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Avan Antia’s Stories From ‘The Crocodile Bank’ Made Our Jaws Drop

  • IWB Post
  •  June 5, 2017


Lady Boss: “Did you get the crocodile girl?”
Me: Yes, I finally got our crocodile girl. *Office Trivia*

Meet Avan Antia; journeyed from University of Maryland, USA to the small town of Mamallapuram to deal with the waste the crocodiles are creating in a quiet Croc Bank. Over a phone conversation that lasted about an hour, Avan and I talked reptiles, kachara, education, Trump, Earth, Jaipur and more.

IndianWomenBlog: Who is Avan?

Avan: Well, that’s me. I am from Maryland, US. But my parents shifted there long ago from Mumbai. I am an undergrad in Biology and Spanish while my focus subjects have been Microbiology and Molecular Biology. AIF is the reason I am here in Tamil Nadu today for my 10-month long stay. The America-India Foundation offers William J. Clinton Fellowship that places students from India and the US to different NGOs they are tied up with.

IndianWomenBlog: Is this your first time in India?

Avan: Actually no. We fly down to Mumbai over the summers to see our extended family. Last year again, I was in Jaipur for 2 months to learn Hindi under the Critical Language Scholarship. The whole purpose of which is to study a language of your choice in an immersive environment. But yes, this is my first long stay away from home here, in India.

IndianWomenBlog: Culture Shock?

Avan: I only had seen Mumbai before. So I assumed this is what India everywhere looks like. Like Mumbai. And boy was I wrong! And here close to Chennai, is my first time in the South. The ways of life are so varied. But I have been so comfortable. It’s all about learning with an open mind. And that’s what travel is about. Fixing together 2 pieces that just fit and building upon that.

IndianWomenBlog: Now, tell us about the Croc Bank.

Avan: The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Center for Herpetology (MCBT) in Tamil Nadu is absolutely beautiful. We have around 2000 crocodiles in the park. It’s just amazing to be here. I walk past nurseries every morning that houses baby crocodiles, you know, the ghadiyals and little Turtles. The environment is just something. This is not my field specifically but coming from a scientific background I am able to do my research here and contribute in some ways and learn and take back a lot. Life here is an adventure every day. Most of my work happens in front of a computer screen but I get opportunities to get out to the park. The opportunities to work and to grow are so many. It’s a dynamic workspace.

IndianWomenBlog: And how did this place come about?

Avan: And it’s a lovely story. This space was founded by 2 men from the US; Rom Whitaker and Zai Whitaker in 1976 in response to the rampant hunting of the crocodile used for skin and reptile trade. Rom is the snake man of India. The species was nearing endangerment. To curb this and respond to the need of the hour, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust was established. What basically happens here is captive breeding to increase the number and maintain a balance of the reptiles and re-release them into the wild. But over the past few years, we haven’t been able to release them back into their original habitat because of the government orders calling it the destruction of habitat.

IndianWomenBlog: But how is releasing them back into the wild the destruction of habitat? You are sending them back home, correct?

Avan: It used to be their home, but the man has taken over their space. So releasing them back would mean danger to the lives of humans who now live there.

IndianWomenBlog:  You are here because this opportunity could be availed at the college level which is amazing. How different is education back in the states when compared to education in India?

Avan: AIF is open to both countries. It mainly focuses on the development sectors in India. So while I am here working in the environment sector, my friends are working on the domestic violence issues or in the health sector. Students from both the countries can apply for this but yes education back in the US, especially in my University, has a large focus on the extracurricular. We have over 600 students-led organizations, all free, that one can be a part of.

IndianWomenBlog: That’s really amazing. Do you know of this incident that happened some time back in a major university in India where a few students were arrested on sedition charges for what they said during students meet?

Avan: We are taught from very young age to voice our opinions. There’s this understanding of agreeing to disagree.

IndianWomenBlog: Things might be different now?

