked off balance, the crocodile would have to twist its body around it, and then drag the prey to the water’s edge to drown it. Deer and wild boar have little chance against this efficient hunting machine. Even a tiger would need to keep a respectful distance from this quickly-moving, powerful body. The extremely strong neck muscles attached to long, bony extensions of the neck bone and its very flexible backbone made up of ball-and-socket joints secure its tug-of-war win against large mammals. For the present, though, these crocodiles are simply sunbathing.

Wild boar are another important prey species for both tigers and crocodiles

I had to wonder, though, how many men and women lose their lives to these great reptiles each year. For all along the banks there are women and sometimes men scouring the shoreline, stripping it of fish fry and crustaceans to obtain tiger prawn seedlings for the market. Cluster roots of the mangrove species, Excocaria agolacha, and those of the Abyssinia genus provide impenetrable jungle and no easy escape route for humans. On a branch of one such tree sits the dark morph of a Changeable Hawk Eagle. Below, on the mud just ahead of the murky water, bobbing its rear end and running in short spurts is a solitary sandpiper. We watch the drama unfold as the big bird flies lazily down to the water’s edge and without pause scoops up the sandpiper with its feet. The victim lies limp in the embrace of unyielding talons. Up on the eagle’s perch, the little bird’s cradle of death opens and a powerful bill shreds it to pieces.

As cruel as it seems, predation is not a matter of morality; it is a matter of living together. Brutal as the crocodile may be to the individual spotted deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Animal predation is indeed a horror from the point of view of the individual prey. But from the standpoint of the group and of its gene pool, it is indispensable. Without predators to cull the herd, the deer would overrun their habitat and starve. In fact all suffer - not only the deer but the plants they browse and the species that depend on those plants.

A crocodile disappears quickly into the water

As if on cue, a large wild boar disappears into the thicket of mangrove prop roots and a spotted deer, browsing on leaves stops to have a better look at us. On the opposite bank seemingly devoid of mammalian life lies the largest crocodile we’ve seen today, with a very swollen belly. Of the twenty-five or so crocodiles we’ve counted since this morning, many appear to measure at least 18ft long. Additionally they are a minimum of 3 ft across. There is certainly no dearth of prey for this ectotherm!  

Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi

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