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Gharials: Slowly Making a Comeback

Once an endangered species, the gharial is now being acknowledged as a reintroduced species… but here's how continued threats like sand mining are still making its revival debatable.

I remember my first gharial. I must have been six or seven. It was in a zoo – perhaps the Delhi zoo, but I may be mistaken. I vividly remember seeing its long snout and wondering if the other crocodiles made fun of its deformity. Until I was informed that it was a species of its own – completely different from the ‘scary crocs’ in the stories. I didn’t know then how close we had come to never seeing them again. Thanks to intensive conservation efforts though, hopefully, we’ll never get there again.

The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is a crocodilian species endemic to the Indian subcontinent. It is critically endangered according to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The fact that it is still around is a conservation success story.

Extinct in much of its range:

The gharial was fairly popular in the 1950s but had declined drastically from an estimated population of approximately 5,000-10,000 individuals in its range to about 200 individuals in 1976. Once spanning entire river systems from Pakistan to Myanmar in the northern Indian subcontinent, the gharial was declared extinct in almost every country (Bhutan having a tiny population in its shared border with India) in its range except for small populations in India and Nepal by the 1970s.

This prompted the Indian government (with its newly passed Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) to sit up, take notice, and initiate Project Crocodile. To cut a long story short (also, Ms. Lenin tells the story better than me), the gharial thrived in the Chambal areas under the protective watch of Phoolan Devi (the famous bandit queen) and her companions.

It was when they surrendered that the real troubles began: indiscriminate sand mining, the unfettered use of dams and sluice gates, hydropower projects, water extraction for irrigation, mass fishing and deaths because of being trapped in nets all led the inevitable decline of the gharial. Surveys in the early 2000s showed that the gharial had dropped to less than 200 breeding adults.

Bringing the Gharial back in Bihar:

Recent conservation efforts by the Government of Bihar and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) have played a big role in repopulating major parts of the Gandak River in the Valmiki Tiger Reserve. Working in conjunction with the local fisherman, they ensured that nests in danger from erosion or predation were protected.

They also carried out a gharial restocking program with gharials bred in the Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park, Patna in 2014. Two of the reintroduced gharials were satellite-tagged as well. The rewards of these efforts were seen in 2016 when the first hatchlings were sighted. There had been no records of breeding populations in the three to four decades prior to this. 

A survey by WTI in 2018 showed that there were over 160 gharials in the river; a triumph indeed.

The threats remain:

While there have been triumphs in reintroducing the gharial to the wilds of India, unfortunately, most of the threats that caused its initial decline still remain. Rampant illegal sand mining still threatens much of their range. The National Waterways Act, 2016 allows for the use of river and canal systems for commercial navigational use, which will allow waterways to cut through at least 20 protected areas -- some of which are gharial habitat. Dams and other barriers continue to pose a threat to these reptiles that thrive in undisturbed pristine water bodies. 

While the gharial may slowly be making a comeback for now, perhaps it’s too soon to celebrate…

Uma Athale

Uma Athale

Jeevoka member since Sep 2019

With a Master’s degree in Wildlife Conservation and Management from the University of Reading, England, I have worked with wildlife in various capacities in India and abroad, including invasive species management, species reintroduction, rehabilitation, and human-animal conflict mitigation, among others. I am also a co-author of There’s Many a Way to Keep the Elephant Away: a manual discussing various methods of human-elephant conflict mitigation published by Project Elephant.
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