Crocodiles, snakes, peacocks, dogs, porcupines, horses… Hemant Vadhavana has lost count of the animals he has rescued over the past few days in Vadodara. The 20-year-old ‘crocodile rescuer’ is the man the Gujarat city mostly turns to when it rains and the reptiles start flooding the streets. But this year has been different, in both the amount of rain that caused offices, schools and colleges to shut down, and the number of crocodiles. In the days following the flash floods of July 31, 10 crocodiles have been spotted every day — including on viral social media videos — and at least 22 rescued so far.
The muggers come riding the waters of the Vishwamitri river, which intersects the city at more than six points.
It’s 8 am three days after the flash floods, and Hemant’s house is buzzing with phone calls. Nets, tongs, ropes, tapes, foldable beds, a desktop computer, a shelf full of trophies and photographs and a small tumbler kept underneath a leaking roof, share the 1BHK space along with Hemant, his mother and, these days, five co-rescuers. The latter, including college students and part-time workers, moved in on August 1, after the workload went up.
Apart from his own phone number, Hemant retains his father Rakesh Vadhavana’s. “Since most people knew him, I still use that number,” he says. Rakesh, a wildlife activist, used to be Vadodara’s most-sought-after crocodile rescuer. After he died last year of a heart attack at the age of 43, Hemant stepped in, and now works with the Forest Department.
Guiding the first few callers to volunteers closer to their location, Hemant and his team have breakfast. Around 10.45 am, Paarth Vyas, a resident of Shri Harinagar Society in Akota area, calls up to say two crocodiles have been found swimming in their society. Hemant notes down the address, and calls up one of his volunteers who lives close to Akota to go and check. “We look out for things like depth of the water. If it is more than 4-5 ft deep, it is difficult to spot a crocodile and also dangerous for us. We also check if there is a possibility that the crocodile might swim back into the Vishwamitri by itself, if the society is close to the river,” says Hemant.
In five minutes, the volunteer calls back to inform there is just one crocodile at the society, in around 3-ft-deep water, and can be rescued. Hemant and six volunteers leave for the site, around 8 km away, in a van functioning as a veterinary ambulance. Confident of the way, he says, “During Uttarayan (Gujarat’s kite-flying festival), we visit almost every society in the city for bird rescue.”
Reaching Shri Harinagar, the men spread out, carting a 22 ft-by-15 ft net and a tong custom-made by Hemant to catch crocodiles, a stick, a tape and a piece of wet cloth. They mostly wear gum boots during rain rescues, but when there is waterlogging like here, the boots get filled up with water and become heavy. So they wear sports shoes.
Six of them led by Hemant head out for the capture, while two are tasked with keeping the public at bay. People looking out from balconies and windows end up hooting and invoking gods and this, says Hemant, can alarm the reptile.
Hemant and his team get into the water that’s now rising above their knees, and begin the search. The trick, Hemant says, is catching ripples indicating movement in the water, or spotting the crocodile sticking its head out to breathe.
Today, he is the first to see its snout, peeping out from between a chikoo tree and a motorcycle. It’s an interminable one minute as they wade their way to it, and position themselves, three on either side, holding out the net. One of the men moves the stick in the water to make the crocodile swim towards the net. However, the crocodile escapes, gliding underneath.
It’s another minute before the team spots the crocodile again, as anxious residents shout out own inputs, some telling the men to go left, others to head right. The appeals by Hemant’s men, anxious of being attacked as the crocodile remains unseen, to maintain silence are ignored.
The six now decide to fix the net to their feet, and this time the crocodile gets caught. They drag the 6-ft reptile to dry land, and three of them sit on it to hold it still. Then, as two of them, Yash Patel and Sandip Gupta, hold its limbs, Harshad Soni ties a wet cloth around its eyes. This, Hemant says, will keep the crocodile calm. Its mouth is shut with tape, before it is removed from the net.
As people gather around taking photographs, videos, and selfies, some trying to touch the crocodile, the 20-year-old worries that this can disturb the animal and make it aggressive. “For us, it is as much a living being as a human.” But few listen, and Hemant allows photographs, but no close contact.
Around noon, with the crocodile placed on the floor of the van, the team leaves for the Forest Department office 4 km away. The department usually provides vehicles for rescue, but these days, the demand is high and personal vehicles have been allowed. At the forest office, the authorities take charge of the reptile, make an entry and move it to a cage.
Hemant’s phone already has several missed calls and messages, seeking his services to rescue not just crocodiles but also dogs and cattle. Forwarding these calls to other volunteers, he says his team will first have a quick lunch. “We try not to skip a meal. To handle an animal we have to be fit,” he says.
Acknowledging their “bond with Hemant, going back to his father”, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Vinod Damor, says, “Since the department is also addressing complaints of tree-felling after the rain, the volunteers have been a boon.”
Hemant largely depends on the Rs 15,000-25,000 a month he earns making crocodile tongs and selling them, working as a part-time trekking guide, and tips from people grateful for their rescue operations.
However, from the time he started accompanying his father to such rescues at the age of seven, Hemant says, he never thought of doing anything else. “Initially my father refused to take me. But I was very curious, I would ask a lot of questions about animals. Finally he gave in… The first time I rescued a crocodile was at age 7.”
Hemant’s father then sat him down and explained it was not just about capturing the animal “but also about taking care of it till it reaches the rescue centre”.
Hemant spends his spare time around animals too, either trekking in the forests or watching videos of animal rescues on YouTube.
Around 4.30 pm, there is a call about a dog stranded in a bush close to the Vishwamitri river. This is an easy one, but Hemant knows his day is not done.