Thursday, March 26, 2009

Backyard Bay

We (Croc Bank gang) are fortunate enough to have the Bay of Bengal as our backyard!

It is a great refreshing experience in the mornings (forcefully by Casper and Akanksha) and in the evenings. 

I have seen loads of weird creatures, shells, fishes, eels, etc. washed ashore.  Also not to forget the hundreds of crabs running around. But sometimes there are more interesting things to see!

I am trying to recall some such experiences.

Croc Bank is involved in Sea turtle nesting survey covering the beach adjacent to our facility. “Turtle walk” is an educational program offered to spread awareness about Sea turtle conservation.These walks serve dual purpose as we take small group of people along with us for the surveys.The turtle walk also consists of some other activities before the walk like educational talks, ppt, documentary, night safari, etc. On the walks, we try to take GPS locations of nests, dead turtles, light disturbances, etc. If we find a dead Sea turtle, we try and take the morphometrical data depending on the condition of the carcass.

With a lot of luck one might see a Sea turtle nesting. And I guess that was a lucky day. We came across a nesting female! She was huge. I didn’t want to disturb her so I directed to switch off all the white-light torches. I turned on my red torch (rather a normal torch with a red plastic film on it; works equally well!). Sea turtles and a few other reptiles are known to be more tolerant of high frequency lights, which is orange to red. I took the reading (Garmin Vista ecX is goood!) and we left her to her tiring job. We completed the 4km long walk which includes answering all the queries by the turtle walk participants. The walk ended but the work didn’t.There are a few egg poachers around and with the tractor-like drag marks anybody can make out where the nest is. So, as a part of our duty, we went back and wiped out all the drag marks! We did our best to camouflage the nest and wished it good luck. That was one of my first such experiences and was truly amazing. The walk back at 01:00 am was quite tiring though.


One morning I had just finished taking temperature readings of the Draceana (Caiman lizards) enclosure and was passing by the counter office. Mr. Mohan (our accountant), was pretty excited when he said that one of our gatekeepers saw some Sea turtle hatchlings on the beach in the morning.


I immediately requested him to get hold of that guy and ask him to take me to the exact spot where he saw the hatchlings. I wanted to take a reading of the location on our GPS. This was immensely important for our survey. I came back in a flash with the GPS, note and a pen.

While walking towards the place, I was thinking of possibilities of seeing some of the hatchlings. We do have some light disturbances on that part of the beach. Some of them might have been disoriented due to this and must have headed towards wrong directions. I guessed that was the reason why that guy found some hatchlings in the morning. We reached the spot and sure enough we found a hatchling trapped / exhausted in the casuarina plantation. We started searching and found 5 dead and 4 live hatchlings. As the temperature rises it becomes difficult for the already exhausted hatchlings to survive. 

Two of the live hatchlings were trapped in a piece of abandoned fishing net. 

 We managed to released them all back in the bay. We searched for more but couldn’t find any.

I've been lucky enough to see Eretmochelys imbricata (Hawksbill sea turtle) on a couple of occassions. Unfotunately both were dead and had washed ashore.


We had one “celebrity” turtle walk. Participants were famous VJs from local channel (S.S. Music). They had some great luck. We took some rest after reaching half way. The walk was getting rather boring as we hadn’t seen anything so far. People were asking about probabilities of seeing something. I kept on saying “I can’t guarantee anything but there’s always a possibility”.

We had just started walking and our local guide Mohan shouted “Baby, baby. Baby turtle” He almost stepped on one!

“Baby! Wow! Search for more. Everyone spread out. Search for more hatchlings. Make sure you don’t step on one.”

One by one we collected 31 hatchlings. Now I wanted to search the nest (again for the GPS location). It took around 25mins to successfully lay our hands on the nest. I also wanted to count the number of eggs. So we dug out the nest and counted 71 eggs that had hatched out and 45 infertile eggs. In all 116 eggs! That is a big clutch from probably a big female. The photo on the left shows how the hatchlings instantly get attracted towards artificial lights, in this case it was my torch while I was making some notes.


 One morning my alarm (Casper) forced me to get up and go for a walk on the beach. I was still quite sleepy and could have done with at least 2 more hours of sleep. While walking towards South, I could see some House crows pecking at something. My eyes turned into binoculars and my mind was making the vague image clearer as we were closing towards it.

I shouted “Sea snake! And moving” and ran. I had to stop as Casper was following me. He’d be in big trouble (or anyone else in that case) if bitten by a Sea snake with very little information available about the venom and no anti-venom serum around. As expected, it was a Enhydrina schistosa (Hook-nosed sea snake); about 3ft in length, not very big for that species. You often come across awesome stuff and don’t have the camera with you; at least I do. I excitedly requested (if “Go, run and get the damn camera” is a request) Akanksha to get the camera, which she hurriedly did. 

