As the daylight pierces the fog, a fisherman on a ship floating alongside the Gandak River in Bihar, India, spots an impressive reptile basking on a sandbar in the midst of the river. Most individuals would mistake it for a crocodile however its distinctive snout tipped with a bulbous mass and elongated jaw inform him it’s a gharial.
Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) are sometimes mistaken for crocodiles or alligators. They’re the one species within the Gavialidae household: river-dwellers that eat solely fish and a few crustaceans, and which cut up from all different crocodilians maybe greater than 65m years in the past.
There was a time when gharials had been generally discovered within the riverine ecosystems of the Indian subcontinent – in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. However the inhabitants is estimated to have declined from as much as 10,000 people in 1946 to fewer than 250 in 2006, a drop of 96%–98% inside three generations, relegating them to the critically endangered class on the Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature’s crimson listing.
However as we speak, due to concerted conservation efforts, there’s a glimmer of hope for the gharial, which is now discovered primarily in India and Nepal.
These efforts started within the Nineteen Seventies, when the Indian authorities initiated a crocodile breeding and management project with the assist of the UN’s growth programme and Meals and Agriculture Group. The Nationwide Chambal Sanctuary was established in 1978 and the next yr the primary captive-bred gharials had been launched into the Chambal River, which cuts by means of ravines and hills within the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. By 1992, the gharial inhabitants had elevated to 1,095 people.
Regardless of setbacks – within the winter of 2007, greater than 100 gharials had been discovered lifeless due to gout, attributable to toxins within the water – as we speak the Chambal River nonetheless holds the largest population of gharials. The Wildlife Belief of India (WTI) has estimated that there are 1,255 gharials within the Chambal, whereas Madhya Pradesh officers put the quantity at 1,876.
The success of the Chambal venture is now being replicated in Bihar. After 15 female and male gharials had been noticed on the Indian stretch of the Gandak River – which flows down from Nepal into India – in 2010, the Bihar authorities initiated a Gandak gharial recovery project. To strengthen the remnant gharial inhabitants within the river, captive born and reared gharials had been released into the Gandak from 2014 to 2015, beneath a joint venture with India’s Atmosphere and Forest Division and the WTI.
The Gandak is a perfect habitat for gharials with its sandbanks and wetlands, that are good breeding grounds for the fish on which they feed. “One of many thrilling components of the train was taking round 30 juvenile and sub-adult zoo-bred and reared gharials from the Patna zoo to the Gandak River for reintroduction,” says Prof BC Choudhury, a trustee of the WTI. “Radio in addition to satellite tv for pc transmitters had been fastened to some launched people to trace their journey.”
From 2016 onwards, nests had been situated yearly with the assistance of native fishermen and farmers. The nests had been protected towards sand erosion and predators, and native nest watchers had been deployed. “Members of the fishing group had been skilled to look at gharials and observe their nesting behaviour,” says Samir Kumar Sinha, head of conservation on the WTI.
When male gharials attain sexual maturity, across the age of 10 or so, they develop a bulbous progress on the tip of their snout that resembles a pot. It’s from this ghara – the Hindi phrase for a kind of earthenware pot – that gharials acquired their identify. Females lay eggs in pitcher-shaped burrows in sandbanks and on the seashores of river islands, the place they guard them from predators. If hazard seems, the fathers might enter the burrows to guard the household group. After about 70 days of incubation, the eggs hatch into foot-long infants.
A number of components have contributed to the decline of the gharial inhabitants. Many get entangled in fishing nets or ensnared by hooks laid by turtle poachers. They’re additionally hunted for his or her pores and skin and as trophies, and to be used in conventional medication. Unlawful sand mining from riverbanks destroys the gharials’ habitats and nests, forcing them to desert their most well-liked basking websites. Basking is vital for thermoregulation within the species.
One of many greatest threats is the unfettered use of dams and sluice gates, which when opened flood the downstream tributaries, eroding the riverbank in stretches, and washing away the gharials’ eggs.
In 2018, the State Wildlife Board accepted the WTI’s suggestion to declare 140km (87 miles) of the Gandak River as a conservation reserve, in keeping with PK Gupta, Bihar’s chief wildlife warden. “This not solely helps within the restoration of gharial populations on this stretch of the river, but additionally different riverine ecosystems,” he says.
Sinha says: “In March, we carried out a survey and the variety of gharials got here to 260, now it can develop additional.” In June, 86 newly hatched gharials had been launched into the river after a profitable incubation of 65–70 days within the nests watched over by members of the area people.
Choudhury says: “Gandak River in Bihar has about 7%–8% of the worldwide grownup inhabitants of gharials within the wild, and we’re proud to have been instrumental to make this occur. What we visualise is that the Gandak will maybe grow to be the second most vital wild gharial breeding location within the nation, after the Chambal River.”
Regardless of being about 16ft (4.9m) lengthy and a few of the heaviest reptiles on Earth – weighing in some instances as much as 680kg (1,500lb) – gharials are sometimes shy, and conceal from people, so are usually not all the time simple to identify.
However more and more extra are being found in different components of India and Nepal. Two gharials had been noticed within the Kosi River in Bihar in 2019 – the primary time in about 50 years. In the identical yr, scientists from the Zoological Society of London discovered child gharials in a distant area of Nepal after practically 30 years of absence, and this yr gharials had been noticed within the Yamuna River.
Gharials are nonetheless critically endangered however as conservation efforts proceed, there may be hope that their numbers might proceed to develop.