Monday, March 5, 2012

Raising ducks

“Are those nakta ducklings?” I asked, eyeing a fantastic experience.
(Nakta, also known as the Comb duck are large ducks and some of them still haven’t learnt not to nest in cities! I think we will teach them that very soon. Please google ‘nakta’ for more information on the species.)

“Yes, but are proving to be a pain to raise” said Sarfraz Malik – an ex-falconer and the best bet on birds of prey. He was working at the wildlife rehab centre at the time and I had taken a small break from work.

Akanksha and me looked at each other, “Shall we try?” Probably the fastest mutual agreement till date!

We were lucky to have dropped in that day as this particular batch of ducklings had just arrived the previous day. This was the second batch and 2 out of 9 had already died during the night. The entire first batch had died in the span of a week and hence the worry on Sarfraz bhai’s face.

“Do you guys want to try raising these?” asked Sarfraz bhai. Well, we had already agreed!

So what would they need? This was our first experience with nakta ducklings. How would a mommy duck take care of ducklings? I had seen freshly hatched ducklings in the wild always under or very close to the mother. Maybe they need a lot of warmth. We put up heat bulbs and kept them at around 34 Deg C at all times. That seemed to be working as none died that night. We kept the bulbs on all day and all night for the first 2 weeks, and then only at nights for the following 3-4 weeks.

What about their food? I have only seen them foraging in the muck close to water bodies. “Try a mixed khichdi (boiled rice and pulses) and we'll add vitamin and mineral supplements” suggested Sarfraz bhai. That did end up being the staple food. We also mixed high protein carnivorous fish food. This combination till date remains the best I can bet on.
Our first batch!
Photo by Akanksha Mukherjee at her residence (2005)

Akanksha was the lucky one to raise 4 batches (each batch is around 6 – 10 ducklings) of naktas in her room since my room was full of… er... nothing, there was nothing..

Every fun-filled day was narrated by Akanksha and of course there was a teaser in the end. I was feeling left-out as I was missing out on all that. Each batch was shifted back to the rehab centre after 5 to 6 weeks of age. Sometimes there were overlaps, which were part challenging, part funny!
Batch 3 and 4 exploring Akanksha's terrace.
Photo by Akanksha Mukherjee (2005)

I did not want to miss out on this experience. NO WAY!

"I have dibs on this batch! Yes!!" I declared as soon as the 5th (and the last of the season) batch arrived. To make things more interesting, I thought "Hey, let's raise the peachicks (peafowl chicks) with the ducklings. It'll be fun!". Very interestingly, the 5th batch along with the peafowl chicks somehow again ended up at Akanksha's house!
A very confused bunch! They grew up as half ducks and half peafowls.

I was just too determined to get my share of raising ducks. Finally a week later these ducklings and peachicks were at my place, sharing the room with... er... nothing. They were quite used to the room. I was confident that they would 'escape' in to the room whenever threatened and started keeping them open on the terrace. Sure enough, at every threat that arose (kites, crows, langurs, me chasing them just to check, etc.) they headed straight to the room. Man, those were fun days.. except the stink in my room. Duck are not the cleanest of animals! The ducklings used to crap all over the floor and the peachicks (they start taking short flights soon after hatching) used to crap on the rest of the places. I spent over a month living in such conditions! What ewww? My room used to get cleaned regularly... whenever Akanksha visited... and sometimes by my angry mother..  :P

This batch was the most fun! After about 5 weeks at home, they were shifted to the rehab centre and were bold enough to start exploring the outdoors on the very first day. I think that was typical peafowl behavior. They were training each other in things they were good at. The peachicks would instinctively go out probing the earth for insects and worms, and even more interestingly the ducklings would follow them doing the same! The latter were not as efficient and often had this "why are we doing this?" look. The ducklings were fantastic swimmers but the peafowls on the other hand almost drowned when they followed the ducklings in to the water for the first time. I called Akanksha "Quick! Come here, I think the peachicks are going to go swimming!" and sure enough, they jumped in, only to splash all over the place and gulp down a lot of water. They gave up after a few attempts. 

