“Chal Jaa!”, he shouts, standing inches away from a a seven-foot Marsh Crocodile basking in the sun. Surprisingly, the reptile ‘agrees’, reluctantly crawling into the water, almost like a petulant child. This species, also known as Mugger, is known to be aggressive in the wild. But after 28 years of looking after five crocodiles at the Byculla Zoo, Vilas Amberkar (53) has developed a special bond with them. “I can even hold their tails and they won’t do anything,” Amberkar says. He has been the only human to be in such close contact with the crocodiles, besides the veterinarian, when he is required.
For the past 28 years, three times a day — morning, afternoon and evening — Amberkar has been entering the enclosure to check on the animals. First on his do-to list is making sure all of them are alright, often poking them with a bamboo stick to make them turn and check for wounds.He then cleans the pond and sweeps the surrounding area. After this, he has to report to the head Mukadam (caretaker), who will take action in case of injuries. Amberkar holds down and manages the crocodiles when their wounds are being dressed by the veterinarian and gives them their medicines and supplements when needed.
Dismissing the notion of being at risk around the carnivores, Amberkar says, “These are fairly lazy animals. They usually sprawl out on the floor or float in the water, paying no heed to humans. They have never attacked me or anyone else.”
Come Tuesday, the crocodiles get excited as they see Amberkar approach with buckets of fish — 60 kg of mackerel or catfish. They are fed only once a week, owing to their slow metabolism.
“They know it is lunchtime when they see the buckets, and start moving to the feeding spot even before I reach there,” beams Amberkar. “Of course I feel affection for them, I have taken care of these five for so long! They recognise my voice too,” he adds.
Three of the mugger crocodiles have been kept in separate enclosures, to prevent the three males from fighting each other. “Earlier, there were only wire meshes separating them. They would tear through that and begin fighting violently — they are extremely strong animals,” recalls Amberkar. Around a year ago, iron rod fences were installed, and have successfully kept fights at bay.
Having studied till Class VI, Amberkar had no formal training for this job. Very few people were willing to do this work back then, but as men from Byculla were being recruited, he took the opportunity.After working as a helper under the then caretaker of the crocodiles, he learned the ropes and succeeded him.
Today, he earns Rs 22,000 a month, and lives in quarters within the zoo. Both of his children have graduated and work at private firms. Asked if he or his family has ever been concerned about the risks involved in his job, Amberkar says confidently, “Not at all! I know these animals, they are my responsibility.”