The song of the Ganges gharial
CIRCA 1996: The impossible had been achieved. The gharial, till then on a rapid slide to extinction, had been pulled back. Conservationists slapped each other’s backs. In those dismal days when the future of the tiger in India was in doubt and the premier conservation undertaking for its benefit, Project Tiger, lay exposed for its hollow claims, Project Crocodile was touted as one of the most successful conservation efforts in the world. The morale of Indian conservationists received a rare boost while they struggled to fight a seemingly graver battle for the tiger.
The gharial is the only true descendant of an ancient family of crocodilians that lived on the earth 100 million years ago. A fossil of a seafaring gharial, recently unearthed in Puerto Rico, was dated to at least 23 million years ago, while another giant, a 15 metre long gharial, was excavated from Niger in the 1990s. After the last Ice Age, the gharial staked out about 20,000 square kilometres of rivers, spanning Pakistan to Myanmar, as its territory. Not for it the still waters of ponds or lakes where other crocodilians thrive. This is a true specialist: a river-dweller that eats only fish. Unfortunately, the gharial’s narrow choice of habitat and diet inevitably led to its downfall.
It all began in 1970 when a disturbing report by the biologist, S. Biswas claimed that the gharial had simply vanished from the Kosi river and recommended that the other rivers be surveyed. In 1973, after conferring with Bombay Natural History Society’s scientists and funded by Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), a team from the Madras Snake Park carried out extensive surveys across every major river and stream throughout the gharial’s range in India and Nepal – the only two countries in the world that are now home to the reptile. By this time the gharial had been declared extinct in Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Although Bhutan too was gharial country, its mountainous terrain limits its range to a few stretches of river close to the India border. The headcount came to only 200 gharial; the population had crashed by about 98% in 30 years.
Something radical had to be done and in 1975 the Government of India set up Project Crocodile with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). With a sense of urgency, Project Crocodile went to work for the benefit of the three endangered Indian crocodilians – the mugger, the saltwater crocodile and the gharial. It delineated 20,000 square kilometres as sanctuaries and set up several captive rearing projects. Of these the gharial occupied six sanctuaries spread over 240 square kilometres while 16 captive rearing centres were to act as its wet nurses.
Although the initial project proposal included concessions such as croc farming as an alternate livelihood for fishermen who would be affected by the conservation measures, it was not implemented and the gharial was soon to pay the price for this oversight. However, those were heady days and such ‘minor’ blips failed to dampen the spirit of croc conservationists who strongly believed they could turn the tide.
Atraining centre (later to become the Wildlife Institute of India) for crocodile biologists was set up in Hyderabad and several Ph.D students were recruited who were to become the frontline field workers for the gharial. Besides declaring sanctuaries and fostering research, a captive breeding programme was initiated as well. But India didn’t have a captive male, and in fact there were only an estimated 10 to 20 adult males in the world at that time. The Frankfurt Zoo in Germany had the only captive male which was donated to the project.
To kick-start the programme some eggs were even bought from Nepal during the first year. One of the primary thrusts of the conservation plan was to rear hatchlings (hatched from eggs collected, both from the wild and captivity) for three to four years until they reached the length of 1.2 metres (four feet) before releasing them in the rivers. The idea behind ‘head-starting’ was to provide hatch-lings the safety of enclosed concrete ponds guarded from predators during the most vulnerable period of their lives.
In the following 30 years, 12,000 eggs were collected and over 5000 such head-started gharial returned to the wild in five sanctuaries. Since the Chambal is the last ‘wild’ river in North India, it was seen as the only hope for the future of the gharial, and even today holds 48% of the population. And this is where Project Crocodile focused its attention, releasing 3500 animals here alone. Gharial numbers surged in subsequent years and the picture looked rosy. And then the rug was yanked from beneath.
Uniquely for India, the National Chambal Sanctuary straddles three states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – encompassing some of the wildest areas that were out of bounds to the state machinery. The ravines on the banks of the river were the hideout of some dreaded bandits, the most infamous among them being Phoolan Devi, the ‘bandit queen’. These outlaws ruled the roost, making sure that the area remained untouched by the government’s development plans. Nobody wanted to invest in industry or buy real estate in these parts. Researchers and forest department personnel too were vulnerable targets and they made sure they were not caught in the field after dark.
Phoolan Devi did, however, capture one croc researcher, Dhruvajyoti Basu, and took away his binoculars. When he pleaded that losing them would put him in trouble with the forest department, the bandit gave him a signed voucher declaring that she, Phoolan Devi, had ‘borrowed’ the binoculars. He was then set free, unharmed. Others who faced the wrath of outlaws were not so lucky. Ironically, the gharial (and its habitat) thrived under the unwitting but ruthless ‘protection’ of the bandits.