We had to keep the ducklings safe from crows and the crows do not miss any opportunity to attack. With this particular batch, we had no problems at all. The peachicks were gaining size much faster than the ducklings, and had taken up the responsibility to keep their flock safe. It was amazing too see their bonding. No crow was allowed anywhere close to the ducklings, the peachicks would puff up,hiss and do a few kung fu kicks in air (typical fowls!). They often chased the crows up to fences and roofs. One guy was so impressive that we called him 'chowkidar' - security personnel in Hindi! 
Our second dependable security guard was Julie (dachshund) - Akanksha's loyal sweetheart

Sorry to sway the story, but now let's jump back to 1st batch's fledging time. They were already fledging now. We had raised them perfectly well now, but what next? Hard release? Soft release? What protocols? Well, they are ducks, and so we figured they'd need a pond. Duh! Anyway, we built 2 ponds in the open area outside the enclosure and they loved these ponds and spent a lot of time in and around them. These ponds became a great enrichment tool and a secure retreat for them.
The grown-up ducklings go through a very ugly phase just before fledging, kinda like puberty! :P

"Akanksha and Soham raised these ducks brilliantly well. I couldn't, but they did a very good job!" hearing this from Sarfraz bhai every time used to fill us up with pride. He mentioned this to every one who visited. He will always praise you for your good work and will always give credits. One of the big reasons I respect him so much. He is awesome!

"Let's give them some flight exercise" declared Sarfraz bhai one day. "Sure, let's go!" I was always ready. We noticed they were flapping wings to tone up wing muscles. It was probably not enough as they were lacking a boost to take off. I don't know what I thought of but I started running towards them while clapping hard. The entire flock took off! They landed on the other side of the pond. This soon became a routine, several times a day. Gradually, the distance from take off to landing started increasing, so much that one day they flew out of the rehab centre completed a small circle and landed back, this time inside the pond!

These small flight circles started to get bigger eventually. The ducks (yes, they were ducklings no more!) looked so beautiful now! One morning a couple of ducks took off and kept on flying in a straight line, kept looking smaller and smaller and finally disappeared! 

"Oh crap!"

I didn't know whether to be happy about it or sad. "Akanksha, the 2 big boys flew towards the river and haven't returned yet". Towards the river? Wait a minute! Wild naktas used to forage in the river! With all sorts of imaginations, we rushed down to the river flowing behind the rehab centre. We were pleasantly surprised to see some 30 naktas foraging there. And they all looked the same! There was no way of recognizing our folks. With nothing much to do there, we all came back and hoped for the best. 

It was evening now and soon would be the time to lock up all the ducks in their enclosure. I was looking at the horizon, waiting. 

"Am I wishing too hard or are these really naktas?" I was not sure, but the birds started appearing bigger and now looked like Naktas. Their landing in the pond finally convinced me these were our ducks. I decided first thing next morning would be to ring these guys so that we can recognize them when they venture out again to the river. 

All were ringed and opened up next morning. The ducks took off, this time four out of seven disappeared. We were getting used to the idea of walking up to the river everyday now. Extreme happiness hit us when we spotted all four ringed ducks at the river completely behaving as part of the wild flock! I was now half relieved about their rehabilitation. Just hoped all would gradually start coming here and go away with the flock towards the end of migration. 

In a week's time, all seven ducks were out at the river :) That feeling was awesome! They now started spending all day at the river and would only come back at dusk. One day, only four returned. We didn't know if the rest were predated or went roosting with wild buddies. Hope hard for the latter. Next evening all seven came back! :)

Their coming back was becoming more and more uncertain. Some days they'll all be back, some days just a couple of them. Even returning days were becoming uncertain. Just two smaller individuals came back for like a week, then suddenly one evening five turned up. We were not worried any more. Things were going just as planned.

After about a month, none returned for over a week. We went down to the river to check but didn't see any naktas. "They flew away with the wild ducks?". We certainly hoped so. We used to see occasional ducks at the river. We surveyed the river further ahead to see if they changed the foraging spot, and "there they are!". Beautiful mature adults, but easily identified by the red rings on legs. We followed the same protocols for all the batches for that season and got the same result. 

Season for naktas had ended. Even the naktas at the river had left and migrated elsewhere. The work at the wildlife rehab centre kept us so busy that we didn't realize almost a year had passed by! One fine morning, four, very healthy and brilliant looking adult naktas (three males and one female) were sitting next to the open pond at the rehab centre. "This is strange!". I immediately looked for the rings but there were none. "But then, the rings were made out of plastic and could have been broken by them" said Akanksha with a huge smile on her face.

"Keep the same food bowl in front of them and let's see what they do".

