By DILIP GANGULY
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
Last updated June 26, 2007 6:24 a.m. PT
CALCUTTA, India -- Poachers seeking to bag a Royal Bengal tiger in the Sunderbans reserve are encountering a unique new security measure to keep them away: hundreds of crocodiles that have been released in the mangrove forest.
Originally brought into the reserve in the late 1990s for breeding, the crocodiles are having the unintended beneficial effect of scaring away poachers from the forest - home to the largest wild population of Royal Bengal tigers.
"With tigers on land and the crocodile in water, the fear factor does work," divisional Forest Officer Rathin Banerjee said Tuesday.
During winter months, the crocs often come out of the cold water and lie in the jungle path of the poachers.
Nearly 400 crocodiles, bred in captivity over the years, have been released in the reserve, Banerjee said. A 2004 census said more than 270 tigers were roaming the reserve in West Bengal state, bordering Bangladesh.
"The use of crocodiles is one of the measures to save the wildlife there from poachers," said V.K. Yadav, a forest conservator.
Conservationist Ranjit Mitra said it was difficult to say how many tigers have been killed by poachers in the past five years, "but it will run into dozens."
Another conversationist called the idea of using crocs "novel."
"It is surely a novel idea, but this can be one of the measures to check poaching," said Animesh Basu of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, a local non-governmental organization.
The state Forest Department was assessing the effectiveness of the new measure.
"It is not like you count how many hens you had and how many have been taken away by the jackals at night," Yadav said. "Here the idea is to ensure that there is no unusual change in the demography," Yadav said referring to major species of animals in the Sunderbans.
India's border guards also have set up camps in the area to guard against the poachers.
"We are trying our best," Yadav said.
Preliminary results of a recent exhaustive study of tiger habitats found that the population in some Indian states may be nearly 65 percent smaller than experts had thought.
Conservationists said the early results indicated the most recent tiger census - which found about 3,500 tigers - was far too optimistic. The study was conducted in the past two years by the government-run Wildlife Institute of India.