The Zai Whitaker column | A (second) lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank


Though the eight months of lockdown have been challenging (especially financially), the Croc Bank managed to “test positive” and come up with many new ideas and changes.

Read the preceding lockdown despatch from the Madras Croc Bank, here.


Snakebite Shoes

(Alas!) I’m not Imelda Marcos but still, my heart sang at the sight of those shoes: snakebite-proof gumboots for farmers, created by the Design and Research team of IIT-Chennai. They design specialised footwear for health and social causes and one of these is snakebite. Our Snakebite Mitigation team’s coordinator has been helping them understand the circumstances and statistics around this terrible problem, which causes 60,000 annual deaths in India. Most of the victims are barefoot farmers and bites generally occur on the foot or lower leg.

Thanks to a donation from Decathlon, we were able to distribute 150 gumboots to farmers in Tirunelveli, a snakebite hot spot in one of the six states with the highest fatalities. Though they were made from rubber and weighed at least twice as much as regular shoes, the target group quickly saw the advantage of using them. Most of them had seen the agony, morbidity and death, that snakebites cause; and were willing to slow down their walk to the fields, in the interest of safety. One of the most enthusiastic users was a woman farmer Lakshmi, who has become an advocate for the footwear. We knew we were on the right path, but it was important to come up with a suitable prototype: one that was affordable, durable, and fang-proof. At 15 mm and more, the Russell’s viper’s fangs are a formidable syringe and these snakes are common in our agricultural landscape.

So, this is why my heart was singing. The development and mass production of the right footwear for farmers would greatly improve the lives of these brave hearts of our agricultural sector. The prototype I was staring at looked promising. It was light, it covered half the shin, it was water resistant but not water-proof, and would thus allow drainage. And, last not least, it had a cool snake-skin pattern, and the whole effect was elegant. What a nice thought, that our farmers should not be merely safe from snakebite, but elegant to boot! Many thanks to the idealistic team at IIT-Chennai, for putting their education and brains to good use for this important and neglected issue.


New Home for the Cubans 

The Zai Whitaker column A second lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank

Fancy digs for the Cuban crocodiles. Photo courtesy MCBT

Loud noise above a certain decibel level is harmful to both humans and animals. It can result in serious health issues and even death. The enclosure of our Cuban crocodiles — which are included in the Critically Endangered category of the IUCN’s Red List — was in a vulnerable place, in the line of fire from noisy events at neighbouring resorts. We decided to take this lockdown opportunity to move them out of there. Luckily, we had received a grant from Cholamandalam Finance to build a new pen and this was the perfect time to do it: no visitors, so plenty of time and energy to focus on the task at hand. This enclosure, and two others adjacent to it, are unique. The inhabitants — the Cubans, the slender snouted crocodiles and Ally the alligator — are enjoying their new homes, complete with murals of their own indigenous habitats and co-species. I won’t say more and make this a spoiler; so, come and see them for yourself! It has been a rewarding experience for us humans too. We learnt, for instance, about the hutia, a guinea-pig like animal which shares the Cuban croc’s habitat and is endemic to the Caribbean.

Enriching Lives

The Zai Whitaker column A second lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank

Ally with her friend Ajay Kartik. Photo courtesy Sandeep Varma

The lockdown also allowed us time to extend our environmental enrichment programme. This involves stimuli and activities that allow a zoo animal to reach its social and cognitive potential. Primates, for example, can be given their snack or meal in containers with different open/close systems so that their grey cells are exercised, just as they are in their hunting/foraging lifestyles in the wild. Reptiles are thought to be primitive by nature, but enrichment programmes have shown surprising cognisant abilities, the classic example being crocodiles recognising their keeper’s voices.

Enrichment and training also make husbandry procedures safer for keepers. Our Komodo are learning to associate food with a target stick with a colourful ball at the end — and have learnt that jumping at the keeper is not a productive exercise. One of our smartest animals is the alligator Ally, who responds to several commands including Up, Come, Down, and Water. But like all students, she has her good and bad days, and the worst days are usually when we are trying to show off her skills to guests.


Smart Reproduction

The Zai Whitaker column A second lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank

Assistant Curator Ambika with one of the yellow anaconda babies. Photo courtesy Gnaneswar Ch

The zoo has been so quiet during lockdown: no music from outside, no traffic, no visitors. It was a good time to roam around, enjoying some of the fascinating things that reptiles get up to. One of these is sperm retention, the ability that some animals have of storing sperm within a specific part of the reproductive tract before the egg is fertilised. Our yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus) has produced babies for the last four years in spite of not having even whiffed a male during that time. She gave birth again recently and the babies are bright and feisty (and happy to bite the hand that feeds them). One of our Ganges softshell turtles (Nilssonia gangetica) has done even better. She has produced viable eggs for 10 years without access to a male.

Snakeman Comes Home

The Zai Whitaker column A second lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank

The original Snakeman with its Tamil and Kannada counterparts. Photo courtesy Faiz Ansari

Snakeman, my biography of Rom [Romulus Whitaker], had a productive time during lockdown and — thanks to a generous donor — is now available in Tamil and Kannada. The translators, Kamalalayan V and SV Sreenivasa, have by all accounts done a super job as have the publishers Vanathi Pathippagam. In these days of wide-ranging environmental emergencies, it is more important than ever to create a second line of conservationists in India. The experiences of Rom and his ilk show that a lot can be done with meagre financial resources. It makes us so happy, that the book will now be available to non-English readers in these two states where he has done some of his most important work.

Return of Hamadryad

The Zai Whitaker column A second lockdown despatch from the Madras Crocodile Bank

(L-R) The first issue of Hamadryad…and the weighty scientific journal it morphed into

Little acorns make big oaks. Hamadryad started as a small 10-page newsletter for reptile conservation in 1976, “published” by an old cyclostyling machine at the Madras Snake Park. We’d take turns at manoeuvring the lever which rotated the roller which inked the stencil which had been hammered out on the old Godrej typewriter. Graphics had to be hand-drawn on the stencil with a stylus, a pointed metal instrument that looked more like a weapon than a  tool. The roller had to be smeared with a tube of pulpy ink, which got on one’s hands, elbows, forehead, and wasn’t easy to wash off. The “printed” pages then had to spread out to dry before being stapled. The content consisted of news and notes about herps on the subcontinent and very quickly gained a wide readership in several countries and created a network of reptile-angled naturalists. This became a huge support during field surveys, data collection, and cross-country initiatives such as the gharial ecology project. Students interested in herpetology talked about how encouraging it was to see their article or note published in Hamadryad. Well, it went on to become a glossy herpetological journal but in 2018 we had to stop its publication because of rising costs of printing and postage. The lockdown gave us the time to scratch our heads and think about how it could be brought back to life. Plans are now underway to create a new avatar of Hamadryad online, with herpetologist Yatin Kalki as editor. That’s so exciting.

So all in all, though the eight months of lockdown have been challenging (especially financially), the Croc Bank managed to “test positive” and come up with many new ideas and changes thanks to the great team we have on board. A big thanks to our staff and trustees and the many donors who kept us going.

Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology. Read more of her columns for Firstpost here.

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