Friday, June 19, 2009

Gharial tales

Recently I was witness to a very important event in the relentless journey of Gharial conservation on the banks of Girwa river at Katernia ghat sanctuary.
The untiring efforts of conservationists,wildlife officials are bearing fruits and I witnessed about 40 to 50 hatched young ghariyals basking in the glory of late afternoon sun on the river bank with their mother jealously guarding them.

The Gharial [Gavialis gangeticus] is known as one of the world's largest crocodile species , the most endangered and has been listed in 'critically endangered' category by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] in red data book.Known populations of Gharials now exist only in India and Nepal.At one time its population was spread in Bangladesh,Myanmar,Pakistan and Bhutan and now they are extinct in these countries.In the early years of the 20Th century they were extensively hunted for their much in demand skins which led to their being extinct in large areas.In the year 1970 a survey conducted by S.Biswas of Zoological Society of India brought fore the findings that the species was in grave danger of being totally extinct further the study undertaken by Rom Whitaker across the Indian rivers confirmed the unpleasant findings and full protection status was granted to them by the Government.

Nine areas were designated as protected areas in India and captive breeding was undertaken where eggs were collected from the wild and hatched to be released into the wild.As per reports about 3000 Ghariyals were released from the year 1981 onwards.It led to a temporary increase in their population to about 1500 adults but studies in the last decade indicated that again their population was grimly decimated, and they were disappearing from their known habitats.

By the year 2007 Gharials were again given the status of critically endangered species in the IUCN red list.They face major threats from many sources in their habitats.Major factor being the pollution which exposes the species to Toxic chemicals.In the year 2008 about 100 died in the Chambal sanctuary due to this, the cause attributed to increase in level of uric acid leading to Kidney failure although this has not been conclusively proven.

Other factors being cited by conservationists and wildlife experts are Illegal mining of the riverbed for sand which results in loss of habitat and human interference,Unchecked fishing in their habitat.Poaching for their skin and snout of the male thought to have Aphrodisiac properties and eggs stolen by humans for their supposedly medicinal properties.

A major problem as per experts in their conservation efforts is the lack of definitive information on their behavioural patterns ,and their migration patterns when the river gets flooded to overcome this The Gharial conservation Alliance [GCA]was formed in the year 2007 under the Chairmanship of Rom Whitaker a leading herpetologist, it has as its members leading Ghariyal scientists,experts to coordinate research and conservation efforts with its priorities being protecting their habitats,monitoring and research on remaining population,study of human impact and making local population aware of their importance and significance and involving them in the conservation initiatives.

Coming back to recent hatchings at Girwa river in Katernia I had a detailed discussion with Shri RK Singh,DFO,Katernia on the significence of the event.As per him it is a matter of great satisfaction that Gharials are breeding in natural environment in Katernia.He also outlined the various measures being undertaken by his staff to ensure the survival of the hatch lings and eggs,according to him a total no.of 28 nesting sites have been identified on the river bank out of this in 2 to 3 sites eggs have hatched.To ensure the survival of hatch lings and eggs patrolling of the sites is being undertaken on regular basis and night patrolling is also being done.A research team including Abhijeet Das and other researchers under the supervision of Rom Whitaker is keeping a tab on Gharial behaviour during the breeding season and is also monitoring the laid eggs scientifically.

Despite all this efforts Shri Singh expressed cautious optimism on the survival rate of young hatch lings.As per him there are many natural factors which will affect the survival rate of the young Gharials.With the onset of Monsoon season it is very likely that Girwa will get flooded and many of the off springs may get washed away in the strong currents of the river,Natural predators like Muggar,Eagles and Jackals who thrive on the banks of river also prey on the young off springs and eggs.

Hence the coming months will determine the future of the young Gharials and i wish them all the good luck and to the men and women who are putting up so much efforts and dedication to ensure the survival of this ancient species.

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