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Well-wishers help Madras Crocodile Bank avoid a financial crisis during pandemic

The drop in visitors due to covid-19 lockdown affected revenues, but several donors have now stepped in, says park director Allwin Jesudasan

Crocodiles rest in their enclosure at the Madras Crocodile Bank, closed due to the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mahabalipuram, India, August 3, 2020. Picture taken August 3, 2020. REUTERS/P. Ravikumar (REUTERS)

Two days after media reports talked of a financial crisis looming at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpatology, its director Allwin Jesudasan told Mint that the sanctuary was “coping amazingly well” after well-wishers and wildlife conservationists stepped in with aid over the past few months.

The Madras Crocodile Bank was set up in 1976 by Romulus Whittaker, a US-born herpetologist. Set in an 8-acre campus on the outskirts of Chennai, it is home to over 2,000 reptiles, including includes snakes, lizards, turtles and 17 species of crocodiles. Every year it attracts nearly 4.5 lakh visitors from across India and beyond.

Since mid-March, the government of India banned visitors to zoos and wildlife sanctuaries to prevent the spread of covid-19. The sudden dip in footfall, said a report by Reuters on 10 August, meant the crocodile park missed out on nearly Rs1.4 crore in ticket sales. Reuters had also quoted Jesudasan saying that their funding status allowed them to stay functional only for “another three or four months.”

In an email interview with Mint on 12 August, Jesudasan said he was “terribly misquoted”. He did not elaborate on what the error was. But in the month of May, he said, the Bank had launched a fundraiser for the upkeep and functioning of the sanctuary and received a “spectacular” response.

The website of the Bank does acknowledge a funding crunch, however. “Our senior staff has taken a voluntary 10-50% pay cut on their salaries and we have cut down our activities to just the critical ones, all to cut costs while simultaneously ensuring that our animals remain well cared for,” it says.

But, overall, said Jesudasan, "we are coping amazingly well with the covid-19 situation,” he said. “In this regard, I have to emphasize that you should not carry any negative title just to ‘hook’ the audience.”

Edited excerpts:

What are the challenges you have faced in managing the Bank post lockdown?

Luckily for us, all our local staff are from the opposite village and so there was no issue of local travel. In the beginning, there was a lack of clarity on whether zoos were allowed to operate under lockdown. Fortunately, the Central Zoo Authority acted swiftly to have the Ministry of Home Affairs issue a clarification that Zoo Operations would be added to the list of essential services. Once this was issued, there were absolutely no issues with things such as food transport.

What are the kinds of expenses incurred in managing the crocodile sanctuary?

The big expenses for us are food for animals and staff salaries. Pre-lockdown, about 50% of all our expenses were met through ticket income. The remaining used to come from other sources such as donations, CSR grants, and so on.

How did the funds-crunch impact your operations?

The fund crunch did not greatly impact the operations. We quickly ran a fundraising campaign and several donors came forward to help us. Even now several donors have pledged their support and so we are confident of seeing this through. Fortunately, the Croc Bank has a huge pool of well-wishers, because of our contributions to conservation.

Did it impact the reptile residents' care and upkeep?

Absolutely not! Reptile care and husbandry is our top priority and we continue to give top-quality care.

How about the research and other activities you ran at the bank?

We have temporarily suspended our volunteer activities. Most of the volunteers were involved in various research projects. Other than the volunteering activity, all other activities continue to function.

What are the options you've explored to regenerate revenue?

As mentioned before, we ran a fundraising campaign and we had a good response. Government departments are very supportive and if there is ever a crisis, we are confident that they will help us out.

How has the response been to your appeal for donations?

We ran a big campaign in mid-May. The response was spectacular. Even though the objective was to raise funds for meeting operational expenses for three months, the interest that it generated meant that we got enough to cover us operational expenses for several months. Apart from this, several donors have pledged their support to us and so we are confident of coming out of this crisis a lot stronger.

Are you in favour of easing the movement restrictions and allowing visitors inside the crocodile bank?

Even if the government allows zoos to open, we will open the park to the public only when we are absolutely sure that our staff are not at undue risk. When the park opens, we will follow whatever protocol the government sets, such as checking temperature, providing hand sanitizers. Educational boards will be installed to reiterate the importance of maintaining social distance, wearing masks, and so on. Apart from this we will only allow a certain number of people in the park at an instant so that we can enforce social distancing norms.

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