“No tears for rare crocodile species, gharial aka gavial” by Dharmendra Khandal
No tears for rare crocodile species, gharial aka gavial
By Dharmendra Khandal
October 12, 2011
Many times people use the word alligator for gharial, which is actually incorrect; we have no alligators in our country. They are found only in US and China. Experts say gavials or gharials is the right word. But one question that begs to be asked: Why are we so familiar with American species rather Indian? Because, television popularised alligators through wildlife documentaries. This negligence about the Indian species is also present at the conservation level of the species. Gharial (Gavialis Gangeticus) is a long snouted fresh water crocodile. Gharial gets its name from the Hindi word ‘gahra’ meaning pot or vessel. The adult males snouts protude at the tip, resembling an inverted pot. (Only the adult males have the ghara.)
An Indian crocodile expert SA Hussain says gharial is a prominent riverine species of the Indus, Ganges Brahmaputra and Mahanadi river system that is becoming increasingly rare due to reduction in water flow, and available nesting beaches, modification of river morphology and increased mortality in fishing nets.
Although a substantial breeding population now thrive within the limits of National Chambal sanctuary, gharials are known to prefer calm and quiet areas of fast flowing rivers. It is the longest living crocodilian species with the second longest life span after the estuarine crocodile. Gharials are depicted in the Indian mythology as the holy vehicle of goddess Ganga.
There were 436 breeding adults in 1997 but by 2006 this number had declined to just 182, a reduction of 58 per cent over the last 10 years. The last stronghold for gharials is the Chambal river, which is home of 68 per cent of the world’s wild gharial population. The Chambal is one of the cleanest rivers in India. The National Chambal Sanctuary was founded in the year 1979 with gharials as flagship species. It is the only reptile-based sanctuary in India, which is co- administered by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
A crisis situation was declared in January 2008 after a mass death of around 111 gharials in the national Chambal sanctuary. This sudden drop in gharial population upgraded their status from endangered to critically endangered in the IUCN red list. Although the actual cause of the death is still being speculated, most fingers point at the polluted Yamuna river. Gharials feeding on fish contaminated by toxins and heavy metal deposits from the Yamuna, leading to bio magnification and the resultant death is said to be a high possibility. Bio magnification is the process whereby the tissue concentrations of a contaminant increase as it passes up the food chain.
Despite our ignorance in saving our very own native species, the least we can do is identify them with their right names. Hope next time I won’t hear alligator uttered in Indian context.
(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Rathambhore)