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Story listed as: True Life For Adults | Theme: Family / Friends | Subject: Adventure | Published here : 11/14/2017
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Food of the Crocodiles 
 
By Shamik Dhar
Born 1978, M, from Kolkata, India
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Food of the Crocodiles
Mr. Alokendu Das said, “The Bhitarkanika Mangroves are a mangrove forest in the delta of the Brahmani and Baitarani rivers!” As we were traveling by car, the scenic beauty of the state of Odisha was evident. Our family of four consisted of me, my elder sister and my parents. We were traveling in a TATA Sumo. Lush green fields were bisected by the meandering road as if one had used the blackish gray pen to draw the road that divided the greenery of the land. Lots of coconut trees had sprouted up on the land. The breeze was cool and the freshness of the morning was evident.
Mr. Das had continued, “Well, Bhitarkanika was originally the zamindari forests till 1952 when the government of Odisha abolished the zamindari system and brought the 672 square Km mangrove forest under the Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary.”

By then the car halted at Chandbali, and now we were facing the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary in its splendor. Then we took a motorized boat to travel to the interiors of the sanctuary. Suddenly, a yellow coloured Kingfisher flew by our boat. Mr. Das added, “Well there are eight varieties of kingfishers found here!” Although a botanist by profession he had immense knowledge of the biodiversity of this place.
I had asked, “What does Bhitarkanika mean, Mr. Das?”
He had replied, “Well, Bhitarkanika originally formed from two Odia words. One is ‘Bhitar’ meaning ‘interior’ and the other is ‘Kanika’ meaning ‘extraordinarily beautiful’!”

By then, the boat had floated through the inundated tidal creeks that criss-crossed the islands of Bhitarkanika. The noise of the engine was scaring away some of the birds. Yet, some of the birds seemed accustomed to the noise and were flapping their wings while settling on the mangrove tree top comfortably. As the boat advanced into the interior of the marshland, moving through one creek to another, the picturesque view of the pneumatophores unfolded. They had sprouted out from the ground to breadth from the saline marsh beneath. The rippling effect of the water, due to the disturbance of the advancing boat, annoyed the tiny mudskippers which skidded along the mud on the sunny banks of the creeks. Some of the mudskippers fell prey to the gorgeously coloured migratory birds. We could notice the colour of the water changing with the changing depths. Somewhere it was dark gray, somewhere it was greenish gray and somewhere it was crystal clear. The mystery of the dark dense woods invited us and the freshness of the air was pure joy to our nostrils. Far from the madding crowd, far from the hustle bustle of the busy city stands this seemingly silent yet ferociously dark and dense mangrove forest. This was a welcome change for us.

By then, we had all settled down on the boat and were eagerly looking to spot any migratory birds, animals, whatever bountiful nature would throw at us. Ma suddenly opened the flask and took out the coffee and then again poured some coffee for us in the disposable thermocol cups that she had brought from the hotel in Bhubaneswar. Suddenly the boatman killed the booming engine of the boat and said “Sahib, look ahead there is the crocodile of Bhitarkanika!” while pointing his index finger a certain direction towards the creek bank. We found that a saltwater crocodile of around 16 feet long was basking in the glorious sun. As the boat approached stealthily with some reduced momentum, the crocodile sensing trouble slowly lifted itself on it’s four legs and then walked over the muddy terrain, then slithered across onto the green water till we could barely see what would be remnants of its eyes and nostrils.
“Isn’t it beautiful! The scientific name of this creature is
‘Crocodylusporosus’!” had said, Mr. Das. “Crocodiles are the largest living predators on land or in aquatic environments in these parts of the world. There are three types of crocodiles found in India. Excluding the Crocodylusporosus, the other two being the mugger crocodile and the gharial. The gharial is a fish eating crocodile. However, the saltwater crocodiles are one of the most sophisticated and intelligent reptiles. Their barks are a way of communicating with each other. The saltwater crocodiles are thought to have four different calls for communicating!” had continued Mr. Das. “Newly hatched saltwater crocodiles measure about 25 to 30 cm long and weigh an average of 70 gm. Recently, Guinness has accepted a claim of around 23 feet, 2,000 kg male saltwater crocodile living within Bhitarkanika Park. Currently, four other crocodiles over 19 and a half feet are claimed to be living here as well. But you must remember that these saltwater crocodiles are territorial in nature. The saltwater crocodiles have 64 pairs of sharp teeth!” had added Mr. Das.

My father had tried to catch the every fleeting memory of that elusive mangrove forest using the long lenses of the camera. The beautiful canopy of green trees, the bamboo shoots here and there, the dense foliage of mangrove trees, the exclusive brightly coloured birds and the reflection of the blue sky on the mysterious darkish green water beneath added colours of imagination to his photography.

