FULL CIRCLE 10 Sit. Come. Up. Stay. Teaching an old dinosaur new tricks unlocks ancient animal secrets BANGALORE FEBRUARY 6 2010
While "Training" or "Target Training" is part of behavioural enrichment that allows the animals to "do something" and gives them some relief from monotony, so teaching them to respond to these instructions "engages them physically and also keeps them mentally active
lly," young Soham Mukherjee beckons. "Ally come," he coaxes. And Ally shows up, compliant and prompt. "Ally come" he repeats. And she presses forward as commanded. He spells out more instructions to prove his student's competence. Ally dips lower and rests on the ground to Mukherjee's "sit"; she hoists her body as if doing a push up, when he says "up". Then he instructs her to "stay". With her head tilted up, she obeys motionlessly. The impeccable student performs flawlessly with a cute leap as her response to "jump". As the afternoon's open air sessions progress, a swarm of students watch from across a wall with plunging jaws and hisses of incredulity. The absolute and immediate adherence by Mukherjee's enthusiastic pupils could be classified as trivial amusing tricks. But for the fact that his students are a bask of crocodiles. Mukherjee, the assistant curator at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, (MCBT) Chennai that is home to over 2,000 crocodilians of 14 different species, takes time to introduce his trainees, which include sub-adults of five species - Ally the teacher's pet, is an American Alligator, Mik a Saltwater Crocodile, Thai and Komodo are Siamese Crocodiles, Abu is a Nile Crocodile and Pintoo is a Mugger Crocodile. Mukherjee's lessons to these reptiles are also called Enrichment Training, which is part of Behavioural enrichment. To the baffled, he explains: "Animals in captivity can be extremely bored with nothing to do and so enrichment is essential to keep them happy and healthy. Environmental enrichment typically includes providing a close-to-nature habitat (e.g. perches, logs, rocks, misting, waterfall, different smells, leaf litter, etc) to allow and encourage natural behaviour in the animals." While "Training" or "Target Training" is part of behavioural enrichment that allows the animals to "do something" and gives them some relief from monotony, so teaching them to respond to these instructions "engages them physically and also keeps them mentally active", he says. He also points out that training the crocs is a Mukherjee takes valuable management time to introduce aid. "Dangerous animals crocodiles go his trainees, which like through a lot of stress include Ally the while being restrained teacher's pet, is an for any reasons like vetAmerican Alligator, erinary intervention. To Mik a Saltwater make the process crocs can be Crocodile, Thai and smooth, trained to enter specially Komodo are designed wooden crates Siamese with windows on the Crocodiles, Abu is sides. These boxes are a Nile Crocodile compact which does not turning around in and Pintoo is a allow any way. Once the crocoMugger Crocodile dile goes in, you close the door and do all the necessary check-ups, administer medication, take samples for the lab, etc, with no safety issues and minimal stress to the animal. Also crocodiles can be trained to be 'desensitised', which means taking the animal's physical comfort to such a level that it ignores and tolerates almost all physical contact. Drawing blood samples, monitoring their health and diet becomes easy when they are desensitised." Mukherjee traces his journey back to a year ago, when he first started training the six crocodiles, which are around six years old. While a keen herpetologist, Mukherjee confesses to glaring scepticism when the idea was first mentioned to him by veteran German herpetologist Ralf Sommerlad, who has been involved in crocodilian biology and conservation for over three decades. Recounting his early lessons, he says that he started with 15-minute training sessions at 3pm with each crocodile from his training group. "Crocodiles in general are quite shy. It's only with some behavioural conditioning [associates a particular activity, on completion of which animal gets a reward - usually food, fish or beef in this case] that they become a bit bold. Young animals are warier. They probably see humans as predators and in a captive scenario, a source of food, nothing more. Winning trust of such animals is surely a bit tricky," he admits. The first chapter of the curriculum is to get the animals to recognise their names, he reveals. Mukherjee cites Ally's example: "I'd call out 'Ally' and then throw a piece of meat. After a couple of days, she'd wade to the water's edge every time I called her name. I use a stick with which I tap the crocs gently on their snout after each command is obeyed." This first achievement, which was Ally's response, got him excited and soon he began to be astounded by his rep-
It helps people understand that reptiles are very much like dogs and cats and they think and interact like us. And it helps educate people about animals that are misunderstood
PATRICK AUST DIRECTOR, MADRAS CROCODILE TRUST
Armoured beasts who can trace their lineage back to prehistory bite force of a crocodile is more than 5,000 pounds per square inch.