I managed to get some good photos and then let it go back into the bay.

Apart from above I have seen dolphins playing very close to the beach once. (One more first for me!)

I am fortunate that I get to do and experience what once was no more than a dream for me. The greatest thing is that these experiences are part of my job and / or time-pass! It is truly great to be here.

I love my backyard bay. It’s awesome!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A nocturnal Rat snake!

I think I can never get used to getting amazed by the natural world even though it happens very frequently.
We (the Croc Bank gang) had gathered in the canteen for dinner. I think the time was around 08:45pm. One of our watchman came and told us that he had seen a snake near the puppet theatre. I (as usual) got really excited and ran towards the puppet theatre only to recall that we need a torch to see! I came back to my room, got a torch, a snake hook and our dustbin (I took it because I was in a hurry + there was no container available + this bin had a lid and was good for a container!).
So soon we rush to the place and I could not believe my eyes. A Rat snake (Ptyas mucosa) feeding on a toad at 08:45pm!!!
That can't be right. I must go closer. I knew I can't mistake a Rat snake from 2 feet away but it still took some time to accept the fact that it was indeed a 6 - 6.6 ft Rat snake!
We didn't want to disturb it so we just left it alone and came back but THAT IS STRANGE. I wouldn't have believed it if I had not seen this with my own eyes. That is something I have never seen or heard or read (I don't read much though).
Like I said in my early articles, I was engaged in problem reptile removal activities. I must have caught at least 700 Rat snakes from strangest of places. I have caught them from people's bedrooms, kitchens, backyards, roofs, factories, cars, motor bikes, trees, etc. etc. Once I was called to remove a Rat snake from the Kitchen of a restaurant situated on the second floor right in the middle of the one of the busiest market place. 
No doubt they are highly adaptable and do survive in some of the strangest of urban habitats. People often say "how can a snake live in a city???" Well, they were always there when it was a jungle once. They were always there when it was turned into a farmland and then into a village and further on to a town and now an "urban city". Since they are so adaptive by nature, it is not at all difficult for them to survive in such environment. You just see them once in a while because of their way of living which is highly secretive. They were always there and they will be always there. There is not a single colony in new Ahmedabad from where we have not found snakes, year after year. We find snakes of all age and eggs during the breeding season, again year after year. This means that they have completely adapted themselves. There is always enough prey base for them most of which is rodents and insects followed by toads/frogs and lizards (thanks to our solid waste management system). What the residents (humans) might want to do is just learn to live with them! Seems tough with all sorts of misunderstandings but that is the only real solution.
We now know that removing snakes from one location and "releasing" in another "good habitat" (translocation) is not a good idea. Studies suggest that most of the translocated snakes die within a year of release. > I will be writing a full article on this so keep following. <
Coming back to the main subject of this article; all of the Rat snakes that I have caught were only during the day time which is fine as they are strictly diurnal snakes. There are snakes which are active by day and night, also sometimes called "Bi-diurnal" but not Rat snakes. I have kept Rat snakes in captivity for educational shows for a long time but I have never seen them active after dark.
The above is a photo of "Gabbar" with Akanksha at our rehab center. She is the largest Rat snake I have ever caught / kept. She was 8.6ft which is huge for a female. She was the star in many of our educational shows.

I think the after dark feeding behavior of a Rat snake here shows the amazing adaptational capabilities. There is no other explanation to this as the snake was feeding on a toad on a clear ground. It was really dark then. It obviously didn't just bump into a toad and started eating it. That was a proper hunt it had made. Croc Bank campus has a lot of frogs / toads and this could well be a switch in the feeding behavior which can and will result in the wellbeing of the snake by out-competing all the other duirnal predators. That is one smart snake!

Oh by the way, it might be interesting to know that all colubrid snakes including Rat snakes are venomous. They have true venom glands producing true venoms (not 'Duvernoy's gland' as it was earlier reffered to). Some of the species have venoms as complex as elapids and viperids.
For more information on this visit and click on "colubrids". You can also find the paper published by Dr. Bryan Greg Fry here.

Friday, March 6, 2009


It was love at first sight for me with my first monitor. I was 14. We had recently moved into this new locality. Ours was the only housing society comprising of 20 houses in the midst of vast farmlands on one side and scrub jungle on the other. We had literally encroached into a good wild habitat. By the time I understood the concept of habitat destruction through human encroachment, the locality had already urbanized with buildings everywhere, people everywhere, vehicles, pollution - everything that one would want to get away from.

