Hostile conditions pose threat to marsh crocodiles of Manghopir

Karachi: Hostile environment has become a threat for the marsh crocodiles of Manghopir and prompt action on the part of the government and environmental protection agencies is required to save this endangered species, said Dr Tahira Abdul Latif, the noted researcher on crocodiles in Pakistan.

She said that a study on breeding and population status of Marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) in Manghopir Shrine Area was undertaken during the years 2010-2013. There is a 61 meters wide and 122 meters long water pond adjacent to the shrine. This pond is home to 144 Marsh crocodiles among them, there are 98 adults, 28 sub-adults, 15 juveniles and 3 hatchlings. In this area, the Sheedi Community (native peoples of the area) is providing shelter to the species.

She said this pond and its adjacent area is small for such a large population. They cannot perform their communal activities such as basking, breeding as the habitable area of the crocodiles is overpopulated. Though there is a large number of sexually mature crocodiles, a few nest, but due to intra-specific competition, animals cannot breed. Only five successful nesting events were observed during the study period. Additionally, there are no adequate husbandry measures taken for the protection of eggs and hatchlings.

She said according to the Community, these marsh crocodiles are gifts from their Saint, Sheikh Sakhi Sultan. Shortage of food and lack of requisite territory for biological activities are major threats to the Marsh crocodiles in the Manghopir shrine area, said Dr Tahira.

She said the crocodiles live in a variety of habitats and may persist in many different environments. Crocodiles are found in hot tropical areas of the world; globally they are found in many Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, Iran, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Indo-China. This species has numerous common names in Pakistan, it is locally called

Mugger Much, the name “Mugger” derives from the Indian ‘Magar-Machh’, that can also mean swamp crocodile. Marsh crocodile lives mostly in freshwater, rivers, lakes and swamps. Usually in case of water streams, it prefers stagnant and stumpy water. It shows great tolerance to aquatic environments with a greater saline concentration. A Marsh crocodile is regarded as “Keystone Species” that maintains ecosystem structure and function through selective predation on fish species, recycling of nutrients and conservation of wetlands in droughts.

She said the Manghopir Mountain range lies in the northwest of Karachi between Hub River and Manghopir. Its crocodiles were categorized into four groups according to their sizes; (i) hatchlings with length of less than 0.5 meter (ii) juveniles with length of 0.5-1.0 meter, (iii) sub-adults with length of 1.1-2.0 meters (iv) adults with length of more than 2 meters.

Dr Tahira said the Manghopir shrine area is s great attraction. This area is famous due to the following three main reasons, the shrine, the hot water spring and the crocodiles.

The shrine of Saint Sheikh Sakhi Sultan is located on a hill at an altitude of approximately 600 feet. It is protected and managed by Department of Auqaf, Zakat and Ushr, Government of Sindh and the local Sheedi community. The hot water Sulphur spring is another attraction. Many people regularly visit this area from long distances, to have a bath in the hot Sulphur spring to get cure and remedy from skin diseases. There are separate swimming pools and shower rooms constructed for men and women for taking bath in this hot water Sulphur spring.

The marsh crocodile pond is adjacent to the shrine area. It is a great attraction and source of interest particularly for kids due to large numbers of marsh crocodiles present in this pond area.

In Manghopir area the local community has firm religious belief about the origin of marsh crocodiles. According to their belief, these crocodiles are the lice of their deceased

Saint Sheikh Sakhi Sultan. In this regard, they esteem these crocodiles. This species has existed in such large numbers at this locality due to care taken by locals.

The community celebrates a yearly festival known as Sheedi Festival. It is also known as the crocodile festival. This festival is held in the Islamic month of Zil-Hijj. This festival shows their traditional and spiritual faiths about crocodiles. The devotees in this festival offer fresh meat to these crocodiles, as they sacrifice goats or other animals for fulfilment of their wishes. According to their belief, acceptance of meat by crocodiles is a sign of good health and prosperity. They also celebrate the garlanding ceremony of King Crocodile. It is known as “Mor Sahib” in the local language. It is the oldest animal in this population of crocodiles. Rose garlands are placed on the “Mor Sahib”

Dr Tahira told that during the festival, local community devotees seek blessings for their children by holding them over a marsh crocodile. The community also pays respect to the dead crocodiles. They burry dead crocodiles with an equal respect and formalities as for a human being. They have space in this area for the purpose. They do not allow sale or trade in marsh crocodiles.

