Nature

Against the tide

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The gharial is among the largest crocodile species, but it faces a fight to survive.

With its long, saw chain-like mouth, the gharial reminds of an unusual pre-historic or extinct species. Soon it might be one. In 2007 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the reptile as ‘critically endangered’. In 2006 it conducted a survey of breeding gharial adults in the wild. It found less than 200.

The gharial is native to the Indian subcontinent. Its appearance is unmistakable. Its narrow snout becomes shorter and thicker with age. At the end is a small lump called ‘Ghara’ – which is Indian for ‘pot’. It is a vocal resonator present on all adults, and a visual sign to females. The gharial is one of the largest crocodile species, just behind the saltwater crocodile. Males can become six metres long and weigh 180kg. The average lifespan is between 40 and 60 years.

The gharial’s habitat mainly consists of deep, fast-moving riverstreams. On land it is clumsy and its short, weak legs give it poor locomotion. The only times it leaves water is when basking or nesting. But in the rivers the gharial is king. It is too thin and delicate to attack large prey and therefore feeds on fish, which it grasps from the water with razor-sharp teeth.

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Interestingly, the gharial swallows food whole. In order to do so, it must hold its head above water. At the back of its throat, a valve exists that prevents water from entering the lungs. Whenever the gharial swallows, this valve opens. If the process happens when its head is underwater, the gharial drowns.

Several species similar to the gharial existed millions of years ago. Today it is the only one. In the 1940s there were between 5,000 and 10,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In the 1970s it went close to extinction, but a successful programme launched in 1975 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Indian government helped restore numbers. Some 5,000 gharials were released into the wild. But the program stopped in 1992 for financial reasons and the population fell. According to a count in 2006 by the IUCN, only 182 wild breeding adults remained in Nepal and India.

The gharial’s long-term decline is unquestioned, but some conservationists say the situation is less dramatic. “The number is slightly misleading,” says Tarun Nair, executive officer of the Gharial Conservation Alliance (GCA). “What they mean by 200 is breeding adults. You see a lot more smaller animals as well.” Has the population increased or decreased since the IUCN’s count in 2006? “It’s hard to say,” he says. “I think the population is stable. Five years is a very short time. We didn’t have too many studies back then and we have more people on the ground now. The numbers rise because there are more people looking for them.” He believes the current overall number lies between 800 and 1,000.

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There are several reasons for the long-term decline. Traditional dangers are fishing and hunting. Gharials nestle their narrow mouths in fishing nets and either drown or get killed by fishermen. Human fishing also reduces food stocks. “The kinds of threats are changing,” says Nair. “Earlier it was fishing nets but that’s more under control now. The new threat is from big projects like dams, which are putting a lot of pressure on the gharial.”

Such projects also include barrages and irrigation canals. They change the flow of riverstreams and alter the quality and quantity of the water. This destabilises the gharial’s habitat. “A lot of the smaller towns are becoming cities and there is more demand for freshwater,” says Nair. “How are we going to keep water flowing through the rivers? That is the biggest challenge over the next 10 years.”

As the fight continues, organisations such as the GCA focus on protecting gharial habitats. The GCA is heavily involved in areas around the Chambal river, where it believes about half of the existing population resides. Is there hope for the gharial? “There is because more people are getting involved,” says Nair. “I think that’s probably the first step in gathering support for the species. We know it’s going to be a challenge but I think it will have a chance.”

To get involved in conserving the gharial, please visit www.gharialconservationalliance.org

Photos: Marek Velechovsky, MP cz, siloto [all via Shutterstock.com].

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