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Sunday, August 01, 2021

Meet the mugger who can grip you in its death roll

One bite of this freshwater crocodile can snap the victim’s neck

Written by Ranjit Lal |
June 27, 2021 6:18:21 am
muggerA mouthful of knives: The mugger balances twigs on its broad snout to lure birds (Source; Wikimedia commons)

Personally, I love their Machiavellian toothsome grins and the wicked glint in their eyes, especially when they’ve just spotted their lunch or dinner. They will slip into the water with nary a ripple and submerge, only their eyes focused on their target. Once in range, they will wait until their target bends down to drink again. And then, all hell breaks loose. Like a missile from a submarine, they will rear up, those great jaws, crammed with crooked razor-sharp teeth wide open. One bite, the most powerful in the animal kingdom, is usually enough to snap the victim’s neck. Or else, the thrashing victim is dragged back into the water and drowned. It’ll be cut into large chunks, or the crocs will grip it and roll ghoulishly (the infamous “death roll”) to shear off chucks of flesh, which are swallowed. Once their bellies are full, they need not hunt or eat for a while.

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Crocodiles, the world over, have given us the willies for thousands of years. Of the 23 species in the world, three are found in India: the mugger or freshwater crocodile, the estuarine or saltwater crocodile and the gharial.

The mugger is a 13- to 14-foot-long creature, dark olive or grey or beige, with armour-plated fluted skin, and a broad snout. It lives in freshwater habitats all over the country, hunting birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Apart from its powerful bite and a mouthful of knives, its tail is sheer muscle and helps propel it through the water, and thrash enemies. Also, the mugger is known to balance twigs on the top of its broad snout to lure birds looking for nesting material, technically, that’s tool use.

Like all crocs, muggers are cold-blooded and have to heat their bodies up by sun-bathing, which is why they can be spotted on the banks of water bodies, basking with their mouths wide open. Often, the local plovers will provide some dental hygiene by cleaning their teeth. They may seem sluggish, but they can gallop hellish fast over short distances on land, and easily catch you in the water.

Muggers are usually tolerant of each other except in the breeding season (February to April), during which the female will dig a hole at the water’s edge, in which she lays between 8 and 46 eggs, which will hatch two months later. She takes immense care of her eggs and will tenderly escort the hatchlings one by one (in her formidable jaws) to the water, where she and her partner will look after the brood for as long as a year: a degree of parental care unheard of in the reptilian world. In spite of this, the survival rate of hatchlings is very low as most are taken by fish, birds, mammals and snakes, and, sometimes, others of their own kind. The sex of the hatchlings depends on incubation temperature in the nest: little girl crocs develop at cooler temperatures (28 to 31 degrees Celsius), little boy crocs like it hotter (31 to 32.4 degrees Celsius).

Their parents’ courtship, too, is remarkably romantic with the partners swimming around each other, bumping snouts face to face (the croc equivalent of kissing), blowing bubbles, riding one on top of another, with the actual mating usually occurring underwater.

Muggers were plentiful before the British turned up and then, like so much other wildlife, numbers dived downhill steeply as they were ruthlessly hunted for their meat and skin. In 1975, wildlife biologist Romulus Whitaker, appalled by the situation, started his captive breeding centre, the Madras Crocodile Bank. In 2013, the wild population was estimated at less than 8,700.

One major problem with restocking the wild was that people living near these water bodies did not want crocs as their neighbours. This despite the fact, that there is one village in Gujarat, where the villagers and their children happily live cheek-by-jowl with the massive reptiles, bathing, swimming, washing in the same waters and are quite blasé about the animals (There have been 26 attacks in 30 years, only one fatal). Nor does the government seem to want them around; apparently, some 300 crocs were displaced from the area where the Statue of Unity has been constructed and another 300 to 500 are to be displaced, from the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river, Gujarat, where a seaplane port is being envisaged. Muggers are considered to be the third-most dangerous crocodile in the world: in 2018, they killed 18 people, so obviously human muggers are far more dangerous than crocodilian ones!

There is some truth in the legend that crocodiles shed tears while devouring their victims (as do some human muggers), but no creature can match it for its wonderful toothy, “Heh-heh, I got you where I want you!” lopsided grin and the glint in those eyes before it heads towards its oblivious victim!

We’ll check out the other two beauties — the estuarine and the gharial — in a subsequent column.

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