The First Swim
I woke up to the call of the alarm at 4:30 a.m. and immediately began preparing for a trip to the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary at Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Visiting this wildlife sanctuary is a routine part of my official duties, but today’s visit was special. I was going to witness a rare natural history event: newborn gharials in the wild!
Photo: Sujoy Banerjee.
I hit the road by 5.30 a.m., just as dawn was breaking. The cool morning breeze was pleasant in an otherwise hot and sultry first week of June. The temperatures in this part of India are extremely high in May and June, the maximum day temperature reaching 470 C on some days, with an average of around 440 C.
FRESHWATER RIVERS – HOME TO GHARIALS
Gharials Gavialis gangeticus are a species of crocodilians notable for their long, beak-like snouts. The males have a distinct, bulbous structure on the tip of their nose. This bulbous ghara (meaning “pot”) lends the name gharial to this species. Historically, this species was found in abundance in most major river systems of northern and central India as well as Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Now, they are confined to a few rivers in India and Nepal. In 2006, a survey indicated that there are fewer than 200 breeding adults in the wild. It was listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2007. As per the estimates of IUCN in 2006, 48 percent of the world’s gharial population is found in the Chambal river.
Adult gharials can grow up to six to seven metres (20-23 feet) in length. These prehistoric-looking reptiles are quite harmless to humans. Their saw-like teeth are suitable only for hunting fish. Yet they have been driven to the brink of extinction. Illegal mining of sand on the banks of the rivers they abound in destroys the nesting and basking sites of the gharials. The continuous movement of trucks, tractors and labourers forces the gharials to seek new territories. Gharials also get caught in fishing nets and drown. When the nets are retrieved before the animals drown, the fishermen break their snouts in order to free their nets, leaving them to die a slow, painful death! Other factors such as pollution and gross reduction in the fish stock are also causing local extinction.
In Hindu mythology, several wild animals are believed to be the ‘vahana’ or vehicles of various Gods. The vehicle of the river Goddess Ganga is a crocodile, and quite often, she is depicted riding on the gharial. The gharial is a symbol of the river. It is harmless to humans and the presence of the gharial itself is an indicator of a clean river ecosystem essential for the survival of humans.
To protect the gharials, about 600 km. of the 960 km. stretch of the Chambal river in three states, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, was declared the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary in the late seventies. The Chambal river eventually joins the Yamuna river in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh. The stretch of the Chambal river in Uttar Pradesh is about 175 km., spread equally in the districts of Agra and Etawah. Both fishing and sand mining are prohibited in this protected stretch of the river. The river here is very clean, and possibly one of the very few rivers of the plains whose water is potable and is consumed by local people without filtration.
The Forest Department of Uttar Pradesh, the custodian of this sanctuary, has made considerable efforts to check illegal mining and fishing. The field staff patrol the river and its banks intensively, impounding boats, vehicles, nets, motorcycles and other tools used in illegal fishing, and creating conditions conducive for gharials.
Female gharials lay eggs around mid-March. They nest on the bank close to the river channel where sand is more than three feet (91 cm.) thick. Three-feet-deep (91 cm.) conical pits are dug by the females in the sand where 35-50 eggs are laid in a clutch. These eggs are then covered with about a foot of sand. The females leave the nesting sites, returning only at the time of hatching. This behaviour differs from that of marsh crocodiles or muggers, also found in the Chambal river, who remain close to their nests and guard them fiercely.
The Uttar Pradesh Forest Department has walked the extra mile for in-situ conservation of gharials by protecting their nests. This has been done by fixing a 61 cm. by 61 cm. fine wire mesh by long iron staves over the nests to protect them from predators like dogs, jackals and porcupines that dig up the nests to devour the eggs. These nets were removed about a week before hatching.
Photo: Sujoy Banerjee.
AT THE NESTING SITE
An hour’s drive from Agra, sans the traffic, brought me to Pinahat, a small town on the banks of the Chambal river, 60 km. from Agra. Naval Kishore, Range Forest Officer (RFO), Bah Range, along with a few other staff members joined me in my vehicle, while two of them led us on a motorcycle. The RFO and the staff of Bah Range have been able to effectively control illegal sand mining in the area despite severe pressures. The immediate results are reflected in the increasing records of gharials nesting on the bank of the Chambal river.
