Gharials: Threats and Conservation Efforts

August 18, 2021Lu Shegay

Introduction

The gharial is the fish-eating crocodile and is considered one of the longest crocodiles among all living species. Gharials are the most aquatic of all crocodilians, inhabiting deep areas of fast-flowing rivers and, due to weak legs, they are unable to move very easily on land. This species can be found in the Indian subcontinent, in such countries as Bangladesh, India, Nepal. The population of these animals has significantly declined since the 1930s due to various reasons, such as river pollution, dam construction, fishing operations, illegal sand mining, and poaching. Sand mining, in particular, is the main cause of these crocodiles’ habitat loss, as well as conversion to agriculture and depletion of fish resources.

"Gharial" by wwarby is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Threats

The gharial is classified as Critically Endangered under the IUCN Red List. According to the last assessment, the population of this species is approximately 300 to 900 mature individuals. The gharial formerly inhabited Pakistan, Myanmar, and Bhutan, but now are considered extinct in those countries. In 1946, there were approximately 5000 - 10 000 individuals in the range countries, but by the 1970s they faced a dramatic decline, and the number of individuals reached 300.


Traditionally, one of the biggest threats to the gharials was hunting. Gharials are hunted for the skin or the aphrodisiac effect of the males’ snout appendage. Gharial eggs have been collected for medical purposes. At the present time, hunting remains the problem for the population of gharials, but the major threats include habitat loss and pollution.


“Rivers in the area are continuously encroached upon for human development and dammed or drained for irrigation, all of which add to the pollution and siltation of the water. In 2007, over 100 dead gharials were found in India’s Chambal River, thought to be poisoned by toxins.


In 2016, 3000 gharial eggs hatched, the highest number since conservation efforts began in 1979. While many of these may not survive until adulthood, the increase nonetheless demonstrates that their numbers are improving. However, conservationists urge that the focus needs to shift from captive breeding to protecting what remains of the gharial’s habitat.”

"Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) male" by berniedup is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Legal protection and conservation efforts

On the national level, gharials are protected in India under the Wildlife Protection Act; Nepal also protects gharials under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act.


Internationally, gharials are included in Appendix I of CITES, meaning that trade of this species is allowed only in exceptional circumstances. Although Appendix I provides the highest protection listed under the Convention, in some cases, it may not be as effective as it may seem. And despite habitat loss and river pollution being the major threats to these animals now, illegal hunting may pose another threat to gharials.


Some conservation programs have been launched, such as breeding or keeping in zoos, to save this species of animals. The focus of these programs was to collect gharials’ eggs, incubate, and hatch them. The juvenile gharials were usually raised for 2-3 years, and after they reached 1 m. in length, they were released back to their natural environment. These conservation works have been done since the 1970s, however, recent studies showed that although captive breeding programs have been successful, the decline in the population continues.


India has been launching some conservation developments in the country. For the first time in over 39 years since 1979 when the gharial conservation mission began in Chambal, an increase of 426 gharials has been registered in a year. This has left wildlife authorities of all three states hopeful.


“Amit Sisodia, the ranger of Bah area, said the survey also showed an increase in the numbers of 36 species of migratory birds - an indicator of the success of conservation efforts made by local wildlife authorities. The number of birds in the sanctuary area has crossed 22,000. This includes 11,500 migratory birds and 466 Indian skimmers.


The survey also found that the number of mugger crocodiles has increased to 613 in the Bah region of Chambal. It was just 562 last year. In 2014 this number was 390, in 2015 it was 402, while in 2016 it was 464.”


Read more: Dry-Season Assessment of Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) in the Betwa, Ken, and Son Rivers, India


Nepal also launched the egg-collection program along the rivers to conserve the species. The first result was in 1981 when 50 gharials were released into the Narayani River. During 1981-2018, 1365 gharials in total have been released in the Rapti-Narayani river system, and the reintroduction program helped maintain the population, yet the survival rate remained low. Only 14 gharials out of 36 marked that were released between 2002 and 2003 into the Rapti-Narayani river system survived in the wild, and the program was criticized for being not comprehensive and coordinated because too old and unsexed crocodiles were released in unfavorable for them cold months.


Read more: 119 Juvenile Gharials Released into the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park, Nepal and Doing the Needful in Nepal: Priorities for Gharial Conservation


Despite the efforts of range countries to save and conserve the gharials, several factors contributed to the failure during the entire time of conservation efforts:

  • Gharial habitat has not been secured;

  • Enforcement of protected status has been insufficient;

  • Wild restocking efforts were not followed up with consistent population surveys to monitor the survival of released gharials and the state of gharial populations;

  • 1992 Ministry of Environment and Forests of India calls a halt to captive rearing of gharials and withdraws funds;

  • 1992-1999 Dedicated gharial conservationists try to carry out surveys when possible along with their own work, but no systematic surveys carried out by Forest Departments;

  • Surveys to date indicate around 200-250 mature breeding adult gharials in the wild, spread across fragmented habitats; etc


Although a few organizations and conservation groups have been involved in the conservation efforts, there is still a way how each of us can contribute to the protection of this species. Because the main threats to this species of crocodiles are loss of habitat, river pollution, and hunting, there is a way to change our lifestyle. That includes:

  • Refraining from leather-made products (clothes, shoes, accessories, etc);

  • Reduce plastic waste;

  • When visiting the river sites clean after yourself;

  • Going plant-based and not contributing to the agricultural development;

  • Report any illegal activity you might witness.

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