Living in Ahmedabad for eight years, I’ve come to appreciate the bond the city’s residents share with animals. It has often been explained to me as stemming from the Jain tenet of jivdaya (compassion for animals). I am very used to the big group of langurs that visits our lane. Peacocks and peahens make regular appearances. Weaver birds build nests on neighbourhood trees. I have been a happy parent, giving my four-year-old lessons on the animal kingdom in a way books possibly cannot.
Imagine my delight when I heard about a village close to Ahmedabad where humans and crocodiles have long coexisted. I immediately planned a trip, though with some trepidation, wondering how adventurous we could afford to be in a place that was neither zoo nor protected sanctuary. But the nonchalance with which the residents of Dewa, an hour’s drive away, pointed us to the muggers made it clear there was no reason to worry.
They directed us to a large pond located behind a vividly painted temple dedicated to a local deity. There were two boats on the water, and a group of fishermen huddled to one side. On another side of the pond, away from the human activity, we saw a slowly moving snout on the surface
We were thrilled to spot a reptile so easily, but the fishermen told us there were about a hundred in the pond, so it wasn’t any great luck. “But the muggers stay inside the water on fishing days, only a bunch of young crocodiles get caught in the nets. They are allowed to wriggle out," said Rajendra bhai, a resident of Dewa. He pointed out a second pond a short distance away where we spotted yet another crocodile, swimming right in the middle.
Over tea with Rajendra, we learnt more about the peace-loving muggers of Charotar, one of the greenest regions of Gujarat. Spread over the Anand and Kheda districts, Charotar includes about 30 villages, nearly all of which have populations of the Crocodylus palustris. According to surveys by the Voluntary Nature Conservancy (VNC), a local non-profit group that has studied the area, there are at least 159 resident mugger crocodiles here, and, unlike their dangerous counterparts in the Vishwamitri river in Vadodara, these reptiles have been coexisting with humans, with only 26 deaths reported in the last 30 years. “Our waters are brimming with fish so the mugger lives here, gives birth here. They bask in the sun or stay put on the bank for hours altogether. We have never feared them. There have been some accidents but mainly because an animal or human has strayed into the water," he said.
From Dewa, we drove to Malataj, a scenic village with pretty houses and a pond with at least 15 crocodiles. At first, we couldn’t see any. Then suddenly, clear as day, there were nine crocodiles soaking in the sun, looking like large black logs on the island in the middle of the pond.
Even though our viewing spot was a cattle shed on the perimeter of the pond with a proper barricade, I held on to my toddler tightly. Dhiru bhai, a cowherd in his 60s, watched us bemused. He told us more about why crocodiles are protected in the area. “The temple across the pond is of Khodiyar Ma, the goddess whose vahan (vehicle) is a crocodile. According to lore, at the beginning of time, she instructed the deadly creatures to never hurt the humans of the village. And the reptiles have obeyed ever since," he said. My toddler wanted to know if they ever ate his cows, since they were so close to the pond. “Never. In any case, I sleep here too. I protect my cows," he said.
Several crocodile exclusion enclosures (CEEs) are installed around the pond’s banks to give villagers access to the water. At one, 60-year-old Madhu ben was washing dishes. “In 45 years of marriage, I have come here every single day," she said. “I always think the muggers like women and children more than the men." A recent study of this region by scientist and programme director with VNC, Anirudh Vasava, states that the villagers are largely accepting of their reptile friends because there have been very few attacks in the region. And the dung they paste along the bank to give warmth to the creatures in cold weather becomes part of their diet, along with fish and small animals.
Elsewhere in the state, nearly 500 crocodiles have been ordered to be removed from their habitat to develop a seaplane ride near the Statue of Unity. Maybe a lesson in coexistence could have been taken from the people and muggers of the crocodile villages.