Avan: It’s scary but I really hope the beginning stages are not foreshadowing what’s to come. I hope the political climate doesn’t reject what it is built upon. We hold our differences as our greatest strength and that needs to be valued.

IndianWomenBlog: As an Indian in America how has the Trump immigration policy affected you?

Avan: Well, it hasn’t directly affected me. I am the citizen there. But, this is slowly going to get into the psyche of people. This negative rhetoric will lead people into actually believing what is being said about them.

IndianWomenBlog: Let’s get back. We were discussing crocodiles. Talk me through your project.

Avan: Spread in this lush 8.8-acre farm is our lovely croc bank. Can you imagine the waste that is generated there? The animal waste, kitchen waste, bio waste, leaf waste! Everything is dumped into a huge compost pile that has been here for about 5-6 years now. It is huge, I kid you not. Climb atop and you will touch the level of the canopy of trees. It’s this magnificently rich compost.

Here lies the problem. How do we find a useful outlet for all this manure? We have started distributing bags of compost for free in nearby villages. We will sell them in the future for a minimal amount. We are working on conservation and reducing our Carbon footprints. We are figuring out ways to reduce waste created by us, by the visitors. Most important step is the disposal. Eco-friendly disposal is the way to go. Recycle. We segregate waste at our campus; paper and plastic. It’s segregated until collected by the garbage collectors. What happens after? We don’t know and is something we need to find out. We are also doing growth trials on different plant species. Our research will help farmers.

Avan Antia's story of the Madras Croc Bank Trust and Herpetology centreIndianWomenBlog: Disposing waste is a huge issue in India. How does one deal with this?

Avan: You know, 50% of the waste in India is biodegradable. You could do it right in your own backyard – pile them up to decompose. The rest is either recyclable or non-biodegradable.

Waste today is mainly dealt with by incineration or throwing in a land will. Both of which are not long-term sustainable solutions. So begin from where the garbage is being generated. Segregate your waste. Mark two bins. Do not mix your plastic with paper.

There on, it’s up to the government to ensure right collection. This process is heavily dependent on the participation of the community. If people are not willing, this is not going to work.

IndianWomenBlog: Waste management and captive breeding. How do we turn these into valid career choices? How do we enable the youth to think of being a Croc Bank founder before an engineer/doctor?

Avan: That’s a difficult question. I am also just learning. All I have to say is we’ve got one Earth that we’ve got to protect. Everything starts at the school level. Teachers can weave these ideas with the standard choices making varied opportunities available to a child. I have friends who are doctors and also work on sanitation issues. It is good to have experiences to understand where our hearts incline.

IndianWomenBlog: Cities are taking us away from the trees, aren’t they? You know of the Dakota Access pipeline confrontation, I am sure?

Avan: We cannot compromise a long-term issue for a short-term gain. It is really hard to care about what might happen 200 years down the road. But it is necessary. It is difficult to talk business and nature. Alternative energy is your answer maybe; a good compromise. To the ones who take a call: consider every perspective. This is the only environment we can breathe in.

IndianWomenBlog: How are the crocodiles doing? Do they bite?

Avan: I love animals. They live in enclosures so they cannot come close to me. We have about 300 mugger crocs! Awesome. (*scary)

There’re times when we get really close. Our staff member Ganga, who enters the enclosures with his big stick and hits the ground with a heavy sound huh, pushes the crocs back while we hurry up to collect samples and go about our work. It’s a lot of fun. I love it.

Animals are beautiful. Reptiles are the most misunderstood and under-valued creatures. It makes sense biologically because they are slimy and weirdly looking. But they are a keystone in our ecosystem and we exist to show people just that.

I love it when people come in here and freak out. But they always leave with appreciations and a smile.

In the cover picture: A happy bunch of reptile and wildlife lovers! From left to right: Arul (staff), Avan, Vaishali (volunteer), Rom (MCBT co-founder), Anjana (staff), and Nik (MCBT curator).

[We first published this article in January 2017]

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