After about quarter of an hour, we had reached the island where we would halt for the night. The boat had stopped at the wooden jetty that jutted out from the creek bank into the water. We had unloaded our backpacks from the boat and traveled on foot towards the interior of the island. Within two minutes we came to a clearing spot where we saw two adjacent one storied buildings with a small garden in front of them. There were a lot of coconut trees around and, then we met the Forest Officer who had welcomed us saying, “Welcome to Bhitarkanika, Hope you all have a wonderful stay here with us.” My father had thanked him.
“My name is Mr. Samaresh Panda, and I am the Forest Officer! I have been stationed here for the last one and half years. How would you like your tea?” had asked Mr. Panda.
My mom had replied, “We usually have green tea. We have brought some with us. But we are not so sure if you might like that as well. Generally, people of Odisha like to have their tea with milk. Some plain hot water would do for us. What would you prefer? ”
“Well since we do not have cows here, we have to do without milk as well. I prefer black tea. Most visitors who come here want milk so we have arrangements for some tinned milk as well! But green tea would do! I will ask Ramu to boil some water” had replied Mr. Panda.
Then he called one of his assistants and ordered him to get some boiled water from the deep tube well.

By then we had settled comfortably on the cane chairs on one of the verandahs of the building in which we were supposed to stay. There were three rooms and a dining hall in the building. The other building was where the forest officer’s residence and his office were. The kitchen and the servant quarters were stationed next to it.

By then Ramu had brought the cups and the teapot with the hot water. We shared the green tea and munched the ginger biscuits that we were carrying. Then we refreshed ourselves by taking a bath and then relaxed for the night to set in. As the sun set, the shadows of the mangroves set out to engulf the garden area then it spread across the building. The night was still except the noise of the water splashing on the creeks. The full moon spread across the garden, and it was absolutely beautiful to watch. We had been instructed not to venture out since there was a sizable population of king cobras and pythons. They had sprinkled carbolic acid around the building to ward off those slithering creatures.

Suddenly, Mr. Alokendu Das pointed at something that was moving under the thick dense undergrowth across the garden. Then Ramu the helper said, “There is a water lizard, sahib!” Then the giant blackish- graycoloured water monitor ambled across the garden, and we could clearly see the reptile. It was around 5 feet in length and had a huge tail. It took out its tongue and licked its lips and then slowly ambled across as we had focused the light from the high beam torches on its face.

Jui my elder sister had said, “I hate these slithering creatures, they are disgusting!”
I had teased her saying, “I will put one in your bed when you go to sleep! I think they have the same opinion about you!”
Ramu had smiled so had Mr. Das.

We had applied some natural eucalyptus oil based mosquito repellant cream on our faces and the bare skin of our hands to repel the mosquitoes and insects. It was winter and there were not a lot of them by the way. But to be still on the safer side we didn’t want to take any risks. Far into the dense foliage on one end of the clearing, we had seen some tiny lights glowing. It was a soft orangish sort of glowing lights that had appeared and then disappeared. Initially, we were thinking that it was some sort of glow-slug or insects. However, Ramu said, “Those were the glowing eyes of the deer or chital”. However, we couldn’t make out these were actually deer or not. We had early dinner and then went early to bed since there was no electricity available for our comfort.

It was around 1am at night we woke due to some noise outside the room. The noise of hoof steps around the verandah. My father woke up and opened the door only to find much to our surprise around ten to twelve deer standing and looking at us. My father had said, “Must have come to eat!” We had some cauliflower leaves in the dining room. I stealthily fetched them and started feeding these to one of the closest deer. Soon the others joined in. It was the first time that I had actually touched a wild deer. Mr. Das had also woken up too and was astonished to find so many deer on the verandah.
My mom had said, “They are the original natives of this place and we are the intruders!”
“Should we take some photographs?” had asked Jui.
“No, the light is so dim that we will be tempted to use the flash! The flash will only scare them away. Let them be there till when they want to leave!” had replied my dad.

We didn’t have much sleep after that. The dawning of the new morning had ushered in the chirping and calls of the innumerable migratory birds. Slowly the darkness evaporated and the green forest was visible in its splendor. Around eight in the morning, Mr. Panda arrived with another gentleman, who was supposed to be our guide. This gentleman introduced himself as Mr. Satya Jaiswal. Then we had breakfast and got ready to leave for the forest trek.

Initially, they took us to another island by a motorized boat where they said we would find the remnants of the zamindari hunting towers. This island was now inhabited by a lone sadhu.
Mr. Das was busy collecting samples of plants and the various types of pneumatophores. After walking for some time we came to a clearing where we could see the three storied zamindari hunting tower. It was located adjacent to the fresh water pond which was the only source of fresh water to the wild animals. We could not climb up the towers since the stairs had collapsed.

It was then that Mr. Satya had said, “Well, the Zamindar used to sit on the top of the tower, while the rest of his men would monitor the first and ground floor of the tower. The men would have guns and they would shoot the deer or any wild animals that came to drink water!” He had continued saying that, “Well, irrespective of whoever shot the wild animal, the Zamindar was always credited to have killed the animal by his bullet! Then they would hang the carcass’s legs on a piece of log and then carry it home and then skin it and keep the skin of the carcass after tanning it. They kept the skin and the head as a trophy! If it was a herbivore they might even consume the meat!”