In the mid-1990s, in response to state-offered amnesty, the brigands started to give themselves up one by one. The police were slow to fill the power vacuum thus created and other anti-socials – local mafias – began setting up shop. Unlike the outlaws who had restricted themselves to robbing the rich, the mafia began to systematically exploit the natural resources – sand mining (to feed the building boom in cities like Delhi and Agra), fishing in the sanctuary, turtle poaching and so on. One official, speaking off the record, even claimed that the large scale sand mining had brought down banditry in the region, thereby indirectly demonstrating that addressing the livelihood needs of the people is crucial to achieving conservation success! Poor villagers, struggling to make a living from agriculture, irrigated their fields with water siphoned off the river leaving the lower reaches shallow in summer.
A District Collector who tried to stop the illegal activities was beaten up and his police escort reduced to mute spectators. Although the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary is governed by three states, there is limited enforcement of conservation agendas and people do pretty much what they want. (Recently, however, the forest department sought permission to shoot illegal sand miners to enforce the law.)
Not to be outdone, the water authorities such as the irrigation department built barrages, irrigation canals, artificial embankments and thus controlled gharial rivers to an extreme degree – impounding the river during the lean summer months (when all the aquatic animals are imprisoned in a few deep pools), and opening the sluice gates in one go after the rains, causing a veritable tsunami (that washes down anything caught in its powerful currents – uprooted trees, gharial, dolphins). All these activities impacted the gharial directly.
However, once gharial conservation was deemed a great success (when the population in the Chambal climbed to over 1200 between 1993 and 1997), the Government of India withdrew money from the expensive croc breeding and release programme. Though no surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2003, that didn’t worry too many people as the gharial had after all been saved. No wonder, croc conservationists were shocked when R.K. Sharma, a gharial biologist of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, in 2004 alerted them to the news that gharial numbers had nose-dived and there was visible degradation of the habitat.
The last assessment in 2006 revealed that the gharial was in even more distress than in 2003; there are currently no more than 200 wild breeding gharial in Nepal and India. This situation may seem marginally better than the dire straits the gharial found itself in during the early 1970s but now the pressures on the habitat have multiplied and the quality of what remains is deteriorating. Besides, the future viability of the species is compromised because the 200 breeders are spatially separated. Evidently the massive influx of funds and the release of 5000 captive-reared gharial have not achieved any significant reversal. More barrages and dams are on their way for almost every river that is home to the gharial. The situation is even worse in Nepal, the other range country..
Today the gharial’s domain is a mere 2% of its former range, limited to a couple of hundred square kilometres and dwindling. The future of the gharial is so threatened that its Red List status was recently revised from Endangered to Critically Endangered, one stop away from Extinction. It is, today, the most endangered large animal in India, more gravely endangered than the tiger.
Although a critical scientific assessment of past conservation achievements (including one that grades threats according to their severity) has not yet been done, the picture outlined here was arrived at by connecting survey numbers, field visits, and reports (by various workers). Three shortfalls were identified in the conservation programme – one, the habitat was never secured since local people were not taken on board; two, monitoring of the released juveniles was not done; and finally, the significant conservation headway achieved (designation of croc sanctuaries, successful captive breeding, research, publicity and international support) slowly unravelled under the sustained onslaught of river resource exploitation. Despite including all these issues in every set of recommendations from the 1970s, they were ignored in favour of the seductive simplicity of reintroductions.
All this resulted in widespread deterioration of gharial habitat (barrages and dams caused the rivers to silt up, sand mining on basking and nesting beaches) and depletion of prey by illegal fishermen. Several large adult gharial drown in fishing nets and get ensnared by hooks laid by turtle poachers every year. The few that are lucky enough to survive in the nets face an even more horrible fate. Fishermen cut off the long fragile snouts of the gharial tangled in their nets before setting them free. These handicapped gharial slowly starve to death within a year. Tolerance is obviously on a short leash.
In India, conservation is generally driven by biologists with little or no inputs from social scientists. The exclusive (throwing fishermen out of the sanctuary and curtailing any human activity) and unsympathetic (no alternate livelihood options offered to the affected people who became destitute overnight) state conservation policies have replaced existing traditional conservation values with bitterness and anger. The gharial is today the symbol of people’s alienation from their natural resources eliciting little support for its continued existence.
Though a majority of crocodile conservationists in India believe that the gharial is once again facing extinction because reintroduction efforts are down to a minimum, the reality is that the expensive ‘head-starting’ programmes may have achieved little. Since the released gharial were not monitored, no one knows how many survived. Out of the thousands released, only hundreds remain. We can only surmise that they did not have the wherewithal to deal with the strong currents (nor did they possess the muscle tone after being reared in still pools) and the absence of calm tributaries may have resulted in most of these young ones being flushed out of the sanctuaries into inhospitable habitats downstream during the annual monsoon floods.
It is also likely that these captive reared, handfed gharial were unable to catch live prey. In some areas such as the Satkoshia Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary, only two out of 700 released animals remain (a mortality rate of 99.7%). In Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary four nests were recorded in 1977. Despite the release of 909 gharial (including 112 in 2006) in the following years there were only 20 nests in 2006. This implies a mere 2.5% after thirty years of reintroduction efforts. In the Chambal, despite receiving the lion’s share of funds and captive-reared gharials, there were only 68 nests recorded in 2006, up from 12 in 1978, a mere 2% of the reintroduction effort. Conservation studies worldwide have demonstrated that habitat protection is all that is needed for a species to recover and reintroduction is a radical intervention generally reserved for a stage of no return.
