The long-snouted gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) has been my favourite crocodilian from the moment I saw one at the Madras Crocodile Bank at the age of six. Well, to be specific, there must have been at least ten floating lazily in the brackish water of their enclosure, but it was feeding time, and one particularly ambitious gharial was trying to rear up out of the water and snap up the fish tossed to it. The bulbous ghara (which means ‘pot,’ an accurate description for this unwieldy structure at the end of its snout, and lends this reptile its common name), made it look more formidable than it actually is. With a splash, the reptile fell back into the water, fish struggling in its slender jaws, as I stared wide-eyed.
Native to the river systems of the Indian subcontinent, the gharial is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with only 235 individuals estimated to remain in the wild today. Now restricted to less than 2% of their former range, sanctuaries for the gharial exist in the Chambal River, the Son River, the Girwa River, and the Mahanadi River, although there have been no records of breeding populations in the Mahanadi. In 2008, a small population was spotted in Corbett Tiger Reserve, and isolated populations have also been recorded in the Gandaki River, west of Valmiki Tiger Reserve.
Of all the crocodilians, the gharial is the least adapted to life on land. Exposed sand banks are used as nesting sites, but the rest of the gharial’s life is spent basking in shallow river pools or catching fish in swifter currents. This is a species that depends desperately upon the health and sanctity of our country’s river systems, which are deteriorating rapidly. Major threats to the species include fishing with gill nets, even in protected waters, and a decline in availability and quality of riverine habitat due to dams, barrages, and irrigation canals. Such barricades increase silt buildup in rivers on either side of the dam and reduce water quality. They also prevent regular migrations of aquatic species in stretches that are now dammed.
So yes, the gharial lives a (literal) dammed existence. Our country has failed this rare, beautiful crocodilian in our inability to create inviolate river systems where it can thrive and our aversion to change. In 1946, just one year prior to India’s independence from the British, nearly 10,000 gharials swam our river channels, bringing life and balance to these valuable waters. But how the times have changed…
Yet there remains hope.
If we take decisive action, we may be able to rebuild our dying gharial population. The destruction of river habitats must cease, be it illegal sand mining, pollution and sewage release into water systems, river diversions and linking, or the creation of large dams and barrages. Alternatives exist for all of the above. Strengthening our sewage treatment facilities and placing them away from rivers will be a major step towards cleaning our waters. There must be stringent government crackdowns on illegal sand mining, without fear of retaliation by the sand mafia. And ecologists and scientific research MUST be taken into account before projects such as river linking or dam construction take place. Science serves as a link between development and conservation. We must now honour the need of the hour and consider the implications of our actions on our fast-disappearing natural heritage.
Can we as a country act in time and save the gharial from the jaws of extinction?