What goes behind the running of Madras Crocodile Bank

For a brief happy while in the mid-2000s, Canadian show Naturally, Sadie aired in India. In one episode, the 13-year-old protagonist, who loves being around and studying animals, is ecstatic when she gets to intern in a zoo, only to learn that most of her work involves scooping up elephant dung.

Today, at The Madras Crocodile Bank, ECR, as a group of volunteers and I are on our haunches inside an enclosure for saltwater crocodiles, cleaning the pit of sludge, poop and leaves, it is an odd dream come true. I am Sadie.

The crocodile bank regularly holds such guided volunteer-for-a-day programmes. The one-day or two-day programmes are designed for participants to understand what is involved in running the zoo, and include educational activities. More serious ones can also volunteer on weekends, or take up a one-month volunteering programme that would require them to live on the campus.

Step 1: Cleaning enclosures

Education officer Anjana Srimathi leads us beyond a gate that reads ‘Staff Only’. The canopy of trees clear to reveal an enclosure filled with saltwater crocodiles. ‘The salties,’ as she calls them, are three-year-old juveniles and not for public exhibit. Less than five-feet long now, they can grow up to be 23 feet in the wild. Our job is to clean the waterhole at the centre of the enclosure.

But first, the crocodiles need to be persuaded to leave the water — a job left to the croc keeper. Brandishing a long stick, he gently taps on the snouts of the crocs, to nudge them away. Once the waterhole is cleared, it is drained of the water through a pipe that opens up outside the enclosure.

What goes behind the running of Madras Crocodile Bank

“Be careful while entering the hole, it is quite slippery,” says Anjana. With the help of the assistant keepers, we shovel the excreta and dried leaves sludge off the cement pit into troughs. Some of it is caked on to the rim of the pit to strengthen the structure. Spiders crawl across our feet, despite being brushed away. We then scrub the algae off the cement, and hose down the remaining sludge.

The vertical slits of crocodile eyes watch us from the sidelines, absolutely still. It is easy to forget that the creatures with one of the highest bite strength in the world — 3,700 pounds per square inch — sit a metre from us. “The saltwater crocodiles are territorial and aggressive,” adds Anjana. We fill the pit with water again, and leave the salties to it.

Step 2: Measuring eggs

Ajay Karthik, assistant curator at the Crocodile Bank walks in to the AV room with a trough stacked with almost 35 marsh crocodile eggs. “Summer is the breeding season, so there is a lot of egg collection now,” he says. These have been collected a week ago from the mound nest of a mugger female. Muggers lay their nest inside mounds of leaves and sand, to protect the eggs from drowning when the tide rises.

“When collecting eggs, we mark the top of the eggs with a dot. If you plan on hatching them, you have to make sure to keep the eggs in the same direction, otherwise it will drown in the embryonic fluid,” he explains.

The eggs are studied: their length, width and fertility recorded. “They tell us how healthy the female who laid them is. This helps us better understand the ones in the wild,” he says. To check if the eggs are fertile, we hold them against a light — in a process called candling — and look for a darker shade stripe running through the middle.

Step 3: Feeding time

What goes behind the running of Madras Crocodile Bank

Post lunch, we sit down to prepare a meal for the four hungry Albadra giant tortoises: we dice apples, tomatoes, ridge gourds and mulch the keerai. While the crocodiles are kept on a diet of fish, chicken and buffalo meat, these tortoises are herbivores.

Originally from Seychelles, the Albadra is the one of largest tortoises in the world. The four that we feed move with the trepidation of a 150-year-old on a ventilator — a vaguely wise Oogway-like air about them — but are actually just 19 years of age. And like all sensible children, when given the option of healthy greens or tasty fruit, they go straight for the latter.

In another couple of hours, it will be time to feed the zoo’s most famous resident — the world’s largest crocodile in captivity. Jaws III, and his jaws, await.

The Madras Crocodile Bank holds regular volunteering programmes and camps. The next session, Know Your Reptiles! will be held on March 24, from 9.30 am to 11.30 am. Contact education@madras

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