She said during the study it was found that the main pond is home to 144 Marsh crocodiles, among them, there are 98 adults, 28 sub-adults, 15 juveniles and 3 are hatchlings. Here a large number of marsh crocodiles recorded in captivity even though the pond area is insufficient for such a population of crocodiles as restricts their biological, physical and social activities. She said the limited space is a major threat to this species in this area.

Dr Tahira said these crocodiles cannot move for a long distance, even larger animals move from land area to pond water and again towards land area. This area is not appropriate for their onsite breeding. In a year hardly two pairs were recorded to be doing nesting activities. She said the colour of crocodile pond water is leaf green, but there is no odour in this stagnant water. Water quantity and quality is not suitable as compared to number of crocodiles living in this pond.

Dr Tahira suggested that the Manghopir shrine area could be managed as a model protected area for the conservation of crocodiles. Local community is protecting this species because of their religious point of view regarding crocodiles as gift from their Saint Sheikh Sakhi Sultan. Considering the developmental trends in Manghopir shrine area, there is no serious destruction, modification or degradation of habitat. There is no impact from tourism activities that may negatively influence the crocodile population. However, the pond area is insufficient for different activities such as basking, breeding, and moving as the main strong hold of the Crocodiles is over populated. The food availability is also a severe limiting factor for them in this study area, she said adding there are some plantations inside and outside the pond area. Inside the pond area, Palm tree and Indian Badam are present, whereas outside the pond area numerous plant species were recorded. Filamentous algae were abundant and are disreputable for forming of large, pillow-like mats of algae that float on the surface area of pond, whereas other floating aquatic plants were not present. Elephant grass is also present which provides a shelter to hatchlings and juveniles it also provides the animals with shadow and lodging.

She said during breeding period, the female marsh crocodiles preferred to stay near the nesting area. There is high parental care observed in this species. The female crocodiles guard their nests very carefully. Hatchlings stay with their pods for longer time period. Hatchlings have instinct ability to identify their pods and mother.

Female crocodile builds nests near water habitat, where it usually lays approximately 35-70 eggs in a hole nest. The eggs are hard with calcareous shell. They are generally laid in late February to March.

She said In addition to Manghopir area, the crocodiles are present in wild and captivity in Malir, Sanghar, and Khairpur, Shaheed Benazirabad and Thatta districts. However, the largest population of marsh crocodile is present in Deh Akro II Wetland Complex in wild, there are 544 animals. In Nara Canal, 238 Marsh crocodile were recorded. In Chotiari Reservoir, population of Marsh crocodile was counted as 237. In the Haleji Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, there were 205 crocodiles in wild and 13 were in captivity. In Hub Dam Reservoir, only one marsh crocodile was recorded. In Kirthar National Park (Khar Centre), 36 crocodiles were recorded in captivity. The population of crocodile was recorded about more than one thousand in the areas of Makhi and Bakar Lake. In the Punjab region, due to environmental deterioration crocodile has become extirpated, whereas in Balochistan province, it has been recorded from Nari, Hub, Hingol, Dasht, Nahang and Kuch Kuar in small number.

She said the Scientific and Cultural Society of Pakistan (SCSP) is an active forum of experts working in the field of environment of Pakistan led by Professor of Department of Zoology at University of Karachi Prof Dr Mohammad Zaheer Khan. He said this society and its experts should be taken on board to preserve the crocodiles of Sindh on war footing basis.

Dr Tahira said the Manghopir shrine area has the highest recorded population in captivity in Sindh province. She suggested making the Manghopir area a protective site for the marsh crocodiles and take urgent steps for their better breeding and safety. She also suggested urgent steps to save the remaining population of the marsh crocodile in Sindh and Balochistan.

Dr Tahira Abdul Latif earned a Ph. D from the – Zoology Department, University of Karachi on her study on the onside breeding of marsh crocodiles of Manghopir, Karachi under the supervision of Prof Dr Mohammad Zaheer Khan of Karachi University.