After successfully reintroducing the critically endangered Gharial ( Gavialis Gangeticus ) in the rivers of Punjab where it had become extinct half a century ago, the State’s wildlife preservation wing is now keeping its fingers crossed, expecting the breeding of the crocodilians to start in the new few years as the released gharials are healthy and have adapted to the Beas Conservation Reserve as their home.
“Since 2017, we have released 94 gharials in the Beas Conservation Reserve and there have been only two causalities. These gharials have been dispersed both upstream and downstream of the release sites in the reserve and they can be spotted any time depending on the water levels and season, indicating that the first step of their rehabilitation has been successful,” R.K. Mishra, Punjab’s Chief Wildlife Warden told The Hindu.
“The next big challenge is their breeding. Once natural breeding of gharials starts it would then be a real success. Normally, we expect the breeding to start after 10 years. The eldest of the reintroduced ghairals is seven years old now and we are hopeful that breeding could start in the coming three-four years. The habitat is conducive for egg-laying and hatching and we are taking all necessary steps to provide a safe environment predator,” he added.
The gharial reintroduction in the Beas Conservation Reserve is an ambitious programme of the Punjab government. The reptiles were commonly sighted in the Beas River till the 1960s but later became extinct. The gharial can be found in north Indian rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, Chambal and their tributaries.
Mr. Mishra said after the release of gharials, regular monitoring by the department is being done to understand the dispersal, behaviour, threats and other ecological aspects so that these juvenile and sub-adult gharials mature into adults and start breeding.
“Regular patrolling and monitoring of the reserve by forming a gharial task force, rapid rescue unit and anti-poaching group is being undertaken. The monitoring teams have also been raising awareness of the farmers and riparian communities working in the close vicinity of the Beas River,” he said.
While there is no documentation on the extinction of gharial from the Beas, experts believe there have been multiple reasons for the disappearance of the species.
“After understanding the Beas river ecosystem, learning from other gharial habitats in the world and from interacting with numerous stakeholders residing or working around the Beas river, it is quite evident that change in the hydrology due to construction of dams and barrages, significantly reduced water flow, rapid land-use change of floodplains and rampant overfishing led slowly into the extinction of the gharial from the Beas,” said Gitanjali Kanwar, Coordinator - Rivers, Wetlands and Water Policy, WWF-India.
In the first phase of the reintroduction project, 47 gharials were released in 2017-2018 in the river in Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts. Later, 23 gharials were released in February 2021 on an island near Saleempur and Tahli Forest in district Hoshiarpur. Most recently, on December 5, another set of 24 gharials was released near the Kulla Fatta forests in the reserve in Hoshiarpur district.
Joint field surveys conducted by Department of Forests and Wildlife Preservation (Punjab) and WWF- India indicate that currently, dispersal of gharials is widespread in the reserve.
“40-50% of the released gharials are sighted during the field survey, and they are healthy and have adapted to the Beas Conservation Reserve. Like tigers are the topmost predators in a forest, gharials are the topmost predators in a river. They (gharial) balance the riverine food chain. Gharial keeps in check their prey (i.e. fish), which keep in check their prey and so on. The presence of gharials indicates a healthy riverine ecosystem,” Ms Kanwar said.
“We are also focusing on meticulous documentation of this conservation programme, which will act as a reference and learning guide for the next generation. A coffee table book on the gharial was released earlier this month, documenting 22 years of work on the gharial conservation by Punjab. We are working on preparing a vision document and documentary films on the conservation programme in Punjab,” she added.