The excitement amongst the students was almost palpable on that bracing winter morning.
Our time for the class nature trip was almost coming to an end, but this day was going to feature our final stop — a captivating destination by all accounts — that promised close glimpses of the wild that many of us had only hitherto read in books or perhaps seen in nature documentaries on television.
The previous night, we — a gaggle of nearly 50 teenaged boys from a boarding school, three supervising teachers, and two hostel wardens — had a gathering during which we were told a little bit of what we could expect at the destination, which was revealed to be the Bhagabatpur Crocodile Sanctuary, the only crocodile conservation project in our state of West Bengal in East India.
Located on the banks of the tidal estuarine river Saptamukhi, the sanctuary at Bhagabatpur is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Sundarban National Park, the magnificent mangrove forest-rich area at the Ganges delta upon the Bay of Bengal. Sundarban (pronounced soonder-, meaning beautiful, and -bun, meaning forest) represents an active delta and unique coastal ecosystem, home to diverse flora and fauna, including birds, aquatic animals, and reptiles. Many of its inhabitants, considered endangered, have been included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Thanks to conservation efforts by a variety of stakeholders such as the Bhagabatpur Sanctuary, saltwater crocodile numbers have rebounded so significantly that IUCN has moved their conservation status to “least concern”.
Two crocodilian varieties found in South Asia, the vulnerable Mugger or Marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) and the critically endangered Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), are currently considered under threat due to habitat loss and illegal killing for their skin. The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), which typically inhabit inland lakes, brackish mangrove swamps, and marshes, as well as coastal and tidal areas of rivers, was once also considered endangered in the eighties. Thanks to conservation efforts by a variety of stakeholders such as the Bhagabatpur Sanctuary, their numbers have rebounded so significantly that IUCN has moved their conservation status to “least concern.” Saltwater crocodiles are large, heavy reptiles; males grow up to 20 feet and can exceed 2000 pounds while females are half as long but only a fourth or fifth in weight. They are the apex predators of their habitat; they eat everything they can grab with their cavernous mouths and sharp, peg-like teeth— varieties of fish, crustaceans, other reptiles, birds, and even mammals like monkeys, deer, water buffalo, and humans if such prey is unfortunate enough to be close by and unaware.
Imagine the effect that information had on our impressionable young minds! It was terrifying and we couldn’t wait to witness these aquatic carnivores in all their glory.
Right after our early morning ablutions, we were picked up in separate transport vehicles and brought to the Namkhana ferry station. At that time, the State-run ferry service used to run between Namkhana and Bhagabatpur Sanctuary only once a day, leaving the jetty at 7:30 in the morning and returning by early afternoon. Thankfully, our school authorities had made prior arrangements; we piled on to a couple of rented motor launches and were merrily on our way cutting through tranquil riverine waters. It would take us about two and a half hours to reach, and we were already famished: floating on river water with high salinity content perhaps has that effect on people? Who knows. But we were promised a hot mid-morning lunch once we reached our destination.
Upon disembarking from the launch at the sanctuary stop, we walked up a paved, stepped landing onto dry land. Some of those steps are likely submerged when the tide comes in because there was green, mossy outgrowth on the ones closer to the water; also, on both sides of the landing, there were these uniformly thick, grey, muddy sedimentary deposits that are peculiar to the coastal wetlands of this area. I spied some small crustaceans burrowing themselves in the mud; they could have been mud crabs or shrimps, but before I could get a closer look, I succumbed to pangs of hunger and ran up—for lunch had been announced.
The Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project was initiated in 1976 as an effort to preserve the saltwater crocodiles of South Asia in the unique ecosystem of the Sundarbans. In conjunction with governmental authorities and experts from other parts of the world, the program aimed to train staff members on techniques of capturing and releasing crocodiles, as well as collecting crocodile eggs to nurture them under more hospitable conditions. Staff members were also tasked to conduct a periodic census of the estuarine crocodile populations and teach residents of the same habitat as these predators how to avoid being caught and eaten.
Saltwater crocodiles, we learned, are strong swimmers. Their eyes, ears, and nostrils, placed high on their flat head and elongated snout, are perfectly positioned to remain over the water surface as they remain submerged, and their airway anatomy and lungs allow them to remain underwater holding their breath for up to