Gharials under grave threat

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Romulus WhitakerBy Romulus Whitaker

The Indian Gharial is one of the most endangered crocodilians in the world. The gharial’s long snout and the adult male’s ‘ghara’ make this fish-eating specie unique. But its specialised environmental requirement — deep, clean rivers — means it is doomed.

Gharials were once found in the river systems of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Now they are extinct everywhere except a few small areas of India and Nepal. The latter has a population of less than 100 wild gharials, mostly in the Rapti/Narayani river and India has an estimated 2,000. But less than 200 of these are breeding adults! The gharial was recently designated as critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) crocodile specialist group. The species is now the most threatened large animal on the Indian subcontinent.

A wild egg collection, hatching, rearing and release programme was initiated in 1975 by Food and Agriculture Organization consultant Robert Bustard in collaboration with the forest departments of Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Highly successful, over 5,000 juvenile gharials have been released in the wild since then, but today they breed in only three habitats (Corbett National Park, Katarniaghat Sanctuary and the National Chambal Sanctuary). They are now functionally extinct in Odisha.

You would think that gharial conservation is a success story based on the rearing and release project, but you are wrong. It turns out that this is the easiest part of crocodilian conservation work. The good photo and press opportunities offered by the hatch and release programme and the ‘feel-good’ factor have detracted attention from the real problem: habitat loss. India has an international reputation for having some of the world’s most polluted rivers, glaringly outstanding are our ‘holy’ rivers — the Ganga and Yamuna — which have evolved into flowing toxic waste and sewage canals. And gharials (along with a big array of other spectacular river fauna like the Ganges dolphin, chitra turtle and golden mahseer) have no choice but to live in these septic sewers.

In the winter of 2007/08, 113 adult and sub-adult gharials died in the relatively clean Chambal river, near its confluence with the filthy Yamuna. They died due to an as-yet-unidentified nephro toxin, a poison that destroys the kidneys, and it could happen again. The Gharial Conservation Alliance of the Madras Crocodile Bank is working with the gharial range states to carry out much-needed research and conservation programmes.

The only way to save the gharial is to save our rivers from pollution and abuse. With the programme to clean the Ganga (and other rivers) remaining a sad joke and ecological devastation about to hit us thanks to the crackpot river interlinking fantasy, it is no exaggeration to say that a future for the wonderful gharial and its aquatic co-species looks very dim indeed.

Romulus Whitaker, an American by birth who has lived in India since 1951, is a self-trained herpetologist and claims he has learned more from tribal people than from any number of college professors. His primary interest is in snakes and he set up India’s first snake park and co-authored the major field guide to Indian snakes. Fascinated with crocodilians, he established the Madras Crocodile Bank and recently the Gharial Conservation Alliance.

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