DANDELI: Shivram Patil (65) of Dandeli has an unlikely friend. He has lovingly named it Dandelappa. The moment it hears his voice, the 14-foot-companion comes looking for him. This unusual bond grew over the years. Initially, there were just about eight crocodiles on the banks of Kali river in his field when he met Dandelappa, a male dominant crocodile, the leader of the group. “Every day I kept watching Dandelappa in my field and so did he, gradually mustering the guts to get closer to him. But I kept a safe distance as I was told that these predators attack humans,” he says.
Patil’s relationship with those crocodiles started becoming healthier after he found some babies of crocodiles playing in his farm. He could sense that they had lost their way while playing. He immediately lifted them and reached the river bank , which was hardly 150 metres away from that spot. “When I reached there I found the mother crocodile staring at me and so also Dandelappa. I knew they were feeling insecure for their babies and may anytime attack me.
So I maintained some distance and gently released the babies in the river. The babies rushed to their mother, who then took them on her back and entered the river water,” he says.
It was from then that the crocodiles began to trust him and they never felt uncomfortable while he moved around them.
Unlike their saltwater cousins which prey on livestock and even humans, Mugger crocodiles are harmless as far as humans are concerned. There is not a single incident reported in Kali River of a crocodile harming or killing any human, says Patil, who is known as the Crocodile Man of Karnataka.
Mugger crocodiles are scavengers which feed on sick fish and birds as well as crabs, dogs and cats. Quite contrary to their appearance, they do not eat much and get hungry only once in a fortnight, according to Patil. He says that in a recent survey he conducted along with a few wildlife activists, it was found that from his field within a stretch of 20 km on the bank of Kali river, there are more than 8,000 crocodiles. Though according to experts, the life of Mugger crocodiles is about 44 years, Patil bets that the age of Dandelappa is more than 70.
“It recently had a fight with a group of crocodiles which tried to enter his territory after which he received severe injury on his jaw. Since then he has grown weak,” he says.Born in Dandeli, Patil was brought up in Belagavi. He did his schooling in Nandagad village of Khanapur taluk and completed his graduation at Gogte College of Commerce in Belagavi. But after his graduation, he decided to settle in Dandeli where he owned irrigated land for farming. The only problem with the fields which he was gifted by his ancestors was that they were regularly visited by crocodiles, making the area ‘a danger zone’.
At 24, Patil decided to cultivate his fields which were on the banks of Kali River. And from this stage , his life was attached with the family of crocodiles. Today, he is with this predator family comprising more than 250 crocodiles for more than 40 years.
Patil got married and his son Nagaraj was born. Simultaneously the family of Dandelappa was growing and both of them felt they were one family. Since childhood, Nagaraj was brought up with the crocodiles and so he identifies most of them. Nagaraj was not interested in pursuing studies after SSLC. He wanted to do farming and spend time with the crocodiles.
But a few wildlife activists and forest authorities objected to Patil and Nagaraj’s friendship with the crocodiles as they felt this was against nature. The forest officials had even slapped a couple of cases against Patil. After this, Patil erected a fence which broke the link of the river bank with his field. But the love for crocodiles did not diminish. He still keeps watching crocodiles from the fence, and so do they.
The crocodiles, however, don’t understand why they are cut off from their beloved Patil and Nagaraj. But, they found ways of entering Patil’s field and the unique friendship continues.