Though often mistaken for crocodiles or alligators, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is its own special creature that dwells in the rivers of India and Nepal eating only fish and some crustaceans. This incredible reptile is believed to have split from all other crocodilians perhaps more than 65m years ago and has a distinctive snout tipped with a bulbous mass and elongated jaw.
As is the case with so many special creatures, the gharial population experienced heavy declines over the past several decades. In the river ecosystems of Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, it is estimated that gharial populations declined from up to 10,000 individuals in 1946 to fewer than 250 in 2006, which led them to be classified as critically endangered. It is truly disheartening to read these numbers, but fortunately, thanks to conservation efforts, there is hope for the gharial.
Conservation efforts began in the 1970s when the Indian government initiated a crocodile breeding and management project with the support of the UN’s development program and Food and Agriculture Organization. In 1978, the National Chambal Sanctuary was established in 1978 and the following year the first captive-bred gharials were released into the Chambal River, which cuts through ravines and hills in the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. As of 1992, the gharial population in these States had increased to 1,095 individuals.
Today, the Chambal river still holds the largest population of gharials, with about 1,800 according to government estimates.
As reported in The Guardian, the success of the Chambal project is now being replicated in the Indian state of Bihar. After 15 male and female gharials were observed on the Indian stretch of the Gandak River – which flows down from Nepal into India – in 2010, the Bihar government initiated a Gandak gharial recovery project.
To reinforce the remnant gharial population in the river, captive-born and reared gharials were released into the Gandak river from 2014 to 2015. What makes the Gandak so ideal for gharials are its sandbanks and wetlands, which are good breeding grounds for the fish on which they feed. The statistics back this up. Every year since 2016, fishermen have spotted gharial nests on the banks of the river.
The effort to boost Gharial populations isn’t stopping there. In June, 86 newly hatched gharials were released into the river after a successful incubation of 65–70 days in the nests watched over by members of the local community.
For those of us at the Optimist Daily, the story of the gharial shows that while humans can often have a detrimental effect on animal populations, we also have the power to help those same creatures recover.