Beauty Without Cruelty - India

Crocodiles

The Lord Ananthapadmanabha (Lord Vishnu) temple near Managalore in Karnataka is reportedly guarded by a vegetarian crocodile which lives in the temple lake. Priests offer it prasadam/naivedyam every morning. Few people have heard of it, and fewer still of the 87-year old (in 2015) crocodile named Mor Sahib venerated by the Sheedi community at a crocodile shrine near Karachi. Around 100 crocodiles inhabit the shrine’s pond which is possibly the only shrine in the world dedicated to crocodiles.

 

When in 1972 India banned hunting of its three crocodilian species – gharial, saltwater or estuarine, and mugger or marsh crocodile – they were on the verge of extinction. In fact in 2010, the gharial continues to be under the critically endangered category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Only 750-1000 adults are found globally with 95% of them in India and 5% in Nepal. Their confirmed breeding habitats are along the Chambal, Narayani (Chitwan of Nepal), the Ramganga (Corbett), the Girwa (Katerniaghat), and the Gandak (in Bihar) rivers. Unfortunately gharials have stopped breeding in the Ghagra, Mahanadi, Son and Ken rivers.


Of these species, surprisingly, the gharial, known to be almost harmless to man and its skin not as costly as that of other crocodiles, was the most endangered
. It was because the gharial’s natural environment of free flowing rivers had been affected due to dams and embankments, and the increased use of nylon fishing nets was causing accidental ensnaring and drowning. However in December 2007, over 110 sub-adult and young gharials were found dead along a 35 km stretch of the Chambal (the river runs through Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) which is home to 80% gharials. Poisoning was suspected, but could not be proved since the carcasses found were significantly decayed making post-mortem diagnosis difficult.


The mugger is the most common, whereas the saltwater crocodile found in estuaries along the coast is the biggest and most dangerous of the three species. One of India’s largest saltwater crocodile populations is found in the Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha. In 2006 the Park was recognised by the Guinness World Records for being home to the largest white crocodile living in captivity, measuring 23 feet.

Interestingly, about 13 Indian films have scenes with crocodiles.


Indian Crocodile Conservation Project


With the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the Government of India (GoI) launched a crocodile breeding and conservation project, initially in Orrisa. The project was initiated in 1975 under the guidance of Dr H R Bustard with the prime objective of rebuilding crocodile populations in the wild.

The project was later expanded to cover Uttaranchal, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andamans, Assam, Bihar and Nagaland where special rearing stations were constructed.


FAO also helped train locals in collecting gharial eggs from the wild. It was estimated that during the breeding span of 50 years, a female gharial produced about 2,500 eggs. The mortality rate in the wild during the first 3 years of life was over 90%, whereas, in hatcheries it was brought down to 30%. By the time the project ended in 1982, more than 1,000 gharials which had been raised from the eggs that had been collected from the wild, were released into protected areas or sanctuaries, thereby increasing the population tenfold.


Similar schemes were implemented for collection of eggs of saltwater and mugger crocodiles in twelve sanctuaries. So, the crocodile breeding project that had been started as a conservation measure, with the main aim of releasing mature crocodiles into the wild, met with success in many places.

Meanwhile, efforts have been made to count crocodiles without the use of choppers as is done in Australia. Tamil Nadu has used the “eyeshine” method: flashing torch-lights along the water edge at night. Whereas Sundarbans has estimated their numbers by observation or direct sighting on clear winter days when crocodiles bask in the sun.

On average 4 persons are killed by crocodiles in the Sundarbans (West Bengal – part of the Sundarbans is in Bangladesh) every year. Feeding wild life under the Act is banned. One of the reasons is if meat is given to crocodiles they crave for blood and tend to attack humans. In 2012, the Assistant Conservator of Forests (Karnataka) objected to a group of 16 tourists attracting crocodiles to the bank of the river Kali in Dandeli, 180 kms from Karwar, with pieces of meat, which unfortunately resulted in the tourists’ rage and they hammered him to death. Then, at the end of the year at the National Chambal Sanctuary (MP), a 12 year old boy was dragged into the water and presumably swallowed alive by a crocodile – unfortunately, his father’s efforts to save him failed. As per the census over 500 gharials were found there.

