Rethinking coexistence with wildlife in the wetlands of Gujarat

Sitting outside on a bed frame between my guides and friends, Anirudh Vasava and Niyati Patel, I have a view of the large pond in Traj, a village in the Kheda district of Gujarat, India. We are here to talk to Hemant Ode, the father of a girl who was killed by a mugger crocodile (Crocodilus palustris) at the washing place, a short distance from us. A cow is tethered near us, and four water buffaloes graze nearby. Hemant sits with us, while his wife, Naniben, watches us from the veranda of their house, a few steps away. The smell of wet cow dung, which she has been using to coat the floor, hangs in the air.

Their daughter, Hetal Ode, was washing a large steel pot in the pond. A few other children were swimming nearby. When the pot fell into the water, she had to wade out until she was waist-deep to fetch it. This was when the crocodile seized her by the wrist and pulled her under. Adults were called, and they searched for her without success. After 30 minutes, the mugger surfaced with the girl. The villagers chased it into the shallow water and recovered her body. Hetal was nine years old, the only child of Hemant and Naniben Ode.

The study of such tragic incidents, and the responses of locals and the authorities to them, is a growing topic in conservation science. A new journal, Frontiers in Conservation Science, features a whole section focused on such negative human-wildlife interactions. As a result of climate change, human expansion into wildlife habitats, and successful conservation efforts, encounters with wildlife are increasing. Most studies of such encounters focus on things that go wrong. Conservationists use their knowledge of wild animals to try preventing bad things from happening, and to persuade and help locals to live safely alongside damage- causing wildlife.

While this is important and useful work, it has resulted in a focus on the negative interactions between humans and wildlife—“human-wildlife conflict”—as well as on human-human conflicts over how to deal with these problems. Much of this work focuses on the harm wild animals cause, and on trying to compensate for this through monetary payments or offering economic benefits for tolerating damage caused by wildlife. This means we have not paid enough attention to where things do work well and people coexist with wildlife. In turn, we also overlook the many non-economic dimensions of people’s relationship with wildlife and the natural world.

But what is meant by ‘coexistence’?

Simply put, it refers to a sustainable although dynamic state (there will be ups and downs, as negative interactions will sometimes occur), where humans and wildlife adapt to sharing landscapes. Tolerance can be passive. For example, not killing a predator which kills your domestic animal. Tolerance can also be active, by taking steps to avoid conflict, such as building islands for muggers to bask on safely and reduce encounters on the shore, as done in the village pond at Deva, Anand district, Gujarat. Importantly, human interactions with wildlife must be effectively governed to ensure wildlife populations persist. We believe such governance will only work if it is socially accepted, locals are represented and involved, and management ensures tolerable risk levels.

I came to the Charotar region of Gujarat to witness the coexistence of locals with crocodiles described by regional crocodile experts—Dr. Raju Vyas and Anirudh Vasava of the Vidyanagar Nature Club (VNC). VNC has been running a successful annual Charotar Crocodile Count since 2013, involving local residents, schoolchildren, and wildlife enthusiasts from all over India, in observing crocodiles and learning about their ecological role in the region’s wetlands. In a survey of mugger attacks conducted during VNC crocodile counts (2013–15), Vasava and his team learnt about four attacks on humans between 2009–2014. These incidents occurred in the villages of Traj, Deva and Heranj, and there have been a handful of attacks since then. The VNC survey also recorded attacks on livestock in the villages of Laval, Malataj, Traj, Changa, Heranj, Dabhou, and Dali. Despite these attacks, these communities are widely tolerant of muggers, and there are many recorded ‘rescues’ (16 between August 2013–November 2014), wherein crocodiles were removed from areas where they pose a risk to humans or livestock, and were either released back into the village pond, or transported for release in the Pariyej wetland.

Vishal Mistry, an expert local natural historian and VNC member, brought us to meet Hemant Ode.
I had not come to Traj to hear about conflicts and hatred for crocodiles, but to learn about this man’s extraordinary response to the tragic loss of his daughter, Hetal, to a crocodile. First, it is important to stress that both parents were still clearly devastated by their loss. A head-and-shoulders photograph of Hetal hangs on the front wall outside of their home. A pretty, smiling girl in a blue dress looks out from a wooden frame with a gold rim. A simple glass bead necklace hugs the frame (presumably Hetal’s).

Hemant is 42, a lean man with a lantern jaw. He grew up in the village and remembers no attacks from his childhood. He wasn’t even warned by his father or grandfather to be careful around the crocodiles in the pond. The village committee leases the pond to fishermen, who come every year to net fish. They catch and tether larger muggers on the bank, to keep them out of the way until they are done fishing. The children sometimes come and tease these muggers, and should be more careful not to get nipped, Hemant says.

Remarkably, following the loss of his daughter, Hemant has not campaigned to have the mugger killed or removed from the pond. He is nevertheless afraid to go near the water now, and says you should be cautious of crocodiles. “If you tease them, harm will come to you,” he says. Removing muggers known to locals will result in new and unknown muggers moving in, he reasons. Hemant does not have negative feelings towards crocodiles. In fact, he has become a mugger mitra, joining a ‘crocodile’s friend’ scheme and advising people on staying safe around crocodiles. He has even participated in two mugger rescues– capturing and removing crocodiles from places where they might pose a threat to humans.