By then we went in search of the sadhu, who was residing in the island for twenty-one years. Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate him in his hut. Then we tried to retrace our way back to the fresh water pond. To our astonishment, we found a stag lying on the banks of the pond. The funny part was that it appeared to have died between the time we left the pond and returned there. Mr. Satya went ahead and on inspection found drops of blood dripping from its abdomen and there was a big scratch on the smooth velvet like covering on top of one of its the horns. He stopped short and asked us not to touch it and then used his wireless transmitter to get in touch with the other Forest department officials.
Mr. Satya had said, “There might be poachers and they might have killed it!”

Mr. Alokendu Das had kept his collection of plant samples and the pneumatophores on the banks of the pond and had opened his shoes and had rolled his trousers up to his knees and went to wash his hands and feet with the water of the pond. He was knee deep in water and we were sitting on the edge of the water when suddenly someone came shouting and waving towards us from the clearing. The man was shouting in Odiya so we couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. But almost instantly Mr. Das started up the bank from the pond and said “There is a crocodile here in this water, Run! Run!”
We had run up to safety away from the pond while Mr. Das had collected his belongings from the bank. The man who had warned us was the Sadhu. He said, “I have seen a crocodile basking on the banks of the pond yesterday and it was not safe and now it has killed the stag. I guess, you were lucky enough that I was nearby, else I don’t know what might have happened.”
Then I had asked, “How can a crocodile come this far into the fresh water pond?”
The Sadhu had replied, “Well, you never know, during high tides the water inundates most part of the island and the crocodiles may come floating in and when the water receded they might find the most suitable water body nearby! I guess this crocodile has now found a place in this pond!”

This sent chills down our spines and we wanted to leave the spot. By then, the Forest Officer Mr. Samaresh Panda had arrived and he checked it thoroughly whether it was due to some other cause that might have killed the stag. Then they took the stag by its legs and hung it upside down from a log and took it to the forest department’s forensics unit. We returned since the forest department officials were not certain how the stag had died and the possibility of poisoning the stag was not ruled out.

Then we went to the island where they had the forensics department. It took two-three hours by the time in which they dissected the stag’s liver to find out whether it had died due to poisoning. It was found that the stag had died due to shock and natural reasons. So the poachers were ruled out. Now came the time to feed the crocodiles in captivity. I, my father along with Mr. Panda, Mr. Das, and Mr. Jaiswal went to the crocodile rearing farm. Here in Bhitarkanika, there are various types of cages for crocodiles of different dimensions. The eggs were kept in one incubator and then the smaller crocodiles were kept in another cage. Based on the age and dimension they had bifurcated the crocodile population. There are gharials, mugger crocodiles, and salt water crocodiles. They usually feed them with crabs and other crocodiles had chicken and other meat. Now they decided to feed them with the stag meat. So we had gone to see how they feed the bigger crocodiles.

The bigger crocodiles were kept in cages that were around 1-2 square kilometers. There was a high fence along the perimeter of the cage and there are one of two small ponds in the enclosure. The funny part was the water bodies of the cages were connected to the main water source of the distributaries of the Brahmani and Baitarani rivers viaducts. This kept the water fresh. This also allowed fish to come in the ponds of the enclosures.
There we had seen the white crocodile in one of the enclosures. Just like the elusive white tiger, I came to know that white crocodiles existed too.

After that, we entered one of the enclosures that was the biggest of them. We knew there were three crocodiles in it. The pond was an eight shaped pond and it was around sixty metres from the entrance of the cage. They had a bucket where they had chucked of 5-6 kg stag meat. Just at the base of the pond, there was a concrete slab. We could clearly see the three crocodiles and so we went in. The man responsible for feeding the crocodiles took a steel rod and started banging in on the side of the steel bucket. The noise seemed to be the signal for the crocodiles that food had arrived. Out of the three, one moved and came forward to eat as it glided onto the water only to stop around 20 feet from the concrete slab. It was floating in the water but was static. Then the man who was feeding them picked up a chunk of stag meat and threw it on the concrete slab. By then another man entered the enclosure and handed me a green coconut to drink its juice. Then he knelt down to cut another green coconut. By then the second crocodile started to move and it was approaching the first crocodile when suddenly the first crocodile charged towards us. There was nothing between us and the crocodiles except 40 feet of swampy land. That was pure terror, as all of us panicked. I still remember the open jaws of the crocodile as it covered up to 25 feet in a second or two. The speed at which it covered the ground was beyond our imagination. The man who was cutting the green coconut threw it into the water and ran for safety.

Mr. Das had collapsed with his precious botanical collection and he was collecting them from the ground. He collected them and ran back. Mr. Samaresh Panda, the forest officer, ran to catch one of my hands and my father had caught hold of the other and they started dragging me as they ran towards the gate. The man who was feeding the crocodiles had already left the steel bucket and was running for safety. However, the crocodile had stopped once it had reached the concrete slab and was busy devouring the chunk of meat. The crocodile’s objective was devouring the meat. Unfortunately, for a fraction of a second, we had all thought, we were the food of the crocodile.
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