It was reported that marsh crocodiles (estimated to be up to 400) living in the Narmada and Vishwamitri-Dhadhar rivers that pass through Bharuch and Vadodara (Gujarat) had killed 11 persons around May-June 2014. Although the crocodiles do get aggressive in summer after laying eggs, it is very unwise of humans not to heed warnings and get into the water to swim or bathe, or to relieve themselves on the banks of the river. The forest department therefore announced plans to set up signs in 38 villages and fence ghats in 6 villages of the area.

In fact, many crocodile habitats are found along stretches of rivers, and off and on attacks and deaths are reported of children who are swimming or people who are washing clothes, or even fishermen, e.g. the Krishna river stretch between Audumbar and Sangli. The freshwater crocodiles only bite the victims and do not feed on humans. This was again proved in March 2016 when a 12-year old boy who went for a swim was dragged into the river near Digras village by a crocodile and his body was found downstream a day later.

In May 2015 at Bilvadi village there was a spurt in attacks by the crocodiles of the Krishna river following their nesting areas being destroyed, eggs broken and 6 newly hatched crocodiles killed. 

In July 2018 a 13 foot crocodile was rescued from a farm in Sainik Takali village of Shirol taluka in Kolhapur and released in the Krishna river.

Between 2005 and 2015, as many as 22 salt water crocodiles attacked humans in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. 11 were fatal. However, prior to the Tsunami of 2004, there were only 20 attacks in 18 years. Over and above which to support the growing migrant human population, the mangroves, the habitat of crocodiles, found along the coastline have been cleared.

In July 2018 there was a proposal to cull saltwater crocodiles in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the reason given was that they were attacking humans. BWC immediately wrote to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Environment, Forests & Climate Change opposing it. We pointed out that killing crocodiles to lessen their numbers was not going to stop attacks. But if the crocodiles were geo-tagged then their movement could be easily monitored and precautions taken in time so that attacks are totally avoided. Like in representations given before, we again stressed the fact that in India all crocodile projects have been purely conservation and therefore crocodiles can not be declared as vermin and culled. If Government of India approved culling, it would set an undesirable precedent. In future any other wildlife species (say tigers) under Schedule I of the WPA could also be culled if they get over-bred. Moreover, if culling is allowed, it will lead to the undesirable and illegal trade in skin and meat of crocodiles.

In June 2017 a 20-year old girl who was bathing on the river bank in the Chakarnagar area of the National Chambal Sanctuary, in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh, was suddenly attacked and dragged away by a crocodile. Officials felt it happened because during summer months crocodiles protect their eggs and hatchlings and she may have unknowingly gone close to a crocodile nest.


Unnecessary Breeding in Zoos


The project was unnecessarily expanded to breeding crocodiles in zoos. The first effort was made at the Nandan Kanan Biological Park in Orrisa and involved bringing a male gharial from Germany’s Frankfurt zoo. Today, zoological parks in India breed all three species of crocodiles and many are sent to foreign zoos. Morelet’s crocodiles and Siamese crocodiles have also been exported by India to zoos abroad. Although India has exported saltwater crocodiles, the specie has been imported! New Guinea crocodiles, Belize crocodiles and American alligators have also been imported by Indian zoos.


In 2001 a MP submitted a supplementary question in the Rajya Sabha wanting to know if the government was aware that with the connivance of the forest staff crocodiles were being hunted in Orrisa at Nandan Kanan, Simlipal and Bhitarkanika. The then Union Minister of Environment & Forests replied that poaching of crocodiles (and other species) was a serious challenge and all efforts necessary would be made to arrest it.


An interesting crocodile discrepancy: even though a photograph depicting 18 gharials born in June 2010 at Chhatbir zoo in Punjab was taken, when three months later 17 were reported missing, the authorities claimed that the official figure recorded was 12 whereas their own press note had stated 15! We must not forget that gharial skin fetches a good sum.


Similarly, there was a discrepancy between the Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park and the Pune Municipal Corporation under which the zoo falls, in the number of crocodiles (under RTI the number stated was 15) and locations at which they were said to have been released into the wild over the period covering 2007 to 2009. One in 2012, and another in 2014, was recaptured with a rope trap from the very same waters that they were released in, near Khadakwasla dam and the National Defence Academy – naval training exercises are carried out at Peacock Bay nearby.