A drive of another half hour brought us to Kachhiara village, which we crossed before following the dirt road to its end. We then walked down the sandy banks of the river for about a kilometre to reach the nesting site.
This year, 55 gharial nests have been protected. Forty-two nests are in the Bah Range in Agra district while the remaining 13 are in Etawah Range in Etawah district. These protected nests formed only a part of the total nests in the area. There were more nests in the vicinity. Watchers had been employed on daily wage to guard the nests for the three months between egg laying to hatching.
Hatching occurred here this year on June 3. The females dig up the nests at night to facilitate the process of hatching. The hatchlings instinctively make their way to the river channel in the dark.
Photo: Rajeev Tomar.
A SIGHT TO BEHOLD
When I approached the nesting site, I spotted an assembly of 500 odd hatchlings, the products of 15 nests along the river bank. Hatching was still to occur in another nine nests. There was about 182 cm. of sand in a steep slope leading to the edge of the water. Dug up nests could be seen with egg shells strewn around. Silently, I approached the edge of the sand bank and looked down at the hatchlings. The hatchlings did not see me but a nearby male sensed my presence and made a loud, hissing noise.
I sat down on the slope slowly, legs in front, and let my body slide down the slope of the steep sand bank. I came to a halt halfway down the sand bank and remained as still as I could. The hatchlings appeared alarmed for a moment and scattered, but grouped again within a few seconds. I spent the next half hour sitting absolutely still in the same position watching a sight that can only be termed a phenomenon. After all, it is not every day that one comes across gharials hatching in the wild!
The hatchlings remained close to the shore in shallow water. The male, continued with his hissing. . The hatchlings joined in chorus emitting sounds similar to the guttural moan of humans on an empty stomach. The female stayed a little farther, making harsh, clicking noises by opening and closing her jaws and raising a pandemonium by wildly thrashing her tail in the water. The hissing of the male, croaking of the hatchlings and the clicking of the female stopped within a few minutes. But the male kept a close vigil by silently moving close to the group. At times, he would come very close to the hatchling congregation and let them clamber on his snout, which made for an amazing sight! Parenting by males is not so common in other species and usually it is the female who takes care of the young ones. But this gharial dad had a tip or two to give to his human counterparts. Automobiliu-supirkimas-1.lt skubus automobilių supirkimas Vilniuje už gerą kainą
The hatchlings start feeding on fish soon after hatching. Small fish are plentiful in the river. The hatchlings will remain under the watchful eyes of their parents until the river overflows in the monsoons. The river channel, which is less than 50 m. at present, will swell to more than a kilometre in width and the water level will rise by three to five metres. The water flow will also increase considerably. This is the time when the hatchlings of this site as well as other sites will disperse, thereby diminishing their chances of survival. Possibly, only two or three of every 100 gharials will eventually survive to make it to adulthood. But if a habitat conducive for gharials can be created by effective protection from illegal mining and fishing, then increased nesting will occur, adding more individuals to the gharial population. The efforts of the Forest Department are reflected in the departmental census undertaken every year. The number of gharials has risen from 307 in 2008-09 to 785 in 2012-13, that is, two and a half times in five years! This is a success story not often heard in recent times – of the revival of a species from the brink of extinction!
Photo: Sujoy Banerjee.
As I returned, I dwelled on the efforts of the staff of the National Chambal Wildlife Division. Taking the well-connected and well-armed illegal mining and fishing lobby head-on is a feat to be proud of considering that this 175 km. stretch is being patrolled by just 47 staff members. They brave extreme summer heat and bone-chilling winters to protect this river to secure a future for this wonderful species in the wild. It is because of these field staff that we will continue seeing the gharial in the wild.
I am sure I will be back next year to witness this event again!
The author is the Deputy Conservator of Forests, National Chambal Wildlife Division, Forest Department, Uttar Pradesh, Agra.
Author: Sujoy Banerjee, IFS
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII No. 4, August 2013.