No way would any wild naktas come and eat from the bowl with us staring at them from 10 feet away. All four started gorging, just like the old days! :)


Saturday, January 28, 2012

From residents to refugees

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I’ve written! Past year was quite hectic but I should have continued writing. Sorry folks, for the long gap. I will now be a regular, hopefully! Starting with a bit of a news – I have now moved back to Ahmedabad, and loving it! :)

The past year with The Gerry Martin Project was great with a lot of interesting field experiences. I will be mentioning them in the coming articles. Hope you’d look forward to that!

Now back at home, I was remembering the days when we had freshly moved in. This was, I think in 1996. There was just one mud road from Jodhpur village (1 and a half kilometer away, via a crematorium!) and one trail through the fields coming from Vejalpur railway crossing (almost a kilometer away). These were the only access routes to our house. You could see our house from the railway crossing and the houses at Shyamal cross roads from our terrace. 360 degrees of lush green fields and a lot of native trees. Snakes, monitors, scorpions were regular visitors in our backyard. Toads, frogs, centipedes, geckos, and small birds used to live here. Some very smart toads used to live in our bathroom, under the kitchen sink, in flower pots, my shoes, and in my dog’s water bowl!

The 2 Salvadora persica (“Piludi” in Gujarati) in front of our house accommodated so many house sparrows, doves and a lot of bush birds. A Shikra trying to catch its favorite prey – a Calotes versicolor (Common garden lizard) was not an uncommon sight. I used to sip my morning chocolate milk looking at the male peafowls with their impressive long tail feathers and females teaching their chicks to probe the earth for insects.

2012 – Almost all is gone!

Gone where? And why?

Welcome to wildlife displacement! Pushing them out of their habitats – in other words. Guess who’s the cause? Us, ALL of us! I proudly mention how there were so many animals before all these people moved in and ‘developed’ this part of the city. But hey, they did exactly what we did! We encroached in 1996, others followed later.

We have stopped living a simple life several decades ago. ‘Survival’ can no longer be used in to describe our (city dwellers) life struggles. Our life now is comfort and luxury oriented. We started moving in with all our ‘needs’. Electricity, roads, vehicles, concrete, pollution, malls… everything! We can’t freakin’ live without everything.

My backyard was my favorite herping hotspot. Want to see something rare? …just go out a kilometer in the fields! You can’t even walk there safely now without getting run over by a million cars, ..okay, a few hundred cars! But then, what will you go out looking for? Buildings, rash traffic (typical Ahmedabad style), noise, what else? …dogs, feral dogs, a few hundred of them. Not exaggerating. I don’t hate dogs. Folks who know me would know. But, I would hate the incident of feral dogs attacking any wildlife. Be it ground nesting birds or large birds like peafowls, small, or even large mammals cannot match a pack of feral dogs. During my professional days as a wildlife rehabilitator we used to get around 200 peafowls every year. Guess what happened to most?? Yes… feral dog attacks. Reports of feral dogs taking down large antelopes and deer are not unheard of. They have outcompeted jackals, wolves, and many small predators in several places.

"Motu" - our adopted feral dog. She came in as a pup, now 8 years old. It's amazing how they  always win their right to stay in your life.

Cats, what about cats? Must clarify, I’m talking about feral cats. Tremendously sustained populations have wiped off loads of small wildlife. I’m not gonna stretch more on this. There is tons of info on the internet. Please exploit google. Again, I do not hate cats. We’ve created these feral cats and dogs. It is our responsibility to control them and not allow them to ruin what exist naturally.

My backyard looked empty after just 4 cats moved in some 10 years ago. Squirrels often turn in to pests simply because they are so adaptive. I did not see a single squirrel for like two years. TWO YEARS! That’s when me and Akanksha decided to get our much loved animals back. We planted many more trees, put up a lot of nest boxes, water bowls, feeding stations and cat proofed them. Re-introduction of squirrels was a great success as there is a sustaining population now in the neighborhood. We had practically hand-raised the parent stock when they came in as orphans to us. Some of the birds are also doing well. Lots of them come to roost in the hot afternoons. We’ve also managed to raise our gecko population. Our backyard garden comes alive with at least 15 species of birds. I feel happy, and sad. They come to us, but then ours is their only resort!



Left to right - Magpie robin nesting in our nest boxes and a pregnant squirrel eating at our feeding station.