We hear of hatchings, like in August 2010 when 41 saltwater crocodile eggs were hatched artificially at the Crocodile Breeding and Research Centre in Dangamal within the Bhitarkanika National Park, Orissa. The population of the crocodiles here rose from just 96 to 1,654 in January 2011. Eggs continue to be collected from wild nests for incubation in captivity and the hatchings after being reared for 3 years are released in the wild. The conservation programme technique is called a “rear and release” or “grow and release”. In 2017, 80 nests were spotted with 40 to 60 eggs but only half would hatch due to wild predators. Interestingly the River Baitarani has about 10 white crocodiles called gori (fair) or sankhua (meaning colour of a conch).


Demands to set up a crocodile pond or park to attract tourists are frequent. The justification put forth is that it is not only for entertainment, but to boost (so-called) education and research on crocodiles. None of which is of course needed as is evident from existing places.


The oldest is the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, 40 km south of Chennai. It was set up with the idea of having a captive population that could be used later to replenish wild populations but although they have released some muggers into the wild they claim they stopped due to shrinking habitats. Over-full with 2,400 crocodiles (covering 14 species of crocodilians), the bank – rated as the largest reptile zoo of the world – also houses turtles, snakes and lizards and is a tourist attraction. For Rs 30/- they offer to let a visitor pose with a baby alligator and be photographed, and for an additional charge of Rs 60/- visitors can feed them. This place is one of the approved snake venom extraction centres in India. Its snake farm has a daily venom extraction show (read attraction gimmick) for the public. Their Centre for Herpetology organises Tails to Trails adventure workshops covering reptiles, amphibians, insects and arachnids in different places like the Western Ghats.

Breeding Continues


The crocodile breeding projects were all very successful, rather over-successful a long, long time ago, and although some crocodiles were released into the wild as originally planned, due to various reasons, particularly as it was apprehended that they would reduce the fish population, many crocodiles were not released into the wild. It is significant that despite having been advised way back in 1981 by the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests to stop breeding them immediately, it has not been done.


As the crocodiles continue to grow in numbers at breeding centres in the country, subtle pressure has been built up by vested interests to allow “harvesting” them for their skins – to make ladies’ shoes and hand-bags, purses, wallets, belts, watch straps, hats, brief-cases, and such vanity items. “Conservation through sustainable use” is the demand – in other words, breed to kill for commercial gain. Ironically, Romulus Whitaker, the person who started the Madras Crocodile Bank to protect India’s three crocodile species, is the person who wants crocodiles to be killed for their skins.


This has been a cause for deep concern to Beauty Without Cruelty. Besides commercial exploitation and/or consumptive use (skins, meat and other body parts) being unethical, the origin of skins can not be ascertained – whether poached from the wild or captive bred. For decades a constant vigil has been maintained and periodic assurances obtained from the Government of India that permission to farm or kill crocodiles for their skins will not be granted.


In May 2015 when BWC got to know that Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change had yet again been approached to allow the commercial exploitation of crocodiles another representation was sent to the Minister putting forward the following points (reproduced verbatim):

1. In India all crocodile projects were purely conservation. They were initiated in 1975 with the help of UNDP and FAO, when the population of crocodiles had reached alarmingly low levels. The Crocodile Conservation Project was mandated to only collect eggs from the wild, incubate those eggs and rear hatchlings till they grew one metre in length, and then release them back into the wild.


2. Just because all the crocodiles were not released back into the wild, it does not make it ethical to kill them. They were bred and raised under conservation programmes and their numbers increased to thousands only due to conservation efforts. In 1970 there were only 30 pairs left.


3. If today the Ministry approves killing of crocodiles which have been over-bred, it will set an undesirable precedent. If in future any other wildlife species like say tigers, are also over-bred as a result of an over-successful conservation programme (either in the wild or in zoos) no one will see any thing wrong in allowing them to be also killed for their skin and/or other body-parts for sale.


4. In today's conservation conscious, and environmentally friendly, green world, such killing centres are condemned, they no longer attract tourists, and a ready market is not found for meat, skin or even trinkets.


5. It is therefore imperative that the breeding of crocodiles in India should be quickly and totally halted by the government. Do you know that since 1981 your Ministry has been repeatedly advising States that breeding crocodiles should be stopped?


6. A flourishing illegal trade in crocodile skins (as claimed) is no reason whatsoever to make the killing and trade in crocodile skins legal. Instead and it is high time that those responsible for the illegal activities, ranging from those who are meant to uphold the law by apprehending offenders, to poachers, tanners, manufacturers and smugglers, should all be taken to task, caught and punished appropriately.