Because surveys over the past few decades revealed annually increasing numbers of gharial, this fact was used to claim that conservation efforts had been a great success. This ignored the point that gharial numbers were being artificially boosted by reintroductions every year. So the moment the head-starting programme came to a standstill, the number of wild gharial plummeted. If success is measured by the ability of a population to self-sustain, the question that needs to be asked is: Did gharial reintroductions ever achieve conservation success?
While some conservationists argue that extinction had been averted by such sustained releases, it is equally possible that the modicum of protection given to the habitats was the cause of the increase in nest numbers. The important thing to realize is that the reintroduction of gharial did not lead to the re-colonization of habitats such as Ken and Satkoshia where no nesting has been recorded in decades. The four existing breeding populations – Chambal, Katerniaghat, Son and Rapti-Narayani (Nepal) – already had reproducing females when these efforts began.
The head-starting programme has never complied with any of the norms laid down by the 1998 IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions. Given that the threats to gharial have never been addressed, nor existing conflicts mitigated, it makes little sense to keep dumping thousands of hapless young gharial (most to face certain death) into the rivers. Even captive reared adults were reintroduced with little or no effort spent on maximizing their chances of surviving in a landscape to which they were ill adjusted.
Despite the enormity of past failure, reintroductions have neither stopped nor been critically evaluated. On the contrary, the pressure to allow such arbitrary releases is high even today because of captive breeding successes, resultant overcrowding in zoos and rearing centres, and the ‘feel-good’ factor. So why don’t the managers stop the captive breeding? Possibly for fear of reduced budgetary allocations in the subsequent years, even more gharial are slated for release in the coming winter months.
The gharial requires deep, free-flowing rivers unfettered by dams and barrages. Fish, the prey of gharial (otters, river dolphins and several species of water birds), need clean and clear water to breed. Gharial must have undisturbed sand banks to bask and nest. We are also talking here about an intact, protected river habitat, on which our own survival hinges. Ecologically, the passing of the gharial signifies a collapsed ecosystem – polluted waters, drastic drop in water levels, erosion and siltation – conditions that make any life in the rivers untenable.
People need to see the gharial for the critical environmental services it offers – it eats the predatory catfish thereby boosting the productivity of fish yields and cleans up the injured, sick and unfit fish from the genetic pool; it plays the same role of top predator of the rivers that the tiger does in the forest. The wise ancients recognized the critical role played by the gharial and made it the steed of Ma Ganga herself, making it the cultural and ecological icon of the most sacred river in the world.
The gharial and its fellow river fauna desperately need the support of policy-makers who should re-evaluate the proposal to interlink our rivers (thereby dooming them). Past mistakes have demonstrated the need to redress conservation priorities more broadly if the gharial and other riverine species are to survive. India is the only long-term hope for the gharial in the world.
The Madras Crocodile Bank based Gharial Multi-Task Force (GMTF) has set a science-based agenda that will identify threats to the species, survey historic habitats such as the Brahmaputra which are currently devoid of any gharial population, and study the ecological role of the gharial, while also working with social scientists to understand the alternate livelihood needs of the people in the hope that they will once again accept the gharial as the icon of their river. The GMTF hopes to reorient the gharial conservation strategy using science while accepting that wildlife management is really no more than people management in this situation – if all the human generated pressures are minimized, the species will automatically respond. It is only in extreme cases where a habitat exists but the species has been extirpated that intrusive animal management such as reintroduction is needed.
River Watch, a partnership between GMTF and the Worldwide Fund for Nature-India, though still in its formative stage, realizes that if our rivers are to survive, an integrated conservation plan is needed. It will focus on habitat protection while bringing together conservationists working for all river fauna, including the highly endangered Ganges river dolphin, smooth coated otters, mahseer and several species of endangered freshwater turtles under one umbrella. River Watch, based in the WWF-India office in Delhi, intends to prioritize river conservation by drafting management plans for the various protected areas along river systems, developing and strengthening the policy and legislation for integrated river basin management and lobbying for their implementation.
Alongside coordinating between departments such as irrigation, fisheries and forest, River Watch will also network with our neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. It will campaign against over-harvesting of fish and water as well as any construction on rivers that works to the detriment of its habitat and fauna. It hopes to formulate guidelines for river eco-tourism as well as promote use of safe fishing gear and teaching fishermen how to deal with accidentally captured gharial and dolphins. River Watch will collaborate with national and international partners in conservation, research and education to achieve its goals.
It is no coincidence that all the great civilizations of the world rose on the banks of rivers. Rivers are still the lifeline of our existence, for example, the Indus and Ganges river basins support more than 10% (600 million people) of the world’s population. By working to conserve such animals as the gharial and river dolphins, we are in reality only preserving our very own life support systems. Though the pressures on rivers increase day by day, we are guardedly optimistic that people are already seeing reason and are finally ready to save the gharial and the rivers that are its home.
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