I often wonder how these birds will sustain future populations. One small green patch cannot support all of them forever and nothing else is turning greener anymore. Will they meet the same fate of frogs and toads? There used to be a biggish pond right in front of our house where Bull frogs and Common toads used to congregate in hundreds during breeding seasons. Evening rains only stopped to the calling of these very loud and impressive males. Freshly metamorphosed, the tiny ones always kept us on our toes (literally!) as they were all over. Amazing food source for so many other predators. Half of the same pond got filled up in 2003 and residential buildings came, rest got filled up in 2007. I’m yet to see a frog or a toad since then.

Common Indian toads in amplexus. As a kid I got in to the habit of checking my shoes before wearing only because of a fat female toad at home.

The amphibians were not the only victims, there used to be a small scrub patch that was used by a family of Indian brown mongoose. I’ve seen so many litters grow up. The scrub patch was bought by BSNL, and a wall now envelops the new mobile-phone tower. Fortunately, for some structural reason, they kept a lot of ground level windows on the pond-side wall. The mongooses had their burrows in the compound but had free access to the pond. Sadly, the pond itself was already covered-up with buildings from all sides.

The pond used to be the open area that you can see plus the building area  that you see at the back. The tar road in the front used to be a small mud path. The compound wall with windows on the right is where the mongoose colony was.

Now, the last two mongooses are barely surviving in the compound, raiding garbage thrown in the now filled-up pond. I feel bad for them. I feel bad for all animals that used to thrive here before people started encroaching mindlessly. Whom am I blaming... I started it!

Friday, February 11, 2011


It took a really long time to write this chapter. I guess it’s not easy to summarize a two and a half year long episode! Plus I’ve now moved to Bangalore, and The Gerry Martin Project keeps me busy. BTW, some fantastic experiences and projects coming up later this year! :)

I hope you enjoy this chapter as much as I enjoyed the croc time!  

I keep on mentioning how I had no clue about training crocodiles before I was introduced to this concept. And now, I don’t miss an opportunity to promote croc training as one of the most efficient tools to manage these magnificent animals in captivity, and provide the best behavioral enrichment at the same time. These are in fact the two most important aspects that are taken in to consideration; management and enrichment. Of course education is another very important component that is often clubbed with croc training, something similar to the croc enrichment shows at the Madras Crocodile Bank.

Demonstrating 'desensitization' during an enrichment show.
Photo by Akanksha Mukherjee.
I am so glad that I was introduced to croc training from the enrichment point of view first (not to forget to thank Ralf Sommerlad again for that!). This gave me a super advantage. Something I didn’t realize in the beginning. In simple words, my job then was to ‘entertain’ the crocs. And it did take some time to figure “how the hell do I entertain them?

I remember what Ralf told me in the early days.

“If they are coming out of their safe hide (usually water) for a tiny piece of meat that is not worth the energy spent or the risk taken (as per croc logic), that my friend, is a good enrichment.”

I was so totally stunned when I noticed that happen for the first time. I keep giving example of this big male Mugger ‘Rambo’, who would come all the way from the other end of the opposite bank to ‘open his mouth’ and ‘jump’; all for three, tiny, one inch sized meat chunks!

'Rambo' - one of the largest male Muggers  performing an "open your mouth" command.
Photo by Ralf Sommerlad.
The idea of developing and running enrichment programs is to keep them mentally and physically engaged. At no point of time should they be getting bored of it. If you see any such signs, you’ve gotta improvise. And yes, that was the advantage! I had to make sure that the crocs don’t get bored of the same thing over and over again. This was actually not so difficult; cuz I get bored very easily! All I’d do is keep myself entertained. The moment I felt the routine was getting rather monotonous, I’d say to myself “If I’m not enjoying this, they obviously aren’t”.  I always kept my interest as a parameter to determine when to start something new. This allowed me to expand the domain without restrictions. You know how it works. When you get bored, you do all kinds of crazy stuff with less logic and more curiosity; like a kid would blow saliva bubbles to see how big can they get before bursting!

I started diversifying commands in an attempt to enhance their problem solving capability. End result: ‘Ally’ now follows 16 commands!

"Ally" - the star
It all started with Ally (American alligator) and gradually I tried my hands on 40 individuals in all. I emphasize on the word ‘individual’. I have worked with 40 crocs of 10 species of all ages (American alligator, Mugger, Siamese croc, Nile croc, Saltwater croc, African slender-snouted croc, Dwarf croc O. tetraspis, Morelet’s croc, Spectacled caiman and Yacare caiman) and not two are same. They all have distinct personalities; they are all true individuals.

