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The Gharial – Good News for the Critically Endangered Indian Crocodile?

Saturday 24 September 2016

This strange looking creature, with its immensely long and delicate snout is the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). Until very recently it thrived throughout the Indian sub-continent but now it numbers less than a few hundred in the wild. It seems destined for extinction, like so many other species. Will it be just another victim of what may be seen in the future as the sixth mass extinction event in the history of our planet? Is there a future for the gharial on earth, our ark in space?

The answer is only a tentative maybe. Once it flourished and could be found in all of the major rivers of India and Pakistan. The Indus, which has its source in Tibet and flows through Pakistan and Northern India had gharials along almost its entire length. Now, in this vast river not a single one may be found.

It is the same in many other major river systems. The list is depressingly long. The Irrawaddy in Myanmar holds none, neither does the Brahmaputra of Bhutan and Bangladesh – and this is not counting the many tributaries of these vast waterways. In fact the gharial can now be found in only 2% of its former territory.

To address the numerical deterioration of any species, the cause of the drop in numbers must first be discovered. When it comes to the Gharial that is easy. It is us – the human race – which has caused the precipitous decline of this remarkable animal, the only surviving species in the Gavialidae family of reptiles.

The assumption could be that we have simply squeezed the gharial out of its once immense domain, yet it is not quite as simple as that. We have attacked the species from virtually every conceivable angle. First and foremost, of course, it has been removed from its habitat to make way for the burgeoning human populations of India, Pakistan and surrounding countries. Fishing, using vertical panels of netting known as gills set in a straight line across a river did for many of the crocodiles.

When gharials were caught it was a financial boost to any catch. Their skins were used for clothing and bags and would fetch a good price at any market. Many were simply hunted for trophies. Others were used for indigenous medicine. What was a steep decline has become a major crisis – an overall 98% decline since 1950 was compounded by a further fall of 58% between 1997 and 2006.

Even the unborn were considered fair game. The gharial is a famously protective mother but its long thing snout has evolved to hunt fish with long sideways movements: it is ineffective against human marauders. The female lies by the nest she has created until the eggs hatch and so is easy to find. The eggs make a tasty omelet, the mother a very good looking handbag.

Yet if the eggs do hatch successfully the maternal instinct fully kicks in – gharial mothers herd their young together for safety. In fact females take it in turn to guard a giant nursery filled with the offspring of other gharial while the other mothers hunt. If there is any hope for this elegant creature then it will be the female of the species which does the most work.

We have work to do too, however. These survivors from the age of the dinosaur need our help to survive – or it will be goodbye to them forever within a few decades. There are nine protected areas in India for the gharial. Eggs are often collected in the wild and raised in captivity. This, it is hoped, will reduce the mortality rate as a meter long animal stands a greater chance of survival than one of only 15 centimeters (the size of a gharial when it is born).

Over 3,000 young gharial have been released under these operations. Even so, it is thought that at most there are only around 400 breeding pairs in the wild. There was a further disaster in the Chambal River a few years ago when over 100 gharials died – it is thought by contamination from metal pollutants.

There are about ten places in Asia where the gharial is bred in captivity with the young released in to the wild at around the age of three. Another 8 centers in the US and 3 in Europe also offer some hope to the gharial. Some of the pictures here are from those centers - as much as we would like to use just pictures of gharials in the wild, their low numbers means they are not widely photographed there. Yet in the wild, survival can come from surprising sources.

This year the lack of rain in the monsoon season was blamed for many of the power outages the country suffered as much of its power comes from hydroelectricity. It was, however, good news for the gharial. During monsoon season many young can be killed by flooding. This year, because of the low rainfall, it is hoped that the majority of hatchlings will survive.

The good news continues. Workers in the Chambal Sanctuary found and protect 68 nests this year and around 2,500 young hatched successfully. That is twice the number recorded in any of the previous three years. So a combination of unusual weather and over-productive mothers (which perhaps sensed the opportunity?) has meant a good year for the gharial.

Of course, these numbers are tiny and the gharial remains critically endangered. However, in one step at a time conservation terms, this is good news and is something that can be built upon. Keep your fingers crossed that perhaps your great grandchildren may be able to see gharials in the wild, after all.

First Image Credit Flickr User Pattymc

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