Saturday, November 22, 2014

Urban Crocodile

I have been spending the last few weeks in Colombo. But this doesn't mean that I don't stop my passion for wildlife and photography. Most weekend mornings are spent at Thalangama Tank. This man made lake is a haven for countless birds. I was very keen to photograph the occasional Black and Cinnamon Bitterns found there as well as the rare sightings of the Eurasian Otter. But despite 4-5 trips there luck was not on my side.

But I did manage to find few interesting sightings of nesting Open Billed Storks as well as the usual Purple Coot, Purple Herons and migrant Pintail Snipe and Blue Tail Bee Eaters.

The most interesting news I received over the weekend was of a young crocodile often seen in the heart of the city in a canal. I was very keen to go and photograph this critter as not only were the chances of this being a Saltwater or estuarine species of crocodile which I have never seen before but also it would an interesting story of urban wildlife.

The residents of the area told me that it sometimes appears on a sandbank along the Canal during the morning hours.

Keeping this in mind I was joined by my good friend Chaturanga who is always game for a new adventure and we decided to stake out this location for a few hours.

On the first day about 3 weeks back we were both extremely sick, and were both down with bad cold and cough. But despite this we were determined to spend a few hours in anticipation of the saurian.

But despite hours of waiting in the boiling vehicle till mid day we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this croc. disappointed we went back home determined to returned soon.

The next weekend I didn't expect to head towards this area and was waiting at home when I got a call from a friend of mine whose a resident that the croc is out again. Desperate to get there , I called Chaturanga but he was asleep. But the time he got up and came to pick me up it was too late.

Nevertheless we headed to the spot to try our luck and found that the water level has risen quite significantly during the day. We scoured the length of the canal but found nothing. We tried the same on Sunday as well but we saw nothing.

Determined to find him, I made plans to head there early morning this Saturday. We arrived at the spot, a hot Latte in our hand and waited. Hours went by and  yet no signs of him. The sun was right above us and the heat was getting unbearable. Giving up, extremely disappointed we decided to go to crescent to get the vehicle services. Just as we were about to turn in, we got a call that the croc is in the water. Immediately making a U turn we raced towards the spot. My friend was waiting there to show us the croc. The critter was so well camouflaged that it might have even been there all along.

Only the top of its head could be seen above the water, and from the looks of it, this was a small animal. I took out my big lens and started clicking. Few minutes passed and the croc made a turn and started heading towards the sand bank.

 Anticipating a better angle I asked Chaturanga to move the vehicle ahead. This was a good decision as the croc got on top of the small sand bank and made a turn to face the water. Suddenly he started opening his mouth wide in a gaping yawn. I managed to capture the sequence, and before I know it the croc was back in the water.

We waited few more minutes and then a boat appeared with men cleaning the canal. The arrival of the boat made the croc go under.

I was elated at our find and couldn't believe our luck. This was such an amazing find for me, especially as this was in an urban setting in the heart of the city.

The crocodile we saw was the species known as the Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus).

A description of this species is given below, written by Mr. Howard Martenstyn-

"The saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, is the largest of all living reptiles, with an adult body length ranging from 4.5-5.5m and can weigh over 1,000 kg. It is also the most widely distributed crocodile species as it can travel long distances by sea and colonize new locations. It mainly inhabits estuarine deltas in coastal areas and may sometimes travel long distances up river particularly during the dry season. Males are strictly territorial and solitary, unlike the mugger crocodile, which normally occur and bask in groups. Although the mugger is unlikely to be found in marine environments, their habitats can overlap due to the wide distribution of saltwater crocodiles."
 This was a first ever sighting for me and I was thrilled as its not easy to find this species.

The risk of a crocodile in this area is two fold. One is a potential danger to people if the crocodile grows to its full size. But from what I see the biggest danger is to the croc itself as people are known to kill and eat crocodiles, especially young ones.

Dr P.E.P Deraniyagala stated that these crocs have been recorded in Colombo during his time as well (1930's-1950's), and crocs have been in Kotte since the Portugese esa. These natural populations  have become more visible due to new housing schemes build along the waterways, and the recent developments happening in the past few years. There are known to be a few big specimens in Diyawanna Oya and Attidiya.

Another point to learn from the sighting for me is that Wildlife is something we find all around us. We don't need to go to far off jungles in search of it. If we open our eyes to what's around us we can find so many things. The urban setting is not a deterrent for wildlife if the right conditions are present.