From left to right: "Johny" - Spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus), "Jaws 3" - Saltwater croc (Crocodylus porosus), and "Pintoo" - Mugger (Crocodylus palustris).
Photo by (left to right) Akanksha Mukherjee, Nariman Vazifdar, Shikha Choudhary

This offered me a huge learning platform. There are heaps of things I've learnt through croc training, and I don’t think it would have been possible otherwise. It was all the more interesting for me since I’d never read anything on croc training or how they behave and interact whilst learning. It was like discovering something for the first time! It surely was, at least for me. Truly learnt a lot, especially on the behavior front. My first training group was just perfect for this. Ten crocs of five species (American alligator, Mugger, Siamese croc, Nile croc, and Saltie). Building of the social hierarchy, inter-species interaction, communication, and competition were the highlights. They all have their specific rank, which of course changes with time (growth, hormones and brains!). Interestingly, size does not always matter! Ally was the largest and eldest and hence was dominant. The next rank was open for a long time. I always thought the next ‘big guy’ would earn the second place. Turns out NO! The super smart ‘Pintoo’ (Mugger) always bullied the larger ‘Abu’ (Nile croc), and continues to do the same till date. In fact there is a good chance he’d be the dominant croc soon.

First time readers, please read the earlier ‘croc training’ articles for the above to make sense!

Adaptability is what allows survival. That’s exactly what these crocs are doing; trying to survive in the changing environment. This makes it possible to exploit their willingness to learn new things to adapt better. Crate training, station training, and desensitizing are often used for effective management.

Selective feeding of a Saltwater croc in a moderate density enclosure.
Watch on YouTube

It is natural to compete for food, shelter and mate (We all do it! :)). All animals retain this particular instinct wherever they are; wild or captivity, unless of course they are ‘over-civilized’ like a few of us! Crocs are super competitive, fortunately. I say this because that quality helped me a lot when training 6 crocs in the same enclosure.

I mentioned in the last chapter about the launch of croc enrichment program in the Croc Bank. That evening I was chatting with Janaki after the super performance by the entire croc group. She was curious about how I trained all of them. Logically, it would take a long time and immense patience to do that. Patience yes, but surprisingly, very little time!

I was explaining to her “There is a very healthy competition in this group. They all know that at the end of a routine, they get a reward, and the more they do the more they get. Very often learning new tricks gives more treats since they do the old trick plus the new trick. They are rewarded for every initiative as part of positive reinforcement. So all I have to do is teach Ally a new trick, all the others learn just by watching her and are ready to do the same when they are called!”

That was when Janaki mentioned about ‘Rival training’ or ‘Model training’ method. She had recently read that somewhere, and that was the technique used to train the famous African grey parrot – ‘Alex’!

“Hey, the method is so similar! Wait a minute….. It is exactly the same!”

I never knew the technique I was using had a name! All I did was followed Ralf’s pointers. Basically, you train a ‘model’ to do things using positive reinforcement, and most importantly, let others see that. And because of the rivalry within the group, the others will want to compete by doing the same thing to get attention and treats. Ally, in this case was the model.

So what exactly is the driving force? ‘Survival’ sure, but what else? Not sure if you guessed it, but the word I'm hinting to is  ‘j e a l o u s y’! Yes, I’ve been called names for thinking this but that doesn’t discourage me. Crocs apparently aren’t supposed to have those emotions. Well, they weren’t supposed to learn 16 commands either!

Envying a rival is jealousy, right? But how do we know if it is what I think it is?! Let’s look at an example. After a break of about five weeks, I went in for a training session. All of them came out eagerly in the performance area. Ally seemed extremely happy. I did the regular routine with her and then asked her to go back to “water”. The others were called out after that except Thai (the female Siamese croc). Komodo (the male Siamese croc) did not perform as well as he could, so I called him out for a second time. All this time Ally was being a bad girl and kept trying to come out of water. I had to push her back a couple of times. I guess she wanted to spend some more time that day. So what’s so cool about that? Here it comes… After I finished Komodo’s routine for the second time and got out, I hear fast steps on sand. I turn around and see Ally putting up a super aggressive chase. Guess who the victim is? Yep, it is Komodo. It was strange but not strange enough. I assumed the tension will just melt down, but it was strange.

“Let’s wait for a bit and see what happens”

Scott Johnson and Elizabeth Farmer from Texas were volunteering at the time, and were armed with cameras at the moment. They did get some decent shots of the whole incident; I just wish I hadn’t misplaced that damn cd! I hope to find it soon, and will then put up the photos.

