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Gharials under grave threat


More than 90 gharials (Gangeticus gavialis) have been reported dead in the last 2 months in the National Chambal Sanctuary in India for yet-to-be diagnosed reasons. The monarch of Indian rivers is under severe threat.

A team of international veterinarians and crocodile experts - on government request - is working closely with scientists from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI). Early results point to levels of heavy metals - lead and cadmium – leading to immune-suppression (or reduction in body’s ability to fight pathogens) and thereby making them susceptible to infections. Post mortems on gharials show debilitating gout affecting the animals.

Situated around the Chambal River – often claimed the cleanest river of India – the sanctuary is shared among the 3 Northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and is home to numerous freshwater species.

Most of gharial mortalities have been reported in the Uttar Pradesh side of the river, near the confluence of the Chambal and the Yamuna that flows through India’s bustling capital, Delhi, and the historic city of Agra.
Gharials – often confused with crocodiles – are characterized by their long and thin snout and the ghara or pot on their head and eat only fish. They are one of the most threatened crocodile species and are classified as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union.

The species is already extinct in its former range in Pakistan, Bhutan, and Myanmar, and most likely also in Bangladesh. Not more than 1,400 specimens remain in the wild today, with less than 200 in their breeding age group. Besides Chambal, gharials are found in isolated stretches of the Ken, Son, Girwa and Ganges rivers in India.

“This is a national crisis - gharials are an important freshwater species. Too few of them remain in the wild and the continuing loss indicates a long term negative effect on the ecosystem.” said Ravi Singh, WWF-India’s Secretary General and CEO, chair of the Crisis Management Group formed by the Indian Government.

The Crisis Management Group includes representatives of the 3 states, conservation organizations, scientific institutes and community and experts to get to the core of the issue.

Romulus Whitaker – popularly referred to as India’s crocodile man – has been working on reptilian and amphibian species for over 40 years and leads the Gharial Conservation Alliance. Also a member of the Crisis Management Group, he said: “These gharial deaths are like an attack right on target: one species, one size-class and one stretch of river”.

Gharial casualties have been reported only on a 35km stretch before the confluence, and no casualties have been reported among any other freshwater species that share habitat with gharials.

Ravi Singh further warned “There is no room for complacency – while casualties are now reported from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, upstream stretches of Chambal (in Rajasthan) should not be considered safe.”

WWF together with other agencies has stepped up monitoring activities on the Chambal River around the impacted site. WWF-India has established a field station for coordination purposes and as Dr. Parikshit Gautam, Director of WWF-India’s Freshwater and Wetlands Programme, explains: “Our fully equipped crisis-management station in Etawah is coordinating with forest departments and local communities and constantly monitoring the river for any sick or sluggish animal.”

“We are now facilitating post mortems on site instead of sending the specimens to labs, thereby saving time, and getting better results.”

Dr. Sandeep Behera, Freshwater Species coordinator with WWF-India said, “We are not ruling out any possibility. Whatever may be the reason for these deaths, one thing is certain: the situation is as grim as 1970 when the number of gharials had plummeted to an all-time low and their population could be restored only after government supported conservation efforts.”

Dr Behera concludes, “The level of cooperation between the central government, 3-state governments and various agencies is remarkable, and we hope that through our concerted action we are able to restore the glory of the gharial, and ensure their undisturbed existence in Chambal.”

Article by Anshuman Atroley,
Communications Manager, WWF-India


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