are much more closely related to birds and dinosaurs than the other reptiles. sex of a crocodile is determined on the basis of its temperature. Males are produced at around 31.6 deg C and females, at slightly lower or higher temperature.
as in aggressive displays.
sweat through their mouth and the gesture of lying with their mouth wide open is just a way to cool off.
STICK FIGURES: Mukherjee (seen her with Ally) believes that Alligators and Spectacled Caimans are highly intelligent, Nile Crocodiles are arrogant, winning trust with Dwarf Caimans is difficult, and males are bolder than females. But each individual animal has its own personality tilian students. "It's important that the training is done at the same time every day. And each animal would get only 15 minutes; this makes them look forward to the next day's training. And it usually takes about five to six sessions to make them learn a command." "After some intense training days, they all had chosen their 'spots' where they would come and wait for the training. There is no training on Mondays, and every Monday you could see them getting ready at around 3pm for the training. This meant that they were enjoying the activity. And they could calculate time of day. More amazingly, they could also calculate day of the week," he says proudly. It isn't just crocs that hate monotony, but even Mukherjee tries to keep his classes fresh. "I am always trying to innovate and see if the crocs will respond to new commands. So once we were through with regular target training commands practised elsewhere in the world, I tried newer commands. Inspired by a YouTube video I taught Rambo a 45 year old Mugger Crocodile to open his mouth, and I also teach crocs to walk on a ramp, which gives them a bit of exercise." Handing out a report on his pupils, he says: "Ally is bold, but if she hears noise she'll go back. She's a good example for a desensitised croc. Pintoo learned a command by just watching me train Ally and I had never imagined that crocs could be so smart. Mik is a bit shy; it took me the longest to train her, about 15 sessions. Thai and Komo-
trend, while in the Cologne Zoo, Sommerlad himself will be training larg Nile crocodiles and Philippine crocodiles. Although Target Training of reptiles is new, he says that a heartening conclusion can be arrived at: Crocs of all species, ages and sizes can be trained. Mukherjee couldn't agree more: "I was so amazed by the fact that crocodiles assess their immediate environment so well and figure out a way in which they get the maximum benefit. Learning tricks that are completely unexpected and which sometimes include problem-solving skills disproves the age-old impression of them being highly instinctive animals." While Patrick Aust, director, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust acknowledges the benefits of the training, he also views it as a powerful tool to educate people about these otherwise conceived-as-creepy reptiles. "It helps people understand that reptiles are very much like dogs and cats and they think and interact like us. And it helps educate people about animals that are misunderstood," he says. "Ally can respond to 10 commands," Mukherjee says like a proud father. Once Ally performs the commands and earns herself a piece of red meat. "Ally water," says Mukherjee gently tapping her snout with a bamboo stick. And she whips her tail before obediently lunging back into the water and wading to become a pair of attentive eyes.
