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October 28, 2013

Mitigating Human-Crocodile Conflict in Odisha, India

Humane Society International/India

  • Seventeen feet long. Soham Mukherjee/HSI

  • This attempt at a crocodile exclusion device is not secure. Soham Mukherjee/HSI

  • Drawing of a more secure, more permanent safety enclosure. Soham Mukherjee/HSI

  • This man lost his wife to a croc attack. Soham Mukherjee/HSI

  • This man was attacked in this very spot; he survived thanks to sheer luck. Soham Mukherjee/HSI

  • We're working to keep both people and animals safe. Soham Mukherjee/HSI

by Keren Nazareth

In our work for wildlife, HSI has two broad areas of focus: stopping abuse/preventing animal suffering, and humane mitigation of human/wildlife conflict. Included in the latter are campaigns to stop badger culls in the UK, promote immunocontraception of elephants in South Africa, and build lion-proof bomas in Kenya, along with a humane technology assessment project at Oxford University.

Donate to help us keep wildlife safe: Become a Wildlife Defender.

Now, we've added decreasing human-crocodile conflict in India to the list.

A need for intervention

HSI consultant Soham Mukherjee recently conducted a survey in affected areas of the Kendrapada district of the state of Odisha, India after MP Jay Panda (also a supporter of HSI's Be Cruelty-Free campaign) called our attention to the issue.

Soham found that most villages along the Brahmani river and its branches depend almost exclusively on these waters for bathing and washing clothes, as well as for drinking water. Minimal safety measures are in place and there have been seven deaths reported in the past three years, along with several near-misses. Proper mitigation will make a significant difference.

Vidyadhar Mai, who lost his wife to a fatal crocodile attack three years ago, says, “My wife went out bathing in the river like she had for the past 40 years, but never returned. We couldn’t even trace her body. We all use the river for bathing, but I guess she was unlucky that day.” He and other family members still use the same spot.

Raghunath Parida, who last year lost his 14-year-old son, Kamalakanta, says, “My son was bathing in the river with his friends when a big crocodile dragged him under. The crocodiles have always been here, but never used to attack like this. I think they are coming out of the national park in search of food. We cannot kill them because they are protected by the law, but who will protect us?” When asked whether people had changed how they used the river after the fatal attack, he says, “No, but the government should do something.”

“Everyone that I interviewed knew of at least one fatal and a few non-fatal attacks in their village or in the neighboring villages, but there was an equal lack of action among all of them. The key is to accept that big crocodiles are part of the environment we live in and exercise the necessary precautions,” says Soham.

Living safely side-by-side

Since the mid-1970s, communities, conservationists and the government have worked hard to to protect the area's declining saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) population. A 2010 census found 1610. However, villages have been growing simultaneously and getting closer to the animals' habitat around Bhitarkanika Sanctuary and National Park.

Physical structures to exclude crocodilians and reduce the risk are used in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, the ones in these villages are not always optimal. Low-quality timber, embedded sparely in the bottom of a river, allows the animals to slip through. The netting used may not be secure, and some structures go underwater at high tide. Crocodiles also have good problem-solving capabilities and can figure out how to turn things to their advantage.

There would be more attacks if they weren't content with easier prey, says Soham. He recommends in his report that the government supply villages with the wire netting needed to build enclosures, while individual households should be encouraged to make barriers using timber and hand-woven nets. He also suggests working to raise awareness, digging wells and setting up water storage tanks.

Much can be done to prevent this conflict from leading to a hunt aimed at killing these reptiles.

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