7. There is no difference between the skins of farm-bred and wild crocodiles, so any proposal of commercially exploiting crocodiles in farms (foreign species of crocodiles included) while conserving others in the wild will turn out to be absolutely counter-productive and totally against the very work and purpose of conservation undertaken by your Ministry. Wild crocodiles have vanished in countries such as Papua New Guinea after captive breeding for commercial gain was introduced. Let us learn from such mistakes and not begin to commercially exploit crocodiles here even under the guise so-called "conservation through sustainable use".


In this context, the paragraph reproduced below is most relevant. It is from the Indian Crocodile Conservation Project report written by Dr H R Bustard, formerly Chief Technical Advisor, GoI/UNDP/FAO Indian Crocodile Conservation Project:


“A final thought – should the Indian Crocodile Conservation Project be exploiting crocodiles for their skins? A purely personal view is that it should not. Very definitely India would lose tremendous international esteem by allowing any commercialisation of the gharial. The current status of the saltwater crocodile indicates that it could not withstand any commercialisation. And were the mugger to be opened to commercialisation, it would not be possible for many officers to distinguish between the skins of the various species when they have been made into finished products, e.g. ladies handbags. Furthermore, even if it is suggested that all skins would come from closed crocodile farms (where all the ‘product’ has been produced from eggs laid in the farm), and how would it be possible to know that these were not being augmented from illegally taken wild stock? I faced this problem with the huge stocks of skins of many reptile species held in Calcutta in 1974. Had they been allowed into trade they could have been continually replaced by freshly-taken wild skins. In my view, in a country with such inventive talent as India there can be no adequate safeguard for the wild population – tags, etc., can easily be faked – were India to be opened up to crocodile farming. India is different, a country with different values, and it should stand firm against commercial exploitation of its wildlife. For the foreseeable future, let the profits come from wildlife tourism, not from the gun or skins/hides/furs.”.

Farms and Ranches


Farmed crocodiles are those that are bred and raised in captivity; whereas, crocodiles in ranches are raised from eggs and young taken from the wild. In both farming and ranching, when the crocodiles are about 3 years old they are killed for their skins, whereas their natural life span is about 60 to 70 years.

Crocodiles are either shot dead or are slaughtered in a most brutal manner called “nape stab and pith” where a worker stands on the crocodile’s head and another on its tail to immobilise it. A wet, heavy material is placed over its eyes after which a sharp chisel is forced between the base of the skull and the first vertebrae to “stun” the animal before a narrow rod is inserted into the skull to destroy the brain. It involves several repeated tries before the creature succumbs.

Significantly frequent fights among captive crocodiles lead to ninety percent of them getting injured and resulting in damaged skins. Flawless skins command high prices as they are destined to become handbags and shoes on the catwalks of New York, Paris, London and Milan. A farm in Kariba, Zimbabwe feeds their crocodiles a man-made protein concentrate consisting of maize meal, vitamins, minerals and water which they claim improves the quality of the skins.


Crocodile Skin Products


Skin is the main reason for killing crocodiles, although their meat is also consumed in some countries and considered a delicacy. At a circus-like show performed at the crocodile farm in Singapore, not only can visitors have their photographs taken with crocodiles, but they can buy crocodile skin goods which include stuffed baby crocs, and crocodile meat from their gift shop.


When trade in reptile skins was banned, initially the leather industry came up with calf leather embossed and finished in different ways to look like reptile skins – particularly crocodile skin. Traders proudly said it was not reptile skin but an alternative. On questioning and examination, it was discovered that the materials were calf leather embossed to closely resemble crocodile, snake, python, and monitor lizard skins.


This trend resurfaced in 2009 with Da Milano snake print (and jungle theme, other animal prints and animal skins) handbags, footwear, belts and accessories made of leather/skin. In 2012 Aspinal of London began promoting its “Fine Leather” items via the Royal Bank of Scotland who presented them to their customers in India for Diwali. It was declared on their website that this category of leather covered cow-hide and calfskin, including “Safari Croc Calf leather” which was actually calfskin embossed to look like crocodile skin.

The Economic Times’ Reader’s Offer on International Women’s Day 2012 was discounted Fiorelli handbag and wallet made of “croc leather”. This means made of animal leather made to look like, but not actually crocodile skin.