Excited Ally.
Photo by Umeed Mistry.
Back to the story: Surprisingly, the chase continued on land and then in water. Komodo rushed out of this pool and entered the other. So now there was no visual contact, and so logically, the tension should be over. But no! Ally enters the other pool looking for Komodo! The chase continues in the other pool for like a minute, before they both disappear underwater. All the other crocs in that pool looked surprised. Ally now surfaces in the northern side and Komodo somewhere south. Ally looks at others, chases everyone out except Thai! Komodo gets chased for third time now and is out and hiding in the farthest corner. Ally comes close to where I was standing in amazement, and looks straight in my eyes.. was all silent after that.

Now why would she chase all except Thai, the only one whom I didn’t call out that day? And Komodo in particular gets a double dose. I cannot come up with any other explanations but the theory of jealousy. Can you?

Ally has another very special quality, eagerness to learn more, all the time. I can always see this “me, me, me!” expression on her face. It becomes so much easy to teach her new things. Another interesting story: Andy Wakefield and Jeremy Cusack were shooting a small promotional video for Croc Bank. We were taking some shots of training, and I was explaining how awesome Ally was. Just then I thought “Just for fun, let’s try and teach her a new command in front of the camera!” The video below shows how she learnt a brand new trick in under 6 minutes!!! That is bloody awesome for a croc. I was so proud of her that day..

Ally learns a new trick in under 6 minutes! All captured in this footage.

There are so many memories with these crocs, never thought I’d get emotionally attached to them. Bonding with crocs is one of the best experiences ever... especially with one croc in particular..

Exchanging thoughts (22 October, 2010).
Photo by myself with self timer on tripod!
I will miss you Ally!


Monday, October 4, 2010


The launch of Crocodile Enrichment Training Demo

“Soham, you’ve gotta make sure that your training group performs well on the day” said Patrick – Director, Madras Crocodile Bank, looking a bit concerned.

He had a good reason for concern. We were launching the ‘Croc Enrichment Training Program’ for public. People can buy an extra ticket and watch the enrichment show. Crocs get enriched life, Croc Bank makes some extra bucks for conservation, and people get to see how smart and awesome these guys are. Super idea!

**Flashback a couple of months**

“We should really materialize the enrichment show now. It can be a great attraction, and it has a great potential to work as an educational tool” said Gerry Martin – Education Consultant, Madras Crocodile Bank. “We’ve been going on talking about the possibility since a long time now. Let's take it forward”

“Yeah man, that’ll be fun! I’m all ready” I said smiling; though I wasn’t sure as Ally and gang had never performed in front of a crowd. They usually chicken out (underwater!) when they see a lot of people. Getting them used to a big crowd would take some efforts; but it will be very interesting. It will give me a chance to see how far I can go with enrichment training, how much can I influence them, how much of the behavior can actually be modified. Should I have tried all of this first before opening my big mouth? Eeh.. too late now.. Just look confident…

“So when do you think we’ll open up for public” I asked hoping I’ll get some good time to sort things out with my crocs.

“A couple of months maybe”

“Okay!” Can’t laze around anymore!

Soon me, Gerry and Patrick were discussing future renovation plans to make the enclosure look better. Also, these crocs were reaching an age where they start displaying dominance and start establishing their rank in the hierarchy. All around 8-9 years old. It was getting a bit dangerous at times working with 6, very agile crocs, all at the same time. If I spend more time with one, the others would lose patience and sneak up.

“We need some sort of partition in the enclosure to start with” I suggested. Only I knew how important it was to get that damn partition finally! Now, with the partition, I would be able to work with one croc at a time without worrying about getting ambushed. What a relief that would be :)

I drew some basic fence designs which were fine, and then I drew a basic grandstand design which made a lot of sense to me, but not so much to others. Need to enhance the grandstand design with some figures; who’d do it better than Steven Whealing, our then all round volunteer. Thanks Steve for that one! Our current grandstand is based on your design.

With the fence up, I now had to set up a regular routine to streamline the crocs’ entry, performance, and exit. But hey, what about the crowd factor? How do I gather a crowd?

“We’ll call all the staff and volunteers” suggested Akanksha.

Good idea, but I was a bit skeptical. I tried to utilize every opportunity of an induced crowd. The crowd was requested to behave like an Indian crowd; talk loudly, whistle, clap for no reason, try to distract me and the crocs, etc. Our long term volunteers and docents were usually forced to be the crowd!