Shifting to this place had kick-started my herping instincts. I used to see a lot of stuff right inside & outside our backyard. My ma and pa are big gardening fans. I am a fan of a jungle! They had tried to create a nice little garden which I had turned into a mini jungle by not allowing trimming and planting more and more native trees / plants / shrubs EVERYWHERE. Our garden was often visited by herps, especially monitors. 

I used to get so fascinated by these guys, some of which were pretty big.

I remember once I came back from my tution classes (where most of my time was spent in drawing weird snakes, lizards and enclosures to house them!), I saw at least 12-15 people gathered outside my house. I went in and saw the whole kitchen floor covered in blood. Then I saw my dog "Jakie" (My first and best friend who passed away at the age of 17 in 2004) breathing heavily and his face covered in blood. I couldn't figure out what had happened. Then my pa narrated the whole incident how a monitor had entered the house when we all were out. Jackie had a tough fight but had managed to kill it. I went over to see the dead monitor. It was a big guy. Sad that it died but I guess Jakie just performed his duty. This whole incident gave me an idea which I used some years later.

I was hardcore in to herping and at one point of time I had seven monitors in my room. All well taken care of, very tame. They had a fixed routine of getting fed in the evenings. Once a friend of mine had entered the room without my knowledge, and from what he described it seemed like he had a near death experience with seven "dragons" charging him. He had a "narrow escape". Well, these guys were used to the feeding time and would curiously come to greet with all eyes on the treat. It was just a perfectly timed co-incidence.

My ma had one such incidence. She once entered my room to "clean" it as it was pending for a long time. A big male charged her (in monitor words - came to greet and ask for food) and she reacted really loudly. So loud that a couple of neighbors were seen peeping in. The evening ended in a big fight as expected. Fortunately the other 6 guys didn't come out! I guess they got startled by the loud scream and didn't gather enough wits to come out. "It's ok to miss one feeding. We are not so hungry anyways."

My parents never knew I had so many inmates with me. The acceptance didn't  go all that smooth. But I think most of the people would react likke that. Anyways, so eventually I told them about only a few when I actually had a lot more. This trick went on for a long time and helped me learn to keep my animals safely, properly, hygienically (this is very important; even the slightest of smell/odor will give it away) without my parents having any clue about it. This is when I had started preparing captive care notes. 

Later when I joined the wildlife rehab center, all of this experience came in handy. We often used to get monitors that had to be kept in captivity on a temporary basis for recovery. Most of the monitors that I have worked with is Varanus bengalensis.

I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to work with Varanus griseus as well.

Now remember the idea I had mentioned earlier? We had a small store room in our backyard which was perfect to house a pair of monitors. I was strictly told not to keep any monitors in the house but me being me, just couldn't resist! The store room had some scrap materials inside which I used as good hides for them. I had them peacefully for a long time until there was again a cleaning session. My ma gets these "house cleaning" attacks quite often. I was out when I got a call regarding these guys in the store room. I was searching for some good excuses and just then I remembered that these could be wild monitors that accidentally entered the store room! My ma had a good reason to argue that. The store room was locked from outside! 

"Somebody might have opened it for something and must have forgotten to close the door. These guys must have slipped in then. May be later the door was locked and they got trapped in!"

Ha ha... well, she was convinced.

My pa would say "Look they are not afraid of humans at all!" I had to kick the poor guys a couple of times to make them run like wild monitors. "Look there they are running away"....... and they would turn and come back! LOL.

But on the fourth time of same thing happening, they were not so convinced anymore. 


One of the most amazing rehab cases I came across at the rehab center was of a monitor with chemical burns all over its mouth.

I remember tube-feeding it for nearly a month. Its recovery was a great success. I think that was the best rehab team consisting me (as Wildlife Incharge / Head rehabilitator), Akanksha (as Assistant rehabilitator; now my wife!), Dr. Dananjaya from Sri Lanka (as Wildlife vet consultant; you were great man!) and Dr. Disale (as Onsite vet). It was a great team effort. You remember this case Dana? Dr. Disale had great patience to administer the regular doses of anti-biotics and fluids. I will always remember those good old rehab days!

I had some real good time with these guys. After working with more than a hundred monitors over a period of 8 active years, I can say that they are highly intelligent animals and show impressive understanding of their immediate surroundings. 

Monitors are awesome and I definitely look forward to work with them in future!


Please note that catching / keeping / treating / transporting / trading / etc. of Monitor lizard sp. (native species) is against the law as these animals are protected by the Government of India under schedule - I of WildLife (Protection) Act, 1972.

I was a kid and I had no clue about the WPA, 1972. I came to know about it when I joined the wildlife rehab centre. My later experiences were all in the rehab center which was recognized by Central Zoo Authority and Gujarat Forest Department.