Endangered gharials

A crisis that echoes the death of a large number of vultures, mass mortality of the gharial — a freshwater crocodile found predominantly in the beautiful Chambal river sanctuary — is cause for serious concern. A few dozen gharials have perished, apparently as a result of a mysterious liver disease, while the population of these animals in the wild has been dropping steadily. The decline in the population of adult gharials from 436 about a decade ago to 182 in 2006, according to World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates, has raised international alarm. It has prompted the IUCN to classify them as critically endangered on its Red List of species. The gharial, a fish-eating crocodile with a long snout, is now reported only from India and Nepal. Historically, its habitat extended from the Indus in Pakistan to the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. At one time, the population of this distinctly Asian species was estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000. After the numbers dipped to precarious levels three decades ago, a breeding programme was undertaken; this led to the release of hundreds of young gharial into its habitat, including the Mahanadi and Girwa. Sadly, the captive breeding efforts have failed to revive wild populations of the gharial.

The Central government’s initiative to set up a crisis management group for the gharial with help from the World Wildlife Fund offers some hope. As in the case of the Asian vultures (which were found to be affected by the veterinary drug Diclofenac administered to cattle), a comprehensive investigation to determine the cause of the gharial deaths and urgent remedial measures are called for. There may also be some merit in the criticism from conservationists that poor enforcement in prime gharial nesting areas in the Chambal has created ruinous habitat disturbance. Sand mining and the hunting of fish and turtles in the protected areas have led to the destruction of nesting sites, the depletion of fish, and the killing of gharials that accidentally get entangled in turtle nets; poorly conceived dams, barrages, irrigation canals, and roaming livestock have added to the pressure. The Ministry of Environment and Forests should be deeply concerned that looming risks for wildlife are discovered, typically by conservation-minded independent researchers, long after they have reached the critical point. A continuous monitoring of wildlife with scientific rigour could help flag these threats early. That task requires a strong partnership between research scientists and the Ministry. And it could start with a rejuvenated Project Crocodile to protect the gharial and other Chambal species.

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