It was close to mid-morning on a warm October day in Shedshal, a village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. A farmer walked through a field of seven-foot tall sugarcane, around two kilometres from Krishna River, to a water body. There was silence along the way. Nobody was around. Settling down at the edge, the farmer drew out his fishing rod, cast a line into the water, and waited.

A strong tug at the line made him anxious. As he held onto the rod, a four-foot-long young crocodile emerged to the surface, writhing in pain. The sharp fishing hook was embedded in its mouth.

The villagers immediately contacted Devendra Bhosale, a member of the NGO Wildlife Protection and Research Society. The crocodile was taken to Kolhapur city and operated upon. After its recovery, it was released into Krishna River near Shedshal.

The creature got saved partly because villages such as Shedshal in Shirol taluka are now aware of the routine to follow in such a situation. “Earlier, a crocodile could be seen rarely,” said Sunil Nandiwale, 28, a farmer from Kothali village. “Now, you can see [one] every day.”

The water body where a farmer accidentally caught a crocodile. Photo credit: Sanket Jain.

Crocodile sightings became commonplace three years ago. Illegal sand mining in the region had been eroding its natural habitat and disturbing the ecological balance. To make sure human-animal confrontations didn’t lead to conflicts, the Wildlife Protection and Research Society began educating villagers about conservation and “living with the crocodiles”.

According to Bhosale, no crocodile-human conflict has been reported in the Shiroltaluka since. “None of us go near them,” said Swapnil Kalyani, a 30-year-old farmer from Shedshal. “We don’t beat them, [then] why will they attack us?”

Creating awareness

Bhosale and his colleague Ashutosh Suryawanshi conduct two conduct educational sessions a month in Shirol taluka and have so covered around 25 villages. In the session they speak about crocodile habitat and lifestyle patterns, and what villagers should do when they encounter a crocodile that has strayed into the village.

Ashutosh Suryawanshi and Devendra Bhosale. Photo credit: Sanket Jain.

“Crocodiles aren’t encroaching on our land, it’s we who are encroaching their habitat,” said Bhosale, who has been working in the area for more than a decade.

There are more than 250 crocodiles in Shirol taluka, said Amit Sayyed, a herpetologist and president of the Wildlife Protection and Research Society. For the past three years, Sayyed has been researching the changing behaviour of marsh crocodiles in the taluka.

Primarily territorial, marsh crocodiles are known for their aggressive behaviour. But based on his field research, Sayyed has found that the animals are displaying traits very different from their “natural behaviour” – they are no longer fighting for territory. “I’ve never heard [of] huge male crocodiles sharing the same territory,” said Sayyed. “Last year, [during] the mating season, we saw fights between two male crocodiles. That is expected, because in the mating period, male crocodiles fight aggressively for females.”

Crocodiles are often seen basking in the morning sun along the banks of the Krishna River in Ganeshwadi village. Photo credit: Sanket Jain.

These changes are the result of sand mining in the region. Three years ago, farmers began seeing the animals uncharacteristically basking on river banks, close to human settlements, early in the mornings. Women in Ganeshwadi village would encounter them while washing clothes in the nearby stream. Marshy areas of the villages became a resting place for the animals.

The villagers said there is now a high concentration of crocodiles along River Krishna, between the villages of Hasur and Shirati. “Earlier, a lot of fishermen used to go there, but now they have stopped,” said Kalyani.

Increased fishing in the rivers, which shrank their food supply, is another reason why crocodiles are venturing into areas inhabited by humans. As a result, farmers have stopped chopping the tall grass, which once served as animal fodder, growing in their fields near rivers. “They bear the loss, but no one wants to cut the grass,” said Nandiwale.

Several crocodiles have migrated from the nearby Sangli district, which has recorded several incidents of them attacking villagers. “If a crocodile is not able to get food, then it migrates,” said Sayyed. “It also migrates for mating.” Locals said that residents of nearby Janwad, Kagwad, Shedbal, Jugul and Shirguppi villages in Karnataka often catch crocodiles and leave them in Krishna River because that’s the only safe space available for them now.

Cusp of crisis

While the increasing population of crocodiles in Shirol taluka has not resulted in human-animal conflict, the situation could change, according to Sayyed. The government, he said, needs to step in - “Our organisation is focusing on training local people to live with them [crocodiles]. We expect the government to do this, but they [aren’t] doing anything. The government should be present in the field. The forest department should track all the crocodiles. This scientific work has to be observed.”

Ghansham Bhosale, the round officer of Shirol and Hatkanangale taluka from the Forest Department, said lack of manpower is a problem. “In the [next] 15 years, these areas can become [a] crocodile park,” he said. “The climate is suitable for crocodiles and we’ve been actively protecting every single crocodile.”

Still, more needs to be done, said Sayyed. “You [the government] have to announce some protected areas where human interference is less,” he said. “The government should announce [this] openly, put some restrictions on people, and [ensure the] animals can roam freely in the river without a sense of fear.”

For now, the locals are playing their part. Sharad Pawar, a 39-year-old farmer from Shedshal, has been actively involved in organising the educational sessions in Shirol taluka. “Whenever we see a crocodile, we first try to avoid that route,” said Pawar, failing which they call up the NGO officials. “A crocodile has never attacked us.”

The marshy areas in Ganeshwadi village where the villagers have spotted crocodiles. Photo credit: Sanket Jain.