**Flashback over**

Progress was going on fine. I was ready. Crocs were ready. I had also geared up the big Muggers in pen 8 for a walk on the wooden ramp.

 "Rambo", the new dominant male in pen 8
Photo by Keerthi Krutha

But can an event go fine without a dent? Nope, not in my life!
On the morning of ‘the day’, I woke up to a loud motor noise.

“Oh duck! (I changed the first letter to maintain decency)”

Crocs can get freaked out very easily. We were maintaining a very calm environment all these days. We also requested the temple people across the road to lower the volume of festive songs after 13:00hrs. This motor noise can ruin the whole day! If they get spooked, they will not perform, as simple as that. Our maintenance department decided to choose that day to empty out some of the septic tanks, how interesting..

I could only wait and watch.

Janaki and Rom arrived a couple of hours before the launch. Janaki had called earlier to set up a time when she could take some pics of me and Ally for her article. I thought of working with her would be a good idea now. This might make Ally a bit more comfortable before the show.

“Hey Janaki, jump in!”

Ally came out but was not quite comfortable. I was a bit anxious. She is the star and if she doesn’t perform well, it’s gonna be a disaster…. or maybe not, some or the other croc will perform. The show won’t go blank.

Guests started arriving at 16:00hrs. Gerry, Rom, and Patrick were leading the group on a guided tour. Croc Bank Docents did a fantastic job coordinating the whole event.

Gerry addressing the guests
Photo by Shafeeq Ahmed
Jaws III, our largest croc was in top form that day. Gave a jaw-dropping performance!

Jaws III was super active!
Photo by Gowri Mallapur

Now is the time for my gang; Ally and co.

I started with an introductory speech, explaining the importance of enrichment training, and how it also works as a management as well as an educational tool. I emphasized on how it is primarily a husbandry approach, and is for the welfare of crocs. The “show” part of it is only secondary. I also mentioned (of course!) that they were performing in front of a full capacity crowd for the first time; apologies for any misbehavior or non-performance. I jumped in thinking this would not be as good as expected considering the spooky, noisy morning; just hoped for the best.

“Guys, please don’t let me down” I passed on the message in subsonic frequency.

Grand performance by "Ally"
Photo by Shafeeq Ahmed

I was awesomely surprised when they all performed brilliantly, Ally especially. Far better than I expected. They were fantabulous! I wanted to hug all of them, but I could only imagine that. The show went superb. How could I underestimate them so much?!

All the excited guests were guided to the tent for Rom’s presentation. I stayed back for some time.

“You guys really made me proud today!” another one of those subsonic conversations.

I glanced at all of them with a big smile on my face. I looked at Ally.

“Thanks Ally”

 I promise I saw her wink!


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Unique adaptation of vine snakes

Adaptation, in its many forms, is the most common phenomenon, and is always survival oriented. Survival is of course, the most crucial game for any animal, a game where losing is not an option, but is often the result.

We humans have come so far is because of our little adaptations; all the ‘out of the box’ experiments. But are we the only ones doing that?


Our way of life is very typical, and some animals have noticed that. These animals have now adapted well enough to get a prefix ‘House’ before their names! House sparrows, House crows, House spiders, House ants, House geckos, House rats, House this, House that. Isn’t it smart thinking as opposed to staying away from predators (us)?

Some of most obvious adaptations are witnessed in the urban setting. Monkeys (Langurs and Macaques) raiding kitchens; “stealing” food, Crows and bats catching insects by the street light posts after dark, Black kites living almost exclusively on offal, cockroaches in drainage pipes, spiders in your computer… There are just so many of them.

Pests! What about pests? They are super adaptive, aren’t they?

It is the change in environment that forces the inhabitants to adapt for a better life; after all, losing the game is not an option. The ease of adapting to something is equivalent to smart innovation in human language. But, not every human is smart and it is no different in other animals either. Let’s get to a fresh example of a brand new adaptation and evaluate the smartness!

June 16, 2010
“Whoa! Did you hear that?!?” I said to Akanksha with a big smile. A big smile because I could make a good guess of what was happening!

Anything exciting at midnight is usually fun!

“Something’s caught a frog!” said Akanksha, equally excited now. I was of course proud of her to guess that accurately.

I rushed out with a torch and WHOAAA! This thing was right outside my room! Of all the possible predators, this was leeeast expected. A Common vine snake!!!

