On a sand strip amidst the river, resting calmly as only they can, a gharial came into view. “A huge one!” I exclaimed. “Not even fully grown,” the boatman chided me, as he cut the engine and deftly anchored along an island he knows like the back of his hand. Following a path used by nesting gharials, he showed me a couple of nests. Gharial hatchlings scrambled into the shallow waters. Only a small percentage, if any at all, would make it to maturity, but at least they were successfully hatching at one of the few gharial breeding habitats globally — the Girwa river in Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh.
Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus), freshwater fish-eating crocodiles endemic to the Indian subcontinent, can reach a stupendous length of 7m, with a long snout that ends ghara (pot)-like in the male, giving it its name. Cold-blooded, they can live up to 50-60 years. Unfortunately, they are critically endangered and number around just 750 – 1,000 adults globally, with 95 per cent in India and the rest in Nepal. In addition to the Girwa river, their confirmed breeding habitats till recently had been along the course of the Chambal, Narayani (Chitwan in Nepal) and Ramganga (Corbett) rivers. Other rivers like the Ghagra, Mahanadi, Son and Ken have either lost their gharials or have small non-breeding populations.
The gharial remains highly susceptible and people are wary of its size. In India, there is significant amount of human-crocodile conflict, and many mistake the gharial as the more dangerous mugger. In December 2007, over 110 carcasses of sub and young adults were reported in the Chambal river, which harbours about 80 per cent of the global gharial population. No conclusive cause was established, though poisoning was suspected.
The arrival of a few hatchlings on World Environment Day (June 5) this year along the river Gandak in Bihar, therefore, could only mean good news for the species and its conservationists — it confirmed a new breeding population for the gharial. “The Gandak’s force was such that we would hear its roar over and above all the sounds of this land,” said boatman Rajendra Sahni, while showing us Gangetic dolphins at the confluence of the Gandak and Ganga at Patna. Known as Narayani in Nepal, the Gandak enters India to get the protection of the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar for 45 km and the Sohagibarwa Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh for 7-8 km along its left and right bank respectively. Limited agriculture, few villages on its banks (as the river is prone to eroding its banks), no major towns, network of many small channels separated by vast mid-channel islands and low fishing pressure all provide a less-disturbed habitat for gharials here.
Dr BC Choudhury, senior advisor to Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), said, “Confirmation of a new breeding site is very significant.” In the late 1960s, a barrage across the river at Valmiki Nagar had destroyed gharial habitats downstream. The region had long suffered a law and order situation, which was somewhat brought under control around 2007-08. “During that period, gharials might have been killed, but there’s no data. Over time, the river geomorphology also got modified, probably favouring the gharials,” said Samir Sinha, head of the Gharial Conservation Project, WTI. During his time at the Valmiki Tiger Reserve, where he has worked since 2003, Sinha saw seven-eight gharials basking in the distance, along the Nepal side of the river. Enquiries in 2008 by gharial expert, late Dhruvjyoti Basu, bolstered Sinha’s sightings and triggered a survey in January 2010, which recorded a remnant population of gharials in the Gandak. An elaborate habitat assessment was undertaken in 2012 at the personal interest of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Based on expert recommendations, release sites were determined along a 50-60 km stretch, and in 2014, restocking of gharials from the captive-born stock at Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park, Patna, was started by WTI as part of a Bihar forest department-funded project.
The released animals were tagged with VHF and satellite transmitters. Monitoring revealed that captive-bred gharials avoided the main current and stayed in groups as in captivity and dispersed after seven-eight days. Even after years of captivity, they were able to identify suitable natural habitat and used areas frequented by wild gharials. “It was heartwarming to see released and wild gharials basking together. After seven-eight months, one moved over 1,000 km to enter the Mahananda” said Sinha.
The two-year-old project has already paid rich dividends. A March 2015 survey showed that the Gandak harboured 54 gharials, including 26 adults. With the recent arrivals, the numbers are likely to rise.
Saving the gharial is no meagre challenge. Recent news that the Gandak will be developed as an inland waterway is a grave potential threat. There is no forest department equivalent for rivers and river governance structures are lacking. Along protected areas, WTI works with forest staff, trains them and suggests critical stretches to be monitored and actions to be enforced. Working with the Water Resources department, which operates the barrage across the Gandak, is important, as a minimum flow of water is required for gharials. In an email, Dr Jeffrey Lang of the Gharial Ecology Project, India, said, “The gharial in the Chambal, which hosts 80 per cent of the global population, is facing numerous threats, industrial scale mining is one of them.” Though sand mining is not yet a major problem along the Gandak river, the Mines and Geology department is another important stakeholder.
The other important stakeholder is the local community. “On the river, we discuss the threats with our boatmen, fishers and farmers and they give us important past information. You could say, they have become brand ambassadors for the gharials,” said Sinha. Gharial mothers compete for sand banks with other wildlife, livestock and the river. Nests are often dug up by jackals and cattle hoofs sinking into nests destroy eggs. Pegs around the nest blocked off cattle and a mesh embedded within the sand warded off jackals. These protection measures were removed when it was time for the hatchlings to emerge.
Mukundan Prasad, a farmer based near Ratwal ghat, said, “Last year, we saw gharial hatchlings downstream, but did not have any idea about nesting sites. This year, we worked with the gharial team and located the nests very close to our crop fields. Due to constant vigil, the nests were saved from erosion and depredation by jackals.”
A community managed in situ hatchery for gharials and turtles will help the villagers earn and establish bonds with the species. Choudhury, an old hand at crocodile work, said, “We plan to cover the entire Gandak, most of it outside protected areas. Involving Gandak communities in a sustained manner means a better future of the species. Only by working systematically and in a sustained manner with such multiple stakeholders can we secure the future of the gharial,” he said.
Conservation, however, is a long term commitment. Rigorous future-oriented planning processes need to ensure space for multiple stakeholders in the management regime and factor in the assumption that there will be some disturbance. WTI is committed to continue till the time that gharials are well established and the state functionaries capable of managing on their own. In a telephonic conversation, US Jha, chief wildlife warden, Bihar, mentioned, “A new project to strengthen gharial conservation, including setting up a gharial centre at Valmiki Nagar, is near finalisation. Bihar is committed to the long-term conservation of the gharial and is taking steps in that direction.”
The last two years have given Sinha and his team many priceless moments, among them, “a gharial nest at just 100 m from our tent; the first released animal entering the Gandak after nine years in captivity.” But the sight that he holds dearest is “a gharial hatchling emerging from its egg.”
Sekhsaria is an independent Delhi-based consultant and researcher. Suryavanshi is an Aurangabad-based freelance writer and translator covering environmental issues.