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Home > News> Talking Point > Diwali Special: This Chennai-based ‘bank’ invests in crocodiles

Diwali Special: This Chennai-based ‘bank’ invests in crocodiles

  • Madras Crocodile Bank, India’s largest sanctuary for reptiles, organizes volunteer programs between two weeks to a month
  • Volunteers can also adopt its reptile residents, work with them and sponsor its upkeep

A ‘gharial’ basking in the sun at Chennai’s Croc Bank
A ‘gharial’ basking in the sun at Chennai’s Croc Bank (Photo: Nikhil Raut/MCBT)

If you want to smell like fish, feed hundreds of enormous crocodiles, handle venomous snakes and observe endangered tortoises, then the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (MCBT) or “Croc Bank", as it is called affectionately, is the place for you. While it might sound scary, under proper supervision, these experiences can not only be memorable but also lead the inquisitive mind to a career in conservation biology. Many volunteers trace their progression to careers in marine biology or herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) to the time they spent at the MCBT.

The Croc Bank is located about an hour’s drive down the East Coast Road (ECR) that runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal, connecting Chennai to Puducherry and beyond. Spread across 3.2 hectares, it houses more than 2,000 animals and sees about 450,000 visitors annually.

Established in August 1976 by India’s “snake man" Romulus “Rom" Whitaker and his then wife Zai,the Croc Bank was a response to the large-scale commercial hunting of crocodilians for their skin, which had driven many of the species to the verge of extinction. Over the last 43 years, it has assisted in the revival of many reptile species in India and is also Asia’s first crocodile breeding centre.

“We think our volunteer programme is fundamental to what we are trying to do," says Nikhil Whitaker, curator, MCBT, and Rom and Zai’s son. “We have had it from the early 1990s. We try to place the seed in their mind and if they are of that inclination, they take it and run with it."

The MCBT has two volunteering programmes: a two-week and a month-long programme. Apart from this, it has a docent programme in which volunteers can come to the centre on weekends and help out with various activities. While these three programmes are for adults, they facilitate half and full-day camps for children, with themes such as “Be a zookeeper for a day" or “Know your reptiles".

On the Sunday I visited, the MCBT was full of tourists. I was taken “behind the scenes", passing through gates that displayed “Do not cross" signage. There the feeding process for the crocs was explained. “They are fed with tons of fish that are brought in every week," says Steffi John, education officer at the MCBT.

“A typical day at MCBT involves getting up early to go on a round of scooping crocodile poop in the enclosures with all the smiling akkas," says Anuja Mittal, who is a researcher working on freshwater turtle conservation in Assam. “After breakfast, activities would include collecting information on the research projects I was working on, such as noting the diving behaviour of a gharial (a fish-eating crocodile found in the Ganga) or checking on the temperatures that the gharials preferred for basking."

Mittal volunteered at the MCBT in 2014 and 2015. She adds: “I would also roam in the park and interact with visitors and children and talk to them about the crocodiles, along with doing public talks for visitors during the day. My afternoons were spent cleaning the algae off the walls of the ponds, feeding crocodiles, preparing food for all the turtles and tortoises or cleaning the nursery ponds with the baby reptiles. Evenings are usually free and we used to go for runs on the pristine beach right behind the MCBT with our pet dogs or go for a swim in the ocean, or spend time reading in the library that is dedicated to books and research on reptiles."

The volunteering programme is not limited to budding herpetologists. As Nikhilsays: “We have had people who are studying journalism, architecture, engineering and other disciplines be a part of the programme. They end up writing, designing and kind of shaping the volunteering programme as it suits them best. We also tap into their skill sets sometimes, like when a few engineering students built an aquarium pump that runs for 12 hours and then shuts off automatically."

A staff member conducting an educative session on snakes for schoolchildren.
A staff member conducting an educative session on snakes for schoolchildren. (Photo: Venetia Sharanya/MCBT)

The volunteering programme is also a place to meet like-minded individuals from various parts of the world. As Hagen Gegner, a marine scientist from Norway who volunteered at the MCBT in 2010, says on email: “Apart from the fieldwork component, I was also exposed to a variety of outreach activities at the Croc Bank. These activities aimed to bring people closer to science, animals and ultimately help them understand nature. School classes would visit or workshops were held on crocodiles and snakes."

Gegner adds: “This influenced me profoundly and helped me recognize that exposure to science, as well as science literacy, is crucial for any community. Nowadays, I incorporate this aspect in my everyday life as a marine scientist."

Having visited the MCBT on multiple occasions as a tourist before, to get to know what volunteering here entails was rather enlightening. If not motivating the potential volunteer to take up a career in conservation, the experience will at least leave the volunteer with a lucid understanding of the reptilian world.

CALL TO ACTION

Money-wise: 18,000 for a month-long programme and 12,000 for the two-week programme (including accommodation and food cost).

Need to know: Volunteers need to be fit and work well within a team.

You could also: Adopt a reptile and sponsor its upkeep.

Essentials: Carry essential medicines, sunscreen and a hat.

Reach out to: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

Sibi Arasu is a journalist based in Bengaluru.

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