Saving the gharial crocodile

With its long, tooth-filled snout, the gharial takes crocodile design to the extreme. Sadly, such impressive weaponry has failed to protect the species from decline. 

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Gharials article spread

With its long, tooth-filled snout, the gharial takes crocodile design to the extreme. Sadly, such impressive weaponry has failed to protect the species from decline. Today, its last hope rests with Romulus Whitaker and his team.  

The reptile’s sleek body glistened as the sun hit the River Padma, Bangladesh. The gharial seemed unafraid, and we guessed she was guarding eggs buried in the sandbank. We dug until we found the nest. We were hoping to rear her young safely in captivity and release them into the wild, but she couldn’t know that. Still, she didn’t attack us.

That was in the mid-1980s, possibly the last time gharials nested in Bangladesh. The species has declined across its entire Asian range, mainly because no one knew enough about this unusual croc to be able to help it.

What sets the gharial apart from other crocodilians is its incredibly long snout, which it wields like a pair of chopsticks. These slim jaws, lined with sharp teeth, are ideal for catching fish.

They have another function: when a male reaches adolescence, at about age 12, a wart-like appendage grows on the tip of his snout. The ghara (Hindi for ‘pot’) presses down on the nostrils, and when the male breathes out forcefully, it produces a loud flatulent noise. This ‘buzz-snort’ serves two purposes – to attract females and warn off rivals.

Fights between male gharials involve terrific displays of prowess. The territory-holder surges forward, churning the water with his tail. If the intruder remains unintimidated, the two opponents engage in combat. Their snouts clash like swords in the air, though they seem too fragile for such violence – indeed, you often hear the crack of a tooth splintering or bone hitting bone. Eventually, one gharial prevails and the other retreats.

Mum’s the word

The testosterone that fuels the males’ battles ebbs after mating. Then the females fight over the best sandbank nest-sites. Their conflicts are less brutal than the males’, though similarly the larger individual invariably wins.

Once the territory squabbles are over, a mother gharial makes a 40-50cm-deep nest hole with her hind feet, into which she lays about 50 large eggs. She then covers the nest, tossing sand over the area to hide her tracks from predators such as hyenas, jackals and mongooses, before returning to the river to keep watch from a distance.

River deep

Up to 100 years ago, the gharial’s buzz-snort resonated along the deep rivers of the northern Indian subcontinent. This is a hardcore river-dweller that eats only fish. Unfortunately, this narrow choice of habitat and diet has been the gharial’s downfall. Its rivers are being dammed, isolating populations. After the last Ice Age, the gharial staked out about 20,000km2 of rivers spanning Pakistan to Burma. Today, its domain is a mere 200km2 and dwindling.

To counter this decline – and that of other Indian crocodilians – Project Crocodile was set up in 1974 by the Indian Government, with help from the UN. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, we carried out surveys, behavioural studies and captive-breeding projects.

We reared thousands of youngsters, releasing them into protected areas. Sadly, few of these pioneers survived for long, often because they were flushed out of the protected areas and into the sea during the monsoon.

Fishing is another problem. In supposedly protected areas, we saw several gharials whose snouts had become entangled in nylon fishing nets. Though the crocs didn’t drown, their jaws were held shut, and so they were in danger of starving to death. In other locations, dam construction disturbed nesting gharials and local people raided their nests for eggs to eat.

Though the gharial’s slide towards extinction has been slowed, our 30-year captive-breeding programme has not been enough. The species still faces an uncertain future. The threats it and its habitat face – from development, pollution and climate change – increase day by day, but we are guardedly optimistic that people are finally ready to do what it takes to save the gharial, the ultimate icon of a healthy river.

Find out more about gharial conservation here.

 

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