Over half a century after they were considered extinct in Punjab, the critically endangered long-snouted gharials have bounced back to life in the northern state, thanks to a reintroduction programme, by the state department of forests and wildlife preservation, that completes its third year this month.
A leading gharial conservationist, B.C. Choudhury, who has been working with the Punjab project in a supervisory capacity, told Mongabay-India that Punjab has achieved a crucial level of success in terms of rehabilitating gharials into the Beas river. He said the multiple ground surveys of state agencies too revealed that the mortality rate of the gharials is now low. Most importantly, the population is well spread out in the river and has adjusted well to the local habitat.
While this is one level of success, according to Choudhury, the next crucial phase, and the purpose of most such wildlife conservation activities, is whether or not the gharials are able to breed and multiply in the coming years.
He said the Punjab gharials have turned into sub-adults (passed juvenile stage but not yet turned adult) since the launch of the project and they will be ready to breed in the next 4 to 5 years. “I am sure they will definitely multiply, given that their rehabilitation has been smooth,” said Choudhury.
Females gharials generally lay eggs when they are 10 to 12 years of age while signs of male adulthood include developing a round bump at the tip of their snout that looks like a ghara (earthen pot), said Choudhary. “That is how they became famous as ‘gharials’ in the Indian sub-continent,” he said.
47 released in phased manner, two mortalities so far
Under Project Crocodile initiated in 1975 by the Government of India, 47 gharials brought from Morena captive breeding centre in Madhya Pradesh were released into Punjab’s Beas River in three batches – 10 on December 25, 2017, 15 on January 31, 2018 and 22 on March 15, 2018.
Punjab Chief Wildlife Warden R.K. Mishra informed that except for two mortalities, all remaining 45 gharials are in a safe and sound condition. In most of the department bi-annual surveys, reptile sightings were between 18 and 24, which in scientific terms has been an excellent number.
Mishra said all these gharials were released 30-40 km upstream of Harike barrage that is built at the confluence of Beas and Sutlej rivers. The gharials are mostly spotted in the river stretch connecting Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts of Punjab, but now they are well spread out. “Our ground teams have spotted them in faraway places that are over 180 km from Harike barrage, which is a sign of their healthy movement,” he said, adding that based on this success, the department is planning to release 25 more juvenile gharials in the next few weeks to give a further push to the rehabilitation programme.
Basanta Rajkumar, Punjab chief conservator of forest (wildlife) said that Punjab’s initial survey before launching the programme revealed that up to 155 gharials could be released in the Beas river. “While we will reassess it, we still have got enough carrying capacity to add more crocodiles in time to come,” he added. He also informed that Punjab will soon be getting another batch of 25 juvenile gharials, but this time from Lucknow breeding centre. This is being done so that there is mixture of bloodline, which too plays important role in the conservation programme, added Rajkumar.
As winter has set in Punjab, the gharials are easily spotted on the sand islands across different stretches of the Beas river. Satnam Singh, a forest guard at Harike and part of the state’s gharial rehabilitation project, told Mongabay-India that gharials often rest on sand islands on the banks of the Beas river. Particularly, they are seen basking in the sun in Sheron Bagha village and a sand bar adjacent to Chitta Sher Gurudawara in Jodhe village, which lie along the river. “Bhalojala, Gagrewal and Chak Desal in Tarn Taran district and Desal village in Kapurthala district are other areas where gharials are spread out,” he informed.
Maharajas hunted them, reintroducing was not easy
“There is no government study on how and when gharials, that were once extensively distributed in rivers of Punjab, went extinct here. But multiple factors like hunting by Punjab royalty, poaching, as well as disturbance in their habitat