Crocodiles live,eat, play & fight in middle of Lucknow city

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It is early morning and there are few visitors. I arrive at Kukrail Crocodile Pond with one of the keepers familiar with it. As I am adjusting my sight with diverse features of the pond, the keeper points to a croc at the pond edge near us. Probably, the croc hears this before me and start swimming towards the centre of the pond. Suddenly, there is commotion in the pond and about half a dozen crocs start chasing each other. There is lot of splashing, wagging of tails and threat gestures. It is apparent they are fighting. But it cools down soon.

This is small, almost circular but natural pond in Kukrail Reserve Forest of Lucknow, right in the middle of the city. Pond area is about 2 ha. There are natural trees lining all along the bank, with branches of some bending down to kiss the water. A strong fence has been erected all around for the safety of animals for man can do anything. We can see empty water and soft drink bottles floating in the pool along with chips and snacks empty packets! The crocs have large number of visitors for company throughout the day. The adjacent area of the forest is popular as Picnic Spot. The pond surface is all green – entirely covered with fallen mini-leaflets. The cover opens up when a croc swims across.

As I stand here, and scan every inch of pool, I notice drift wood type stuff. I feel something amiss. I zoom my camera lens close and find it’s a croc! Only small part of snout, eyes and nostril are visible in the green pool.  OMG! Once I see this stuff, I find 4 more such crocs disguised as drift wood. One of them reads my mind and soon swims away to the far end of the lake. I hang around at the pond for about half an hour. Some or the other action of the crocs is evident.

Crocs largely feed on fish. I notice, for company they have another fisher, White Breasted Kingfisher. It lands on a branch close to where I am watching the scene. Oh! What’s that huge thing in its beak? As I take photo, I can see a lizard almost the length of the King, held crosswise in the beak! Kingfisher is indeed an agile hunter.

The Keeper tells me there are 14 crocs in all in the pond. There is very old mother stock of one male and two females brought here in 1989 – That’s 30 years! So, three of these guys are 30+. Quite long, longevity. There are only few records of such lifespan.  Little is known about matting and breeding among these crocs or emerging of offspring. Several crocs rescued from nearby places, have been released in the pond. There is one Kukrail Nala – a seasonal stream by the side of the forest. This gets flooded and some crocs come along. Few of them end up in streets or in houses, creating a panic and SOS situation. It’s not a rare happening.  A quick search online reveals a news story where a six-foot long young female croc on 18 August 2018, last monsoon, entered a house in Gudamba in Lucknow. Such animals are captured and release in the pond or wild.

I never expected a poem on crocodiles but I am surprised that the famous author Lewis Carroll of 19th century indeed has scribed few lines on the animal.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Kukrail crocs live, eat, fight and play in the pond. They have nowhere to go. There is a Hindi saying which translates to ‘If you want to live in a pond, there is no point keeping enmity with crocodile.’ This may be true for fellow crocodiles as well in Kukrail.

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Crocs cannot go anywhere to complain

“Oh! Shit. Mom cannot we have a clean home?” baby croc asks her mother. Mother herself is in bit of a trouble. One of its feet got entangled in a fishing-net. She has been strong enough to get free but part of net is now permanently wrapped around the left front foot. Mother is depressed. People are stealing their food also. She is helpless since, all the lakes in the area are more or less similarly polluted and affected. She broods over the good old days, her grandfather used to talk about. Those days, Shivpuri was a sleepy small town and people use to be able to manage their shit at their own end and not pass on to animals’ home.

The croc family, whose conversation I overheard belongs to Sakhya Sagar – a large lake in the middle of a wildlife reserve, Madhav National Park adjacent to Shivpuri. The reserve has been a royal shooting preserve of the, than, Gwalior State. At one end of this lake is around 100 year old Sailing Club. This may have busted with royal parties in good old days. Now this is a grand old Forest Rest House with two suits.

Madhav is teaming with herbivore, reptile, carnivore, and of course, avi-fauna. One can see large herds of spotted deer and nilgai. Wild boars can also be spotted.  Crocodiles are common in lakes. We often come across huge monitor lizards in the forest. Leopards operate in the area but are sighted infrequently.  Tiger used to be common here but unfortunately now there is no resident tiger population. Once in a while some dispersing tiger finds temporary home here. Forest is dry deciduous in nature. Thus, the visibility is good in the forest.

I am lucky to be staying at the Club. The whole place is for me, thanks to a forester friend. I sit enjoying lavish breakfast on a huge veranda, the size of a tennis court but more squarish, and extending into the lake. In fact, this has been erected on pillars in the lake.

This is so wonderful. What a sight – mix of natural and cultural history.  I can see the huge lake spread before me with variety of birds. Hilly, undulating landscape is spread beyond. At the other end, I can see some nilgai feeding lazily. Did I see a chowsingha (four horned antelope)? Not clear from so far, but is possible. I can see or maybe imagine a crocodile here and a crocodile there, now and again, by tell tale ripples in the lake, barely visible snouts…

In the afternoon, we go around the lake to watch wildlife. All along the edge of the lake we can see plastic bottles, plastic bags, rags and what not – waste that has beached. And in the middle of all this waste all along the lake edge are basking crocodiles, difficult to count all in just one afternoon visit – they can be between 50-100, of all age and size. Must be of both sexes, though, I do not know how to differentiate. There they lie like dead but as we approach in a vehicle, closer than 100-150 m, they are full of life and with a dash they splash into the lake. A rare one allows a closer approach. That’s the prize of patience. Looking closely at water reveals, it’s not as clean as it should be. It’s blackish. There is some unpleasant stench as well.

I have visited Madhav some twenty years back. I do not remember all this. Nevertheless, I feel I must explore what’s going on.

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I find the cause is just a stone’s through away. City’s sewage is being directly mixed into the lake using a sly. The, than Gwalior royal, Madhav Rao Scindia, has designed the Madhav water supply system in such a way that there is water available for wildlife round the year.  In 1918, he built a chain of dams – set of three lakes – on the river Manihar. The drainage of the area reaching the river is first collected in Jadhav Sagar, just outside the present day National Park. Overflow from Jadhav is collected in Sakhya Sagar and overflow from here further goes into Madhav Sagar, and extra water through a sluice gate meets the Manihar River downstream. Prefect system thus provides water to the flora and fauna of the reserve.

The town municipality plays a trick to save the bother of managing the sewage. It brings all the sewage in a large channel which flows adjacent to Jadhav Sagar. Just few metres short of overflow point of the lake, the sewage is mixed with the Jadhav water. The water and sewage together overflow and pass down to Sakhya and from Sakhya to Madhav!

To add insult to injury, The National Park suffers at the hands of fishing mafia. Hand in gloves with local police and bureaucracy, truck loads of fish is illegally collected from the lakes in the Park.

Maharaja Madhav Rao is no more. Forest Management with limited staff is not able to stop the pollution and fishing. People of Shivpuri do not care. Municipality has cut short its work. Crocodile do not have a voice. How much waste might have accumulated in these lakes is anybody’s guess. This is really shitty.

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