For many years, the endangered gando crocodiles have had a peaceful life with the people of Sistan and Baluchestan. (Supplied)

By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour

 February 10, 2021

The gando or short-nosed crocodile is a species of crocodile native to Iran and its neighbors to the east. In recent years, several gando attacks on residents of Sistan and Baluchestan province have made headlines. However, locals as well as experts tell IranWire that the animal does not usually attack humans, and that issues such as droughts and occasional floods have recently disrupted their living conditions.

For many years, the endangered gando crocodile has peacefully coexisted with the people of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. The ancients considered the gando a sign of blessing and prosperity. Locals today feel the same: wherever a gando lives, there is water.

But in recent years the gando, a short-nosed Iranian crocodile which is shy and generally almost harmless, is suffering the erosion of its natural habitats and food sources. Gandos have been linked to a number of recent incidents concerning local children.

Older Baluch people in the province have long known to not approach gandos during their mating season – nor to disturb the animals’ sleep. The crocodiles do become extremely dangerous during mating season and birthing, and if their habitats are threatened. Locals have historically steered clear of them. But gando habitats and life cycles have been disrupted after years of intermittent droughts and flash floods.

Locals tell IranWire that gandos do not eat humans – and even the rare cases of attack result in injury rather than people being outright devoured by the creatures. But an attack in July 2019 on a 10-year-old girl called Hava Raesi, who lived in the village of Mola-abad Kashari, made headlines and brought the issue of gandos to the fore. Hava had lost her right hand in the attack.

Then in January 2020, in the aftermath of a flood in the province, a local environment official warned that gandos were deserting their usual habitats en masse. A spate of gando attacks on residents of villages in the flooded areas ensued.

Mohammad Reza Hosseini, the head of the wildlife office of the Environment Department, later said the likelihood of serious harm to humans by gandos was very small. But in August 2020, another gando attack took place involving a child: Zakaria Charkh, a resident of Kahirbarz village in the Dashtiari region of Chabahar city. Zakaria fortunately escaped serious harm.

A few months later, a new controversy over the sighting of a gando in Chitgar Lake prompted environmental teams to inspect the situation at the lake. Some news outlets at the time said that public opinion in Tehran regarding the gandos had more effect than opinion in Sistan and Baluchestan – and was seen as sign of the neglect faced by the provinces.

An Ancient Friend of the People of Sistan and Baluchestan

Morad Gomshadzehi, a resident of Bahuklat village, says he believes there may now be just 500 or fewer gandos surviving in the area. “Our ancestors have lived peacefully with the gandos for generations,” he says. “Gandos are calm animals by nature. But in the last few years, the droughts and the increase in local people using natural reservoirs has eroded their habitats and encroached on their territory. Increasing pressure and stress on these incidents has led to several incidents, such as those reported involving children.”

Gandos typically mate and lay their eggs in the last days of spring. “In the past,” Gomshadzehi says, “we were taught to respect gandos and their space on these special days, and to stay away from their habitats. Gandos react strongly to anyone approaching their eggs.”

But the pressure on the gandos’ survival is now more than just a question of droughts and floods. Gando skin and the skin of the Iranian crocodile species that lives in Khuzestan are very popular with wildlife traffickers in Iran. Hunters seeking rare animals also do so for their meat and bones as well as their skin, all of which later ends up on the black market in Tehran.

Mehdi Rakhshani, a journalist living in Sistan and Baluchestan who has documented the gandos’ habits in the past, tells IranWire: “The gandos are sacred of people. These past few years are unprecedented in terms of their behavior. During the making of my own documentary about the short-nosed crocodile, I saw people fishing on one side of the river, and on the other side, the crocodiles were swimming in the water and did not attack them. In the past locals did not approach [gando] habitats and spawning grounds during the mating season. Unfortunately, the dual issues of floods and drought have provoked this.”

On the story of Hava, the ten-year-old girl who lost her hand in a gando attack, Rakhshani says: “The lack of water has led to greater recklessness, especially in rural areas. Children approach gandos when they go to fetch water, or when they play, and sometimes they get up to childish mischief during the spawning season. The child who was attacked was in such a situation.”

No Plan to Protect Gandos During Droughts

Malek Raeisi, a former member of Sistan and Baluchestan’s Environment Department who  served in the region for two years, tells IranWire in no uncertain terms that gandos do not attack humans as prey. They can be easily displaced by floods, but even then, he says, they are not inclined to attack humans. “Last year, when people claimed the gandos had attacked villages, we checked the whole area with several teams. But we didn’t find a single case of a gando attack.”

Gandos are endangered, Raeisi says, and the Environment Department ought to have a plan drawn up to protect the animal during its spawning season and during droughts. “Unfortunately, the Environment Department does not have the resources or the budget to support this species in the Rikokesh area, where about 30 adult gandos live.

“The caretaker of the area personally and through his own efforts finds food for them. And in the protected areas, which extend from Firouzabad to the Chabahar firth, we personally try to feed them. Sometimes we coordinate with friends who own poultry farms, to collect the hens’ lost eggs or chicks, and take them to the ponds where the gandos live so they are less vulnerable during droughts and food shortages. The biggest gandos, which are four to five feet tall, still avoid humans and even large animals such as cows, though they may hunt smaller animals as prey.”

Hava Now Writes with her Left Hand

On the day of the gando attack in which she lost her right hand, Hava Raesi was rescued by her sister Assieh. “After that incident,” her mother told IRanWire, “doctors made a prosthetic hand for Hava, with the help of donors. We have gone through very difficult days. And the [prosthetic] hand has some issues; it’s not working at the moment.”

According to Hava’s mother neither the authorities, nor the Welfare Organization, nor the Environmental Department have provided any assistance.

Hava herself told IranWire: “Now I write my homework with my left hand, and I’m fine. Even though my hand doesn’t work or move, they promised to make me a new one later, when I grow up, so that I can move my fingers as well.”

Hava’s mother believes that if the poorer children in the area had a safe place to play and have fun, or perhaps if the villagers had access to plumbing and potable water in their homes, children like Hava would never fall prey to gandos. She still lives in hope that the authorities will do something about it.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.