When knowledge is made progressive it opens up avenues for growth. This is exactly what I wanted for participants of my workshops so that their learning does not stagnate. Participants from the rescue and relocation workshop (conducted at Mysore in Jan and March 2012) joined me to the Centre for Herpetology, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT) on the 12th and 13th May. The idea was to help them explore the world of reptiles, understand the bigger picture of captive management and appreciate skills of the Irulas.
Though May is not the best of times to hit the east coast, the enthusiasm of our participants shamed the sweltering sun! Gayathri Selvaraj, education officer at MCBT took the group on an interactive tour where she spoke about the eighteen different species of crocodiles housed here and patiently answered all queries.
Things got very exciting when the director of MCBT, Collin a herpetologist himself spoke about ‘Crocodile biology’. His presentation skill with a great sense of humour was much appreciated by the participants.
With over 30 years of experience in housing crocodiles and snakes, MCBT is ‘THE’ place in India to study and understand captive management of reptiles. We observed the unique designs of different crocodile pens made to suit habits of each species. It was interesting to note the provisions made for basking, nesting, clean water, right kind of plants, and shade to rest. Being cold blooded, crocodiles need to regulate their body temperature and unless the right temperature and humidity is made available their survival is impacted.
Madras Crocodile bank serves as a gene pool for crocodiles. Hence captive breeding is an ongoing activity.
Dr. Gowri Mallapur , Asst. Director, explained the importance of regulating and checking the growth of hatchlings at fixed intervals.
Participants got a chance to weigh, measure the total length and snout vent length of Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) hatchlings. This data was then meticulously recorded to be stored in their database.
Crocodiles in the wild are opportunistic feeders. They usually feed once every 7- 10 days (depending on the size of their previous feed) and are known to last for days without food. A 15 ft crocodile can go without food for almost a year! At Croc bank they are fed twice a week with beef and fish.
Participants watched Jaws III, the largest captive salt water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) in Asia feed on chunks of meat.
Participants then watched the reticulated python (Python reticulatus) feed on rats. These snakes are the longest snakes in the world (growing up to 11 meters) and in the wild their major diet comprise of birds and small mammals. Their bulky bodies give an impression of being sluggish but it is during feeding that one can actually observe their agility and speed. Quickly grabbing their prey, coiling around it and then slowly swallowing the meal is a true exhibit of their wild feeding instincts.
It was now time for everyone to get their hands dirty and to get to the task of cleaning mugger pens. This activity not only helped in understanding the aesthetics of managing a pen but also created a sense of appreciation for the work that MCBT has been doing for years.
The night safari at the croc bank is as good as star gazing! It is a sparkling wonder when over 300 eyes glint under torch light. Eye shines serve as the best cues while surveying and capturing crocodiles in the wild. Apart from eye shines participants also spotted a rat snake and a vine snake within the campus.
After a high dose of crocodile gyan it was now the turn of snakes.
Being snake enthusiasts everyone woke up excitedly at 5 in the morning and joined the Irula tribe on a snake walk.
The Irulas were local hunters and gatherers. Traditionally they hunted mongoose, monitor lizards, birds, paddy rats and snakes. The tribe’s skill in locating snakes and monitor lizards were exploited by skin industries till late 70s. After the ban by Government on wildlife products, their activities were considered illegal. They however continued to smoke rats from burrows as rats form a major part of their diet. That’s the time Romulus and Zai Whitaker setup the Irula snake cooperative society to extract venom from the big four of India. [Common cobra(Naja naja), Russell’s Viper(Daboia russelii), Saw scaled viper(Echis carinatus), Krait (Bungarus caeruleus)] for anti venom production.
Along with Kali, an Irula, we walked through paddy fields, villages, and scrub jungles.
And during our three hour walk we found seven snakes. Two bronze back tree snakes(Dendrelaphis tristis), one green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta), two Indian rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa), a common cobra(Naja naja) and a striped keel back (Amphiesma stolatum). The best part was the accuracy in spotting them. Participants noted down the macro and micro habitats, the scientific names of the snakes found, the location they were spotted at, and signs used to locate these snakes in their data sheets.
It was time for unwinding at the beach and then for reflection.
What started as just basic learning about snakes, scale counts, and snake rescue now progressed into a deeper understanding of the reptilian world. This awareness I hope will create a deeper passion, a thirst for knowledge and hence a greater commitment from these enthusiasts for conservation.
Our next journey is into the deep jungles of the rainforests in Agumbe where we will brave the monsoons and herp through challenging terrains to find herps in their habitat. Come July (6th to 8th) we all meet again. Until then adios team!
PS: For more info about camps please check the Upcoming workshops & camps page.
Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar
Acknowledgements: Ashwini VM, Ramanan, Shishir Rao
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