Saving The Gharial

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Gharial, the long-snouted crocodile that lived on the earth for more than 100 million years is under threat. What can we do to save it?

Gharial, the long-snouted crocodile that has been on the earth for over 100 million years is under threat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature list it as a Critically Endangered species, with fewer than two hundred breeding adults still remaining in the wild.

The Scottish naturalist Andrew Leith Adams described the Gharial as abundant “in all the great rivers of Northern India”. The original habitat of distinct looking crocodilians was all the way from the river Indus in Pakistan to Irrawaddy in Burma. But now, it’s habitat is under threat – limited to a few spots in India and Nepal.

The last-surviving member of the ancient Gavialidae family, Gharial gets its name from the pot-like appendage on its snout – ‘Ghara’, meaning pot. Attached to a long set of jaws that can be whipped through the water with minimal drag, it serves as an amplifier for its mating call, a buzzing hiss that can be heard up to a kilometre away.

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Even Indian mythology makes extensive references to the Gharial being a symbol of sexuality. Catherine Benton, in her book God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature writes:

Valued and feared, the river-dwelling gharial presents an earthy connection with the god who evokes sexual desire. Possessing long, phallic snouts and bodies containing fats and oils believed to enhance human sexual activity, gharials are graphic symbols of the desire evoked by Kāmadeva. His gharial banner suggests feelings of attraction and attractiveness.

Yet, this extraordinary and iconic reptile known to be shy, docile and harmless to humans is in danger.

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In the winter of 2007, more than a hundred Gharials were found dead. Autopsies indicated they suffered from kidney failure and a build-up of toxins in the body – dying painful deaths.

The Chambal, once known as of India’s last pristine water bodies, is the Gharial’s natural home. But a section of the Chambal river merges with the Yamuna – which, though ‘sacred’, is one of the most polluted rivers in the world with chemical effluents and toxic mess dumped by pharmaceutical companies. Scientists believe that the Gharials moved into the Yamuna to eat fish that have toxic loads in them.

It’s not just the chemical effluents. Human activity is wreaking its havoc too. Speaking at a TED conference, Romulus Whitaker the scientist and conservationist said:

With all the pressures on the river – sand mining, for example; very, very heavy cultivation all the way down to the river side, not allowing the animals to breed anymore we are looking at even more problems building up for the Gharial.

Chambal’s pollution, sand mining and excessive cultivation are destroying their habitats and nesting grounds. Fewer habitats remain for this endangered species to live and breed.

Searching for a new home

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Image Credit: Harsha K.R

In coordination with the Uttar Pradesh Forest department, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) set about looking for a new home for the Gharial. Habitat hunting had to accommodate for the gharial’s tendency to travel between 20 and 120 km along the river. Any location near fishing nets of sand mining activities would be unsuitable.

The Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary along the river Ganges, with a stretch in the middle, was identified as the most suitable spot. As local communities often confuse the Gharial with the mugger crocodile, WWF had to convince them that the animal would do them no harm.

Adding a mythological touch helped us overcome the problem, says WWF’s Senior Manager for Aquatic Biodiversity Conservation, Dr. Asghar Nawab.

The Gharial is a very docile shy animal, with its long thin snout; it is just adapted to eating fish. It just cannot attack humans. This was our first message for the communities. Secondly, we tried to build the religious reverence by stating that the Gharial is the Vahana (vehicle) of the mother Ganges.

This helped in changing the mindset of the communities towards the Gharial. Since the reintroduction programme began in 2009, 678 juvenile Gharials have been released into the wild. With biometric monitoring, the health and weight gains of recaptured animals are studied – revealing signs of growth.

Previous reintroduction programmes like those in the Mahanadi River in Orissa had retention rates of only 0.02 percent. But in the Ganges, as Dr. Asghar adds:

A recent rescue of an 86 kg adult female gharial from one of the barrages is testimony to the fact that the population is growing and thriving well.

Conservationists haven’t given up on the Chambal just yet. The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/ Centre for Herpetology is working with the global Gharial Ecology Project to preserve the integrity of the Chambal river, which they call the ‘last guaranteed large population of the Gharial’.

According to the MCBT’s annual report for 2016, the biggest threat facing the gharial today is illegal sand mining. Forest officials in Uttar Pradesh told the MCBT that they spend 90 percent of their time trying to control it – to no avail. Sand mining operations set up on the river’s banks damage the gharials nesting banks – as well as those of other species like turtles.

The National Green Tribunal acted on a report and sent notices to both Union and state governments over cracking down on illegal sand mining. But ten years since reports first emerged showing the effect of such mining on gharial populations, the scourge of sand mining has yet to be tamed.

The Gharial Telemetry Project was started after the mass-death event and tagged up to 20 specimens with radio transmitters. They found that adult specimens would travel as far as 120 km looking for nesting areas. Meanwhile, male gharials tended to hang around with the babies, protecting them. The findings show that gharials need a free-flowing river in order to survive.

The Gharial is an ingenious crocodile, that eats stones to help grind the food in its belly. As an indicator of a river’s health, its absence across most of South Asia’s rivers points to the declining fortunes of aquatic wildlife.

But if reintroduction attempts are successful, this ancient crocodile might have another shot at life in the 21st century.

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