THE GREEN ALERT
Red flags are hoisted, now let’s save the planet find more people interested and even 'passionate' about wildlife today than every before. Wildlife and nature photography is a widespread hobby and even career. There are children from the first grade onwards who want to grow up to be conservationists, biologists and field researchers. All this is very heartening and it provides me with a massive injection of hope that we might actually be able to make a difference in the much-proclaimed green battle. So, now there are tonnes of places that you can go to and watch wildlife on safari or trek. Companies offer tailor-made tours and experiences, there are vied-for Masters' level courses in Wildlife Biology and dedicated channels to nature and wildlife. The Internet provides all kinds of options from PDF files to interactive pages where we can learn more about the natural world and even discuss points and issues
with experts. Climate change and global warming are globally hoisted red flags. We know all about the effects of deforestation and pollution. Poaching and encroachment are scorned at and we separate our garbage. So, why is it so hard for us to simply get this planet back on track so that it doesn't collapse on top of us? Is it a bit strange that folks that know better continue to pollute, waste and exploit natural resources? Why do school kids not bother carrying a water bottle to school instead of using throwaway plastic glasses? Why do bank statements come along with numerous other brochures, fliers and miscellaneous pieces of paper that get thrown away? Why do we allow eight to 10 1000Watt halogen bulbs to light up a billboard while we have shortages in electricity? I could go on till the cows come home after having grazed on heavy metal-filled grass. I have a theory. It might be simplistic, but give it a thought. When I was a kid, I could cycle between school and home without worry.
first crocodiles appeared on earth, around 240 million years ago,
do would lunge out of the water suddenly and run in the exact same manner. I currently train 26 crocodiles. Having a dog of my own, I feel that training crocodiles is much easier than training a dog." When asked if he has arrived at conclusions based on the responsiveness of the animals, Mukherjee answers that Alligators and Spectacled Caimans are highly intelligent and are fast learners, Nile Crocodiles are slightly more arrogant, winning trust with Dwarf Caimans is extremely difficult, and males are bolder than females. But each individual animal has its own personality. Since the trend of training crocodiles is relatively new, Mukherjee says that Internet doesn't necessary have a wealth of 'how to train crocodiles' resources and it was Sommerlad, who is currently involved in a crocodile conservation project in Kalimantan, Indonesia, who got him started with the Enrichment Training project. Giving a brief background of Target Training, Sommerlad traces its beginning: "Target training started around 10-12 years ago in the US. I witnessed it first in Gatorland in Florida, where Flavio Morrissiey, a leading expert on Alligator Behaviour did fascinating basic work. This quickly developed and alligators and Cuban crocs were being trained." He also says that Target Training is being practised in big American zoos and in his own country Germany, the Hagenbeck Zoo has cottoned on to the
Why is it so hard for us to get this planet back on track so that it doesn't collapse on top of us? Isn’t it strange that folks that know better continue to pollute, and exploit natural resources?
can produce sounds during distress as well
TO PARK OR NOT: How can I say to a child that has never seen pelicans and painted storks in lakes around Bangalore that they are in terrible condition? Why bother cleaning up a lake when you never need to eat a fish from it? Asks naturalist Gerry Martin (seen here talking to youngsters)
There'd be stopovers to catch fish at some pond or grab a game of football or cricket on the road with some friends. The 20-kilometer ride was filled with experiences. For a child who was always crazy about animals, there was always something happening. There were trees to be climbed everywhere, swimming was fine in most of the lakes in and around Bangalore and there was no black soot on our faces at the end of each day. Unless we experimented with fire. My theory is that we refuse to take our planet seriously because we are not connected with it anymore. We hide from the rain, fear most animals (including rabbits as I've seen with visitors to my farm), don't notice a tree being torn down and couldn't care less about some remote forest that is being destroyed to allow a mine or road or 'Nature Resort'. There's not much else that we can expect. How can I say to a child that has never seen pelicans and painted storks in lakes around Bangalore that they are in terrible condition? Why bother cleaning up a lake when you never need to eat a fish from it? I believe that we have to get back to being a part of this planet. Even if it is a compartmentalized-on-weekends type of thing. It removes 'sacrifice', from the things we need to give up or stop. Children love it. Really. The good news is that it's not too late. We don't live within a glass dome that processes air for us, yet. We can head out. Cycle on Sundays. Go pitch a tent out in the wilderness. Join a trek group. Take your kids fishing. Learn fishing. Buy a camera and photograph nature all around us. Simply connect. THE WRITER IS A NATURALIST