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TBI Blogs: How I Discovered Fearlessness and Positivity at Tamil Nadu’s Crocodile Bank

AIF’s Clinton Fellow Avan Antia shares her admiration for the founders of Tamil Nadu’s Croc Bank, who pulled up their sleeves to make a difference, and inspired a whole generation.

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After the demonetization of the ₹500 and ₹1000 notes, the election of Donald Trump, the death of Fidel Castro, the victory at Standing Rock, the passing of Tamil Nadu’s CM Jayalalithaa, and the intense Cyclone Vardah, I think we can plainly say that these past months have been rather eventful and surprising.

In light of these events, I have come across a slew of inflammatory news articles, people with very strong opinions, and plenty of Facebook posts offering unsolicited advice. In addition, I’ve picked up on something that I never paid much attention to before – there is a certain art of criticizing the shortcomings of one’s surroundings and simultaneously hoping for change.

A lot is happening in the world and everyone has something to say about it. Sometimes it seems like everyone is an expert in solving these complicated, multifaceted problems. Frankly, with the amount of information readily available at our fingertips, I wouldn’t doubt that for a second (only slightly joking)! Yet this expertise is a different animal. This expertise is not purely academic – instead, it stems from various origins. The elderly speak with years of personal wisdom and nostalgia of the “good old days”, while the youngsters writhe with idealism, craving a better world.

“If only we could [insert plausible solution] …”

A relevant Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.

If only. Two words that can cause such helplessness – desiring something that could be, but isn’t. They may cause exhaustion as well – it can be tiring to speak of an ideal that may never become reality. Yet, these words can also be a driver for change. My time spent working at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust is teaching me how fearless people change that “if only” into something tangible and positive.

Zai and Rom, founders of the Croc Bank, experienced a reality where various reptile species (specifically crocodilians and snakes) were being hunted to the edge of extinction, yet they dreamed of a world where people would respect and protect wildlife, instead of exploiting it. Therefore, they created this organization to serve as a hub for herpetological breeding, research, and education.

Dissatisfaction with reality may be a catalyst for change, but that doesn’t make it a sustainable driver for change.

A gharial poses in the early days of Croc Bank.
Another glamorous gharial in the early days of the Croc Bank.

One of Rom’s major contributions serves as a testament to the idea that a key element of modern conservation is to find a balance between human and wildlife mutual benefit, rather than compromise.

The people of the Irula tribe have always been known for their impeccable abilities to “read” the land, looking for signs from bird calls and tracks in the sand. Arguably most impressive is their ability to catch snakes in this way. During the years of widespread reptile skin trade (1950s-1960s), Irula livelihood was dependent on selling skins into the international trade. Yet with the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, skin trade was banned. Lucky for the snakes, but not so good for the Irulas.

Realizing that snakebite was the cause of over 45,000 deaths in India yearly, Rom put two and two together to establish the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society (ISCICS), which currently functions on the Croc Bank campus. ISCICS mobilized the Irulas to catch snakes to extract venom and then release them back to their habitats. The venom was then sent to a lab to produce antivenom to treat snakebite patients in India.

With that, the Irulas regained their livelihood, the snakes kept their lives, and snakebite victims could be treated with quality antivenom. A win, win, win situation!

Irula snake venom extraction demonstration.

After spending the past year in the development space in India, I have come to believe that it is this angst that Zai and Rom must have felt towards the exploitation of wildlife, this “if only”, that is one of the drivers that help us shape our world. If we are content with what is around us, we won’t see any need to better the situation.

Which makes me question…how do those that work in the development sector keep themselves going? To address a question of inequality or injustice is to constantly feel adverse towards the topic. How does a person constantly care for a social cause without wearing themselves down, or without coming to terms with the inevitable truth? To be honest, I do not have an answer to this question. In fact, I am here in India so that I may at least gain some insight into the idea and perhaps eventually find some answers down the road.

After a while, the ability to see improvement is what drives you to keep working for the cause. As the assistant director, Yamini, puts it, the fuel that keeps us going each day is the fact that “we get to educate the public on this generally misunderstood group of animals and show everyone how awesome reptiles really are!” That is surely a fuel that will never run out.

Though the Croc Bank started during times of rampant reptile hunting, it now runs on much more positive fuel – smiles from park visitors, enthusiasm from students in the educational programmes, and increased public awareness of reptile conservation efforts.

Our sweet Shanti akka feeding the Indian Star Tortoises.
Arul, Zoo Educator, giving a “Croc Talk” in the park.
Nagaratnam (aka Paindi) anna feeds Jaws III.
Monty mistakes Pavithra, queen of the iguanas, for a tree.
Ajay, Assistant Curator, whispers sweet nothings to his gharial friend.
Shobana akka teaches enthusiastic school kids about recycling.
Nik, Zoo Curator (and my mentor), conditionally trains Shaheen, the Komodo dragon.
About the author: Avan Antia serves with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Mahabalipuram.

Find out more about the Croc Bank and how you can contribute to the project on the website.

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American India Foundation's William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector landscape to be more efficient and effective.