Port Blair: The answer to the growing number of crocodile attacks at the Andaman and Nicobar islands may lie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the local administration petitioning the PMO to temporarily de-notify ‘Salties’ from the list of endangered species.

According to the proposal, which was also submitted to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, the Andaman and Nicobar administration sought the temporary removal of saltwater crocodiles from schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, which could potentially lead to culling of adult saltwater crocodiles. The current Saltie population is estimated at 1,700.

Under the Wildlife Protection Act, the schedule 1 status is given to the most endangered species of plants and animals and carry the highest penalty for poachers. However, permission may be given for selective culling if any species is declared vermin by local authorities or is perceived to be a severe threat to human lives.

“We have sought the ministry’s approval to allow culling of adult crocodiles, which will restrict breeding for the next three to five years and attacks will cease," said Tarun Coomar, principal chief conservator of forests, Andaman and Nicobar. The saltwater crocodile is the largest of all living reptiles and can reach 7 metres. It can be found across South-east Asia, Australia and the Sunderbans, besides the Andaman and Nicobar. They are known to swim long distances, which often makes their relocation difficult. Since 2005, there have been 23 reported cases of crocodile attacks in the Andaman and Nicobar islands with two fatalities on average every year. The last one was in November at Wandoor beach, a popular tourist destination near Port Blair. Ironically, the attack took place inside a safety enclosure at the beach which was built to keeps the crocs away. Attacks have taken place as far as Havelock Island, a popular resort island where a 24-year old woman, a US citizen was killed, while snorkeling in 2010.

In response to the rising attacks the local administrator has restricted access to many popular beaches across the islands and has put warning signs urging visitors to not venture into the sea.

“The fear has impacted both the tourism and fisheries industries, which are the main source of revenue for the islanders" said M. Vinod, president, Andaman Association of Tour Operators, and a member of an expert committee constituted by the administration to find a solution to the problem.

“The committee has explored various options including relocation of adult crocodiles to other distant islands, but it was not found to be feasible," he added. “Can you imagine a tourist visiting an island destination and not venture into the beach or the sea? This has been a death knell for the tourism industry because a single sighting of a crocodile in the vicinity can lead to complete shut down of swimming and water sports activity for 15 days at least."

Local conservationists however argue that the decision to cull adult crocodiles will not be easy and is bound to raise an outcry. “Culling should be the last option," said Denis Giles, director, Search, a Port Blair-based NGO.

“I feel that geotagging of the animals is a better alternative, which will allow better monitoring of their movements and provide adequate warning."

Incidentally, the rise of crocodile population in Andaman and Nicobar is a success story in its own right. Once poached extensively for their skin and meat, the saltwater crocodile population in the islands have grown from double digits in the mid 60s to about 1,700 under the government’s Project Crocodile programme, which was launched in 1975.

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