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Kerisha and the crocodiles
Published on: Sunday, July 23, 2017
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THERE are few creatures in the natural world we have a full understanding of. Far more often we impose grossly exaggerated reputations on our natural neighbours – fantasies of the wildness of wild animals, and the danger they pose to us. However, in the case of one predator – found at the apex of the food chain for over 90 million years – that reputation seems to be entirely deserved.

Crocodiles are a piece of living pre-history – and saltwater crocodiles, the principal species native to Sabah, has a true claim to notoriety. The largest living reptile, "salties" are found throughout Southern Asia and Australasia, with the rare ability to flourish in both salt- and freshwater communities. Their sheer size attests to the perfection of evolution over hundreds of millions of years.

Crocodiles have dominated tropical and subtropical ecosystems since the time of the dinosaurs, thanks to their natural hardiness and versatility. Their flexible diets, ability to adapt to and travel between habitats, and their fearsome physicality have meant that even human beings haven't been able to totally dominate the crocodile.

However, that is not to say that crocodiles are not under threat. Their sheer potency makes them objects of desire, both to the tourist trade and the luxury goods market for their skins. And when crocodiles come into contact with humans, the results can be violent.

Saltwater Crocodiles are one of a very small number of animals known to be man-eaters, and individuals such as Bujang Senang, a Sarawak crocodile blamed for a spate of deaths in 1992, pass into local legend as monsters.

However, there is more to the saltwater's crocodile and its millions of years of success at the top of the food chain – and it is this other face that fascinates Sai Kerisha Kntayya.

"There is no doubt that the crocodiles are ferocious and aggressive in their natural habitat, and in my opinion that solely has to do with their role as apex predators," Kerisha tells the writer.

"Having said that, in my experience of coming into close contact with them in the wild, I consider them to be very shy, reserved animals". Kerisha is a PhD student from Penang, who moved to Sabah as a child and has spent her entire working life in the jungles of Borneo. Her work is dedicated to building an ever-more accurate picture of Borneo's crocodile population.

Kerisha is a young Malaysian taking the lead in issues of conservation and habitat management – topics crucial to the future of her country.

"Malaysia", she says, with powerful conviction, "is a beautiful country. The diversity of nature here is unlike no other. It is our very own heritage. In the race to become a developed nation, we have sadly forgotten our fundamental values, one of them being to care for nature and acknowledge its importance in our lives".

It is this disentanglement with nature that leads to our misunderstanding of animals like crocodiles.

Kerisha continues: "In my experience studying crocodiles, the one thing that has surprised me the most is my very own change in how I see them". Are they not to be feared? I ask. Kerisha considers this.

"I admit, I used to fear them (and maybe still do) and it never crossed my mind that I'd one day be working so closely with the crocodiles. But as I gave myself the chance to rethink my understanding about them, I see them in a completely different view now. I now see the important role they play in their ecosystem and I've come to appreciate their existence". Now, armed with knowledge and experience, Kerisha has a wider goal to motivate her studies.

In Borneo, Kerisha believes "there is an emerging issue of the human-crocodile conflict.

As a developing nation, people and crocodiles are moving into very close proximity with each other".

If we want both humans and crocodiles – and the many other species that rely on the balance of the ecosystem – to survive, we need to reconsider how we do not merely inhabit, but cohabit. Kerisha has a bold vision: "We should rethink our understanding on these animals" she says, "and learn to appreciate its role in the environment".

Kerisha's contribution to the conservation and monitoring work has brought her to the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), on the banks of the Kinabatangan river.

"Danau Girang is distinctive and unique to me," says Kerisha, "as it integrates two things close to my heart – nature and Sabah." The river's sheer size has lead to extraordinary biodiversity, including one of the largest crocodile populations in the world.

Over the course of her research, Kerisha aims to assess the population structure of all major saltwater crocodile populations in Sabah. "I will be conducting night spotting surveys in nine major rivers here," she tells me.

As well as performing a basic measuring assessment on them, she will take a small tissue sample, in order to build a genetic model for the diversity of crocodile families in Sabah.

This technique is essential for the future of the crocodile in Asia. "Studying the genetic health of a population, it basically means studying its genetic diversity." A decrease in genetic diversity, Kerisha believes, "would mean reduced fitness such as high juvenile mortality, poor immunity, and ultimately, higher extinction risk.

By applying this method with the crocodiles, I will be able to tell whether or not a [river's] population is doing well or not and if not, to then come up with management plans (i.e. build a wildlife corridor) with aims to increase its genetic diversity".

Alongside her PhD work, Kerisha is helping DGFC in their efforts to map the movements of various animal populations in the Kinabatangan. "Besides [my research], I will also be hand-capturing baby crocodiles and tagging adult crocodiles".

By tracking their movements, Kerisha says, "I hope to get insights on their movements patterns and core habitat selection"; the kind of information that is crucial for informing local and national conservation plans.

"Let us not forget," Kerisha tells me as we are finishing our interview, "that a developed nation not only looks into the interests of its people, but also the interest of its friendly animal neighbours.

We must consider it our duty as Malaysians to preserves the natural resources we have.

If not us, who?"

Borneo Jungle Diaries is produced by SZtv and follows environmental photojournalist, Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski as he investigates life behind-the-scenes at the Danau Girang Field Centre.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

What's more, viewers are encouraged to take part in the competition that is being held;

All you have to do is answer five questions from the episode correctly each week to win a 4-day / 3-night stay the Danau Girang Field Centre. There will also be a grand prize at the end of the 10-series Borneo Jungle Diaries for those who get all questions correct across all quizzes.

For more information, check out Borneo Jungle Diaries on SZtv.



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