It may feel like a lifetime, but it wasn’t so long ago that environmental catastrophes started coming after many of us unsuspectingly emotional people, one after the next. Our own everyday lives seemed hard enough – but finding out the whole world is hurting was more than many people could take. The end result? A knee-jerk reaction whenever the phrase ‘endangered species’ pops up.
But this time, our news is good news.
This is a story of a species starting to crawl back from the brink, and the conservationists that didn’t give up on them even after decades of steady decline. Once again, there is hope for the Gharial crocodile of east Asia.
Gharials get their name from little bumps on their snout that resembles a pot used for traditional Indian cooking, called a ghara. With a population that numbered tens of thousands in the 1940s, they are listed as critically endangered today by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Scientists estimate there are only around 650 adults left, with their entire population limited to India and Nepal. Out of 14 populated habitats, only 5 have actually been breeding – one in Nepal. Until now. Just this summer, a research team went deep into the heavily forested Bardia National Park in southwest Nepal to check on a population that they believed had no longer been breeding for decades already.
The trip was treacherous, and hope was sparse. Low river levels in the dry season made rafting impossible; flash flooding ruled out 4-wheeling through the valley. But that didn’t deter these determined researchers, who saw no choice but to make the 5 hour, 50 kilometer (31 mile) journey on foot. Ashish Bashyal, one of Biodiversity Conservancy Nepal’s conservationists and ZSL EDGE fellow who helped create the Nepal Gharial Conservation Initiative, said the hike was brutally hot and humid at around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the four hours it took them. On top of that, they spotted tiger footprints about halfway through…
But they made it to the end they were hoping for. The team found 100 hatchlings in the forest population, which – several hours from any major settlements – should give the species a better chance at survival.
Since then, the summer monsoon rains that can put hatchlings’ lives at risk have come and gone – but a follow-up check found enough of them in the same location since then that Bashyal believes the Bardia breeding population could be there to stay.
“Something that was bugging me was that we had been working there for almost three years, had conducted more than three surveys, but we had never found hatchlings, baby gharials,” Bashyal said. “So they are out there, they have good habitat, there are adult males, adult females. So on the surface everything is in place for them to breed and reproduce… but we were not finding any babies.”
“Upcoming plans to divert nearby river systems—which would likely have an impact on the habitat and quality of the river for gharial—are currently underway.” Dams and other river modifications that altered their habitat were responsible for the decline in gharial populations throughout the last century, on top of damage from fighting nets and human hunting for their skins and eggs. For the last several years, hunting and egg collection have since been banned. Bashyal is insistent that protecting rivers from these types of activities will not only help gharials.
“Ecologically, I always like to emphasize the fact that they are like the tiger of the rivers.” But he says there’s no need to be afraid: “Gharial are very calm compared to other species. They have a longer snout that is developed for hunting fish, so while it is always important to have a first defense against these larger animals, I would say gharials pose no harm to humans.”
Awareness about why the animals matter to the ecosystem and why they aren’t necessarily a threat to humans will be key in allowing the species to thrive.