Snob Value


The highest demand for actual or “genuine” crocodile and alligator skin products – especially those made from the smooth belly skin – is in France and Japan. The flanks are said to be the most prized part of an alligator’s skin since the small plates there are less vulnerable to cracking.


Generally small sized skins are used to make genuine crocodile items: skin of young ones that is still soft and malleable. Therefore, more than one crocodile skin is needed to make a medium-sized handbag.

 

Alligator and crocodile skins, considered classic leathers are very expensive and since hard to come by, are sold by the centimetre. Caiman is also crocodile skin but of an inferior quality, and more commonly available. Marine crocodile or sea crocodile (colloquial names for Thalattosuchia crocodiles) skin is also utilised. Whereas Ligator Croc skin is crocodile skin produced from real reptile fibres and covered with a special paint making it glossy and waterproof.


Heng Long International of Singapore is one of the top tanneries in the world which breeds crocodiles, producing up to 300,000 crocodilian skins per annum. Heng Long International’s customers include Prada and Stefano Ricci of Europe, Kwanpen in Asia, and Nancy Gonzalez, America.


Hermès has since long been breeding and killing crocodiles in Australia to meet its demand for its luxury products like wallets and handbags. The company says it takes three to four crocodiles to make a single handbag because there are specific cuts of the crocodile skin used in making bags and that’s why each one costs around 35,000 euros. The Birkin bag is made from different skins ranging from calf leather, ostrich, lizard to the most expensive saltwater crocodile skin, have diamond-encrusting and cost up to $ 150,000.


In 2013 LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) purchased an Australian crocodile farm for A$2.6 million. Soon after, Gucci bought a tannery called France Croco. According to them, raising crocodiles without scratches on their skins (from other crocodiles) is a major challenge. No crocodile specie is easy or cheap to farm, and it takes years to breed them. The salt-water porosus crocodiles found in Australia are said to be the trickiest and produce enough skins for only 25,000 bags a year.


The owner of Le Croc, a breeding farm and tannery of South Africa which supplies around 5,000 Nile crocodile skins to Europe every year, admitted that had he known how hard the business was before he got into it, he would not have invested. Le Croc, upon skinning crocodiles, feeds their flesh back to the living crocodiles on the farm. Generally, farmed crocodiles are also fed chicken and given selected oils that improve the quality of their skins. Flawless skins are rare with only the top 10% being used by big luxury goods’ makers. The creatures are said to be stunned twice before being killed – such blows (even one) result in pain and suffering.


Dior, Jimmy Choo, Tod’s, Sergio Rossi, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy, Prada, Gucci, Bulgari, Dinebuci Vacca, Johnston and Murphy, Lucchese Classic and David Eden are some of the brands of crocodile skin products like shoes and handbags, even iPad cases. Exotic animal skins like crocodile make up almost 10% of these companies’ total revenue from handbag sales because crocodile skin bags sell for 30 times more than bovine leather ones.

Ironically, India has not stopped the sale of imported crocodile skin products. Crocodile skin goods (shoes, handbags, wallets, belts, etc.) manufactured by most international luxury brands are easily available here and sold at exorbitant prices: for example, an office bag made of alligator skin from the fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna’s collection sells for over Rs 7,00,000/-. Exotic, genuine, crocodile leather watch-straps also come into India along with high-end foreign watches. Louis Vuitton Modernist Richelieu men’s shoes launched in 2014 are made of “exceptional hand waxed alligator leather”.


The government does not bother or care about all this probably because the crocodiles killed were not from our country which has only 3 species of the 23 world crocodilians!

Last but not least, although the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has been informed about crocodiles kept in private farm houses in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, no action has been taken. Unfortunately there exists a snob value in displaying them live too. No wonder, the Wildlife Department has, despite several earlier efforts beginning 1965 being futile, applied in 2012 for permission to the Centre to breed gharials and release them in the Punjab’s rivers.

An Australian zoologist takes pride in sharing a bath with a crocodile and python. BWC feels it is bad for all of them.

In 2015 the chief of the anti-drugs project proposed Indonesia should build a prison for drug convicts on an island and make crocodiles guard it. Unlike human guards, they would be better at preventing drug traffickers from escaping prison since they could not be bribed.


Not spared by GM


Alligators are being genetically altered to ‘manufacture’ blood containing human haemoglobin so as to deliver the higher oxygen capacity required by humans undergoing surgery.

Page last updated on 23/08/17