It’s a sunny day at the Madras Crocodile Bank in Chennai (Croc Bank in short). Ajay Kartik, the assistant curator, is dressed in a green shirt, Khaki pants and protective gumboots. A walky-talky is clipped to his belt and he is carrying a dead chicken, and what looks like a Gadha, straight out of the history books! He is accompanied by his colleague Gowri Shankar, who is dressed in the same outfit. While they both look like the dragon slayers of yore, the truth is far from it!

The beast they are going to work with today is fondly named Smaug, after the dragon from the Lord of the rings. But, why should we train a dragon? He is equipped with dozens of razor-sharp teeth, which are only visible when the dragon is tearing into flesh. Usually, they are covered with a sheath.  They are also believed to be venomous, with their bites causing several blood-related complications. He can also use its tail as a weapon – a lash can leave a serious scar on a human. A wild dragon can permanently disable or even kill a human.

Feeding, medicating, cleaning the enclosure all becomes easier once these animals are trained to respond to our calls or gestures. The training also can enrich the lives of these animals – in several zoos, food is just thrown to the animals and there is barely any physical or mental stimulation for the animals. For these reasons, Ajay risks his limbs and trains Smaug.

Smaug is a komodo dragon whom we acquired from the Bronx Zoo in New York in exchange for some young gharials bred at the croc bank.  He arrived in the Croc Bank when he was four years old and now he is seven. Ever since Smaug arrived, the team here have been working toward getting him trained and accustomed to his new home.

Ajay opens the gate to Smaug’s enclosure and lowers in a ladder. The dragon already knows what is coming! His keen sense of smell has already picked up the scent of the chicken. Yet he patiently waits as Ajay and Gowri Shankar enter the enclosure. Ajay says hello to Smaug, and while the dragon may not understand his exact words, he knows that his keepers are here to interact with him. This is one of the ways to establish trust between the keepers and him.

Ajay uses the brightly coloured ‘gadha’ and gestures to Smaug to come upon a ramp and strangely enough, the dragon plays along. He is given a piece of chicken for his cooperation, along with a back-rub! Ajay then calls for Smaug to come to another location which he happily does. After all, chicken is at stake! This process is called target training, and Smaug has just earned full marks!

With each passing session, the bond between the keepers and the kept is clearly evident. After Smaug has had his fair share of food, he delicately wipes his mouth on the grass in his enclosure to get rid of the leftover bits of chicken and sand. Sometimes he uses the keepers' boots as a napkin too! He has grown more and more used to his caregivers since coming to India, and this bond will only continue to grow over the years.

Ajay says ‘Maintaining animals in captivity is a responsibility that has to be taken very seriously. Potentially dangerous animals like Komodo Dragons need to be worked with regularly to ensure that they are getting a high standard of care, and also to make sure they remain tractable over the long run. By working closely with our dragons, we are able to provide them with the best possible quality of life, and a healthy amount of physical and mental stimulation, which is essential for the well-being of any captive animal!’

One of the greatest emotions in the world is the unique bond that develops between human and animal through mutual care, trust and understanding. This is why we do what we do.

Related tags :