The gharial (gavialis gangeticus) is endemic to the Indian subcontinent. Since the late 1970s, efforts have been on in the country to conserve and rehabilitate this critically endangered fish-eating crocodile.
The gharial is a resident of the fresh waters of the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. However, its numbers in the river Ganga began to decrease sometime in the mid 1970s. A census was conducted and it was found that only 300 gharials were remaining in north Indian rivers.
In 1978, the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Centre was established to protect the endangered gharials of the north Indian rivers.
“Gharial’s are fresh water animals. They mainly feed on fish and are very sensitive to pollution in the waters. They are unique crocodiles, as they are the only species of the order crocodilia, in which the male carries a distinctive boss at the tip of his long, thin snout, which looks like an upturned pot. This bulbous nasal protuberance at the tip of the snout develops when the animal reaches sexual maturity, which is usually at the age of 10,” says Renu Singh, Conservator of Forests, Endangered Species Project, Lucknow.
The nasal protuberance of this crocodile resembles a pot (ghara in Hindi), hence the name gharial.
Picture credit: Shailendra Singh
The Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Centre near Lucknow was established mainly to help recover the dwindling population of gharials in north India. However, rescued marsh crocodiles (crocodylus palustris) from the local areas have also been given sanctuary in this facility. They are kept here until ready to be released into one of the many nearby rivers.
A major soft shell turtle conservation project was also conducted at this facility, as part of the Ganga Action Plan. In association with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), the Centre has been involved in developing broad based inclusive colonies of all endangered turtles. Moreover, since this facility is mainly for scientific research and study, visitors are not permitted to enter and see many of the enclosures located in the core.
Gharials mate in the month of February. After a gestation period of about a month, the female digs up several trial nests to disorient predators and inside one of the many nests she lays anywhere between 10-97 eggs. Despite this, due to depredation, 90% of the eggs do not survive in the wild. At the Centre, eggs are brought in from natural nests and incubated, at around 30-35 degrees Celsius.
The sex of this species is most likely dependent on temperature during incubation. Male hatchlings are born when the temperature is higher than the threshold. Eggs hatch after 60 or 65 days.
Picture credit: Renu Singh
“In the initial years at the sanctuary, eggs were picked up from natural nests built along the Chambal river. These eggs had to be carefully picked up and placed in wooden boxes, in the same position as they were found, along with the sand from the natural nests. The eggs were hatched in the artificial hatcheries and the three year old juveniles were tagged and released into the rivers,” continues Renu Singh.
Ever since then, there have always been four females and two male gharials at the Centre – they have parented many batches of young ones. To date, 5,410 gharial juveniles have been released into various rivers, of which 254 have been released into the Ganga alone.
The gharials are released after they are three years old, when they are less vulnerable to predation.
Picture credit: Bhasker Dixit
Gharials have also been sent to various zoos and nature parks across the world. Odisha, Kanpur, Delhi, West Bengal, Chennai, Bhutan, Tokyo, New York, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are some of the places where healthy gharials from the Kukrail Centre can be seen.
The Centre uses methods like ‘bio-logging’ to understand the underwater behaviour and natural habitats of free ranging gharials. Bio-logging is done with a light weight camera fitted onto the head of the animal before it is released into the river; it detaches on its own after four hours. Since it is difficult to keep a close watch on these reptiles once they are released into the wild, this camera provides information for deeper study. The camera can record diving depths, swimming speeds and frequent movements.
“For the past three years, juvenile gharials are being released with colour coded plastic cattle tags, tagged onto their tails. They have numbers etched on the tags for individual identification. When the reptiles bask in the sunshine, they can be seen easily and with the help of binoculars and very often the numbers on the tags can be seen too. In 2014, ten animals were released with high frequency (VHF) radio tags into the Ghaghra river – we still receive radio signals from four of them,” says Dr Shailendra Singh, the Program Director of Turtle Survival Alliance, India.
These methods help study the rate of survival of animals released into the wild and also their dispersal patterns from the area they have been released from.
Picture credit: Arunima Singh
Much has been done and much more needs to be accomplished to learn more about these fascinating creatures. It is heartening to know that a periodical census of gharials in the Chambal river has shown a stable population of 1250+ for the past couple of years. The National Geographic Society has rated the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Centre as one of the most successful conservation projects in India.
About the author:
Aparna Menon is a freelance writer, writing for various newspapers for the past 10 years. Her main fields of interest are wildlife, heritage and history. A keen traveler, she loves to read and write and does a lot of art work too.
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