Lying on the floor of his modest home, Siahouk was in excruciating pain from the injury to his right hand, the result of a nightmarish encounter. Just two days earlier, on a scorchingly hot August afternoon, the frail 70-year-old shepherd had gone to fetch water from a pond when he was pounced on by a gando, the local name for a mugger crocodile in Iran’s Baluchistan region.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he remembers of the traumatic event two years ago, with the shock and disbelief still vivid in his eyes.
Sihanouk was only able to escape once he “managed to squeeze the plastic [water] bottle in between its jaws”, he says, reliving the moment as he rubs his bony face with his wrinkled left hand.
The blood loss left Siahouk unconscious for half an hour. He was only found after his flock of sheep returned unaccompanied to his tiny village of Dombek.
A lethal coexistence
Sihanouk’s account echoes that of many other victims, mostly children. More often than not, emotive headlines about Baluchi kids suffering grisly wounds inundate Iranian media, yet quickly disappear.
In 2016, a nine-year-old called Alireza was swallowed by one such crocodile. And in July 2019, Hawa, 10, lost her right arm in an attack. Collecting water for laundry, she was almost dragged in by the crocodile before she was saved by her companions in a tug of war.
Many of the victims of attacks by Chandos are children
The attacks have come at a time when Iran has been suffering acute water shortages and, consequentially, fast-shrinking natural habitats have seen the Nando’s food supplies dry up. The starving animals treat humans approaching their territory either as prey or a menace to their evaporating resources.
Scattered across Iran and the Indian subcontinent, Nandos are broad-snouted crocodiles, classed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Iran has an estimated 400, comprising nearly 5% of the species. Iran’s Department of Environment says it is doing its utmost to strike a balance between preserving the Chandos and protecting local people.
Go crocodile looks out of the water in Iran’s Baluchistan region
A gando crocodile peers out of the River Bahu-Kalat
Despite all the thirst-driven tragedies in recent years, there is little sign of the pledge being put into effect. Traveling alongside River Bahu-Kalat, the gandos’ main habitat in Iran, there are hardly any signposts warning about the danger.
In the absence of a calibrated government strategy, volunteers have stepped in to try to save the species by quenching their thirst and satiating their hunger.
In Bahu-Kalat, a village named after the river, up the dirt road from Dombak, I sit down with Malek-Dinar, who has been living with gandos for years.
“I have killed my garden to bank water for these creatures,” he says of his land once thriving with bananas, lemons and mangoes.