The DesertCrocs Project
Kutch: A Unique Survival Challenge
Like in most other places where crocodiles exist, rapid and unabated development is permanently destroying these animals' habitat. In a desert environment, water becomes a very precious resource - one both humans and animals both vie for.
Kutch receives less than adequate rainfall most years, and in the summer temperature often rises above 45° C.
Climate change multiplies these threats as water becomes very scarce with longer, hotter summers and shorter, sporadic periods of rain.
Kutch is an island. Isolated from the North and East by desert and salt marshes, and the Indian ocean from the South and West.
All crocodile populations in this region are, and have been, isolated for a very long time.
An unfair fight
Even though a desert, Kutch is significantly over-farmed. Legal and illegal pumping of reservoirs small and large, as well as natural dams and ponds reduces the few water bodies available to the crocodiles.
This forces them to seek new habitats, often bringing them into residential areas or farms where they become prey to fear and are sometimes killed outright. Other times they end up as roadkill on highways.
These unnatural and rapid water level changes creates a major threat - undue exposure of nests. With their nests becoming accessible to feral dogs and other predators. Crocodiles babies have an extremely high mortality rate, and such exposure dramatically reduces the hatchlings' chances for survival. Such mortality rates could be considered well beyond the "natural limit" for these apex predators.
Kutch presents another unique aspect for studying crocodilian behavior: a supremely clean record when it comes to human-crocodile conflicts. There had been only one recorded incident of a fatal incident related to Muggers in Kutch between 1960 and 2013, and even that had been later marked as questionable by local authorities as the person was suspected to have drowned.
The relationship between people and crocodiles in Kutch is a very healthy one, where humans living next to them have shown great respect towards the reptiles. Local crocodile populations even garner affection from some of their human neighbors.
Employing cutting edge technology
We have developed techniques specifically adapted to the local biome and climate to use satellite imagery to identify crocodile sites with a very high level of accuracy. This is very important because a vast majority of crocodile habitats in Kutch are not easily accessible, and the distance between water bodies can range from a few hundred meters to several kilometers.
By predicting habitats and seasonal movements using open source satellite data, we can accurately find and observe crocodiles populations - even previously undiscovered ones.
Using drones for high altitude observation provides a unique way to observe the animals in their habitat without disturbing them. Using advanced methods, even subsurface observation is possible, revealing the hidden world of crocodiles beneath the water's surface.
Advanced imaging and processing methods are used to identify and tag crocodiles from aerial observation points, revealing individuals - and even patterns of behavior - that may prove extremely difficult to spot from the ground.
Instead of extrapolating the population density based on a finite set of samples, we can achieve a much more accurate count. Such techniques have allowed us to identify 256+ individuals across 6,558,700m2. Repeat observations reveal behavior and movement patterns without intruding on the animals.
We are at the end of the first phase of research. We have uncovered many interesting new aspects and characteristics about the crocodiles of Kutch.
Please check back for the published paper on the Phase 1 of DesertCrocs.