“Camera! Camera! Get the camera….. quick”  Fortunately the snake can’t hear me yelling.

Ahaetulla nasuta feeding on Polypedates maculatus

“Wow, that was awesome!”

Croc Bank is an awesome place providing an ideal habitat for a lot of native species. Amidst the shoreline ecology, Croc Bank is a mini semi evergreen forest system with more than 135 native plant species.

It almost stays the same all year round

With over 60 species of birds, 30+ species of herps and some resident and occasional mammals, and tons of invertebrates, the faunal checklist is pretty impressive for a 7 and a half acres area.

So what is the big deal if you see a snake catching a frog?!? Well, the Common vine snake Ahaetulla nasuta is supposed to be a diurnal snake, and the guy we saw was hunting at midnight! Now, that is interesting.

Active herpers would know that Ahaetulla are best spotted at night when they are sleeping / resting in bushes and scrubs. I had never seen or heard of this species actively hunting at night, so I was pretty excited about it. This can’t be a coincidence, can it? 

When I get excited, I get curious too. 

June 18, 2010
A couple of days later, me and Akanksha were returning from Chennai. We had just entered from the Irula Cooperative gate on my motor bike, and saw a vine snake crossing the road.

“Vine snake! Watch out..!” exclaimed Akanksha.

This was at 22:00hrs! There is something more than coincidence here. I was sure.

I must ask someone, and who would be better than the reptile guru himself – Rom Whitaker!

“Hmm, interesting. Good if you share your observations with the ARRS gang as there are tons of  vine snakes there and seem to sleep deeply at night, but who knows?” Rom wrote back.

June 19, 2010
I decided to be on night duty! I might see more if I look for them. The next night, I was roaming around at night, all over the place. Came back after an hour and a half; hot and sweaty.

“Gotta go drink some water. Man, I feel dehydrated.”

I glanced at the planted fence on the South side of the canteen before entering the kitchen for a cold glass of water. Green, green, green, vine snake, green, green….

“I must be really dehydrated!” I was thinking while I was filling up water. Mind’s playing games.. or is it..?

I went back and could see a typical green color. “Oooh man, that IS a vine snake! Super!”

Camera, notepad, pen and I’m ready. Wait a minute.. Now I can see 2 vine snakes.. Damn, should have finished the glass of water. 
No wait... there ARE 2 snakes! Jackpot..! :)

2 vine snakes. Bad picture quality, good timing.

These 2 were typically exploring the area as they do while hunting, carefully scanning the fence and were checking out anything that moved in the wind. Time check: 22:50hrs.

I sat there taking notes for 2 and half hours till they decided to push off, both in opposite directions. This was getting more and more interesting now. So this is not just one snake. There are at least 3; the first one was around 28 inches long, and now these 2; around 40 inches and 34 inches in length.

Is it a trend across the species? Or is it a local adaptation of the resident population?

July 25, 2010
I was still herping out at nights, trying out my luck. I wished I could go out more regularly. Didn’t see anything in the driveway that night. I was on my way back when I just recalled a distinctive similarity in the hunting strategy of those vine snakes. They were all utilizing the artificial lights! Well, except the one I saw on the driveway, but the rest were.

“Oh yes, the first one caught a frog right under a bulb outside our room. Second one was in pitch dark in the driveway, but it was on its way to some place. Third and fourth were again in the fence that was lit up by the lights from canteen!” I said to myself.

“May be I should go back and look around the canteen area”

I was all smiles when I reached canteen. This time, on a low branch of a tree on the North side :)

A nice specimen, around 36 inches long, was scanning the area below it. Amazingly, it didn’t quite get bothered by my presence. I went back to my room to get the camera, notepad and a pen. I knew it was going to be a longish observation, so made myself some coffee. Time check: 23:10hrs.

I sat there taking notes for over an hour until I saw the body language change. It was – ‘Target locked’

I could see a Bark gecko climbing up a tree nearby. The moving gecko just froze 12 inches away from the snake. Then, there  was a looong wait. 17 full minutes.., before it started climbing up again.

I could see the snake getting ready to strike as the gecko went closer.

“8 inches..”

“6 inches..”

“5 inches…”

...and WHOOSH.. A lightning fast strike; bang on target!

Ahaetulla nasuta swallowing a Hemidactylus leschenaultii

Super awesome adaptation by these guys, eh?

But again, we do find several sleeping at night regularly. Like I said earlier, not all of us are smart! :)