Myth, message, meaning

Hemant tells us that a good strategy for raising local awareness is through the Hindu goddess Khodiyar, who is always shown riding on the back of or standing next to a mugger. The story of Khodiyar originated in Gujarat around 1,300 years ago. Of magical birth, she got her name through an injury to her foot, while on a journey to fetch a remedy for her brother, who was bitten by a snake. Limping, she was helped by a mugger crocodile, who carried her on its back, and for this service she came to be worshipped as Khodiyar maa. She is still widely worshipped in the region, answering prayers, healing and protecting her adherents (not specifically from crocodiles).

Hemant and Naniben were eventually paid a small amount of compensation for the loss of their daughter, but this had minimal impact on their attitudes towards crocodiles. Studying the situation at Traj as a conflict would miss quite a lot of what is happening here. More recently, an old man named Lakshman Chavda was killed by a crocodile in the same village pond. He had been advised against getting into the water, but continued to take long baths in the pond. Later, in the office of the village sarpanch (mayor) Ajay C Patel, Lakshman’s son, Manish, told us that nobody is to blame because it is well-known that crocodiles are present and the responsibility to be careful lies with people. Manish told us he wasn’t angry with the crocodile when the attack occurred, but only anxious to recover his father’s body (Lakshman’s body was recovered the morning after the attack, bitten but not consumed). The sarpanch, a stocky, active man with close-cropped hair, says that crocodiles have lived in the pond for a very long time, and are a part of local life. Fishing is allowed in the pond, but enough fish are left for the crocodiles. The mugger that attacked Lakshman Chavda was caught (there was some debate over whether the right one was caught!), and removed to a nearby wetland, Pariyej. Warning signs have been erected and the village council has applied to the Forest Department for a Crocodile Exclusion Enclosure.

In our recent paper published in the journal Conservation Biology, Anirudh Vasava, Saloni Bhatia, and I argue that it is in shared landscapes such as these Indian farmlands, that human-wildlife interactions should be studied, rather than in and around conservation’s more traditional focus—protected areas. Coexistence does not mean there isn’t any conflict. We spoke with villagers in the neighbouring Vadodara district, who didn’t want crocodiles living nearby. Some hinted at wanting to kill them, but feared prosecution. Coexistence occurs where there are ways of dealing with the occasional harmful event in ways acceptable to locals, and where there is tolerance for the animals responsible for them, as demonstrated by the remarkable villagers of Traj. Of course, this doesn’t just involve studying how humans interact with wildlife, but also studying how animals like large crocodiles have adapted to living (for the most part), peaceably alongside humans.

Studying coexistence with wildlife requires different skills to those usually used by conservation scientists. It is important to think through what it means to interact with local people, often with different customs, spiritual beliefs, social norms, and economic status. Researchers have an ethical duty to ensure no harm comes to those they work with. Asking people about traumatic events requires empathy and tact, and putting the feelings of interviewees first. This kind of research takes a long time, and is best done in collaboration with local experts and field workers. It is important to approach communities in the proper way, get necessary permissions and earn people’s trust, while also taking into account the concerns of local institutions and the government too.

Management recommendations for human-wildlife conflict scenarios mostly focus on prevention and one-off or short-term compensation measures, but we should remember that people’s lives may be changed forever, and attitudes deeply affected in the long term, by traumatic encounters with wildlife. Researchers should also remember that after they have gone, or their papers have been published, it is the locals and the local authorities who continue living with wildlife. In areas of the world where significant wildlife persists outside of protected areas, these populations still exist largely because of varying degrees of long-term human-wildlife coexistence.

Studying coexistence where it occurs in the world, respectfully and using the appropriate methods, will greatly enhance our understanding of the ways in which humans and wildlife can coexist. It can reveal how different values systems and cultures promote tolerance of wildlife. It can also highlight other dimensions to consider, besides rational decision-making based on calculations of costs and benefits. In these challenging times for biodiversity, it will also (while acknowledging harms and conflicts) bring us stories of hope, and grounds for optimism that we can coexist with wild animals.

On my way back to Ahmedabad at the end of my visit, I received a text from Vishal Mistry with a photo of Hemant Ode next to the trap they had used to catch the crocodile that had attacked Lakshman in the pond at Traj. It had been on its way home, from where it was released in the Pariyej wetland. We have much to learn about managing human-crocodile interactions, but this story gives me hope that we can do so in ways that allow both to flourish together.

Further reading

Pooley, S., S. Bhatia and A. G. Vasava. 2020. Rethinking the study of human-wildlife coexistence. Conservation Biology, Early View: https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13653
Vasava, A. G., D. Patel, R. Vyas and V. Mistry. 2015. Crocs of Charotar: status, distribution and conservation of mugger crocodiles in Charotar Region, Gujarat, India. Vallabh Vidyanagar, India: Voluntary Nature Conservancy.

This article is from issue

15.1

2021 Mar