Here's what The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust's 'zoo normal' will look like when it reopens for the public
Smaug, the Komodo dragon swallows a whole chicken in a single gulp. Not your average Facebook Live — but Smaug, bless his reptilian soul, is not in the least bit camera shy. He is quick, alert, and stretches his stubby limbs between bites, following what is called a target stick that his keeper uses to focus his attention. The video garnered close to 2,000 views recently on the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Center for Herpetology’s Facebook page. And this is just a start, we are told by director of MCBT, Allwin Jesudasan — when we ask him about the ‘new normal’ at the park.
As we cross over into lockdown 5.0 in Tamil Nadu, Jesudasan tells us upping the 44-year-old park’s virtual presence is a top priority going forward in the months to come. “Our internet connection is currently not very reliable and we are just investing in a leased internet line. Once this is in place, we will have a lot more virtual programs, virtual tours, workshops, and more,” he shares with us.
Preparing for visitors
This is apart from plans to have visitors coming through in a calibrated manner to ensure that social distancing norms are honoured when the lockdown eases, as well as any other regulations laid down by the Government. “We will ensure that there is signage reminding guests of the importance of social distancing and wearing of face masks at key points (vehicle parking area, entrance gate, ticket counter, water points, washrooms, etc) across zoo premises. Sanitization facilities will also be provided at strategic points for all visitors,” Jesudasan shares the infrastructure details the park’s staff are putting in place, in the meanwhile.
All this comes in the backdrop of a dire need for funds, given the hit to the park’s reserves with no visitors during the lockdown. You might have seen the call for help to patrons and wildlife enthusiasts to help raise 80 lakh by founder Romulus Whitaker on social media recently, And on World Environment Day, it is heartening to hear that the response has been overwhelming. “We have raised over 30 lakh from crowdfunding so far. We have also received a significant amount of direct donations and a few grant applications are being processed,” the director shares with us. The amounts will go to whatever the donor has decided to contribute to — food for the reptiles, salaries for local staff, a COVID-19 relief fund for the Croc Bank... “Recently, we were able to replenish the water volume of one of the large pens, thanks to these donations. The animals loved it!” says the director.
Numbers tell the story
• As per last year’s records, about 1.20 lakh visitors would have visited the park between March and June, if not for the pandemic
• So far, MCBT has crowdfunded INR 30 lakh out of their targetted INR 80 lakh required
• Staff numbers usually as high as 55 have dwindled to 15 members due to the lockdown
Another notable source of support comes via the newly-launched ‘Enclosure Adoption’ programme for high net worth individuals and corporates. Education Officer Achsah Steffi John at MCBT says that even their single reptilian adoptions has seen a steep rise in numbers, going from two entries a week prior to the pandemic to 10 after. “We are confident that we will raise the targeted amount of 80 lakh by end of June,” Jesudasan says.
Reptilian chill zone
Amidst a sweltering summer, crocodiles we are told can handle high temperatures when there is access to cool water and shaded sections of land. But park caretakers make it a point to hose down smaller enclosures such as the Travancore tortoise section. Lizards and snakes enjoy their daily dose of spray downs too.
2020 plans at MCBT also include the showcase of a new species: the Cuban crocodile, at an enclosure upfront. Though it was brought in from the Czech Republic in the early 2000s for breeding purposes, we are told this is the first time it will be on display, come July. Currently, however, staff members busy are sifting through piles of online art submissions on the theme biodiversity to put on their social media page for World Environment Day. Meanwhile, a group of local stone sculptors hammer away at a new set of art panels for the park’s entrance, for a new look when visitors return. “This will feature some of the star animals we have here: komodo, iguana, anaconda, python, star tortoise, Aldabra tortoise, gharial, and saltwater crocodile,” Jesudasan says.