Bureaucratic inertia creates plague of crocodiles: A saviour of reptiles is being destroyed by his own success, reports Tim McGirk from Mamallapuram

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The Independent Online
A NATURALIST near Madras is stuck with 10,000 hungry crocodiles, which the Indian authorities forbid him from selling or killing for their valuable skin. All that he is permitted to do under law is crack a few eggs for an omelette or make crocodile custard.

Romulus Whitaker, an American-born naturalist whose wavy, blond hair is turning prematurely grey, stared down at the pit full of crocodiles. There were hundreds. Some crocodiles lazed in leathery piles, as though they all had a monumental hangover. Others were sunk in a pool, with only their yellow eyes and snouts visible. One sneaky fellow was slithering up the side of the pit, waiting to grab any visitor foolish enough to lean over the edge.

'At the rate things are going,' Mr Whitaker laughed grimly, 'I may have to offer myself as their lunch.'

Somehow Mr Whitaker must come up with food for his 10,000 crocodiles. Every week they devour three tons of meat bones and two tons of fish. He used to buy rats caught in the alleys and sewers of Madras ('Just like a vitamin pill,' he said) but at 5 rupees (11p) a piece, the rats proved too expensive. Transporting the rats was also dicey.

The rats, shrieking in complaint, travelled down the bumpy road 27 miles to the crocodile farm, stuffed into a cage on the top of a public coach. The coach passengers, understandably, feared a spill of rats.

Mr Whitaker is a victim of the Indian bureaucracy and his own success in breeding crocodiles. In 1975, zoologists raised the alarm that India's three native species of crocodiles - the mugger, the ferocious salt-water crocodile, and the rare gharial, a portly-looking creature with a rapier-thin nose - were in danger of extinction.

Hunters were killing them off. With backing from the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Indian government, Mr Whitaker set up his Madras Crocodile Bank for breeding the animals.

Among the studs was a 30-year-old mugger which had spent most of its life cramped inside a tank smaller than it was. 'We popped him in with eight females and Wham] he didn't stop,' Mr Whitaker recalled. Soon, wildlife sanctuaries along India's rivers and coastline were replenished, and the Indian government told Mr Whitaker that they did not need any more crocodiles.

That was fine with Mr Whitaker, except that the Indian government has since refused to remove crocodiles from the top of the endangered species list. If Mr Whitaker made himself a pair of crocodile cowboy boots, he would pay with a three-year jail sentence and a pounds 500 fine. Although India faces a crocodile glut, it is against the law to kill or sell them for commercial purposes.

Having to fill all those snapping jaws doesn't worry Mr Whitaker as much as how to convince farmers and tribesmen on the edges of game parks that it is in their interests to co-exist with dangerous animals. 'Tigers, wolves, crocodiles . . . let's face it. Our efforts to save these predators aren't working, anywhere,' Mr Whitaker said. 'Wherever there's a run-in between man and a predator, the predator always loses out.'

Mr Whitaker, 51, and many naturalists, believe the way to keep crocodiles and other wild predators alive is to let the people living around the game refuges kill the animals from time to time for money. Many animal-rights groups are apoplectic.

But as Mr Whitaker explained, 'You tell the people to look after a tiger because one day a rich Texan is going to come along to pay them dollars 50,000 ( pounds 33,000) to shoot it, and by God they will.' What he wants is to give his extra crocodiles to the Irula tribesmen and fishermen near Madras who were kicked off their land to make way for a wildlife preserve. An Irula, who earns about 300 rupees a month with his traditional activity of catching cobras and rats, could easily raise his income by looking after a crocodile. The skin sells for dollars 20 an inch, the fat is sought after in Eastern medicine, and the crocodile's tail, barbecued, tastes like lobster, according to Mr Whitaker.

'The Irula used to eat crocodiles a lot,' he added, though the Irulas will never gain fame as gourmets; roast rat and termites for them are a delicacy. For now, Mr Whitaker feeds his herd of crocodiles from ticket sales to tourists.

'The crocodiles haven't started eating each other, yet,' Mr Whitaker said. It pains him that no money is left over for research. Mr Whitaker's farm attracted scientists from the United States and Europe, investigating why crocodiles, which evolved little over the past 50 million years, survived and dinosaurs didn't.

Mr Whitaker's crocodiles are undeniably peckish. A Frenchwoman had her handbag snatched, appropriately enough, by a mugger crocodile. Within seconds, said Mr Whitaker, 'the crocs had ripped open the handbag and were fighting over who got to eat the travellers' cheques and credit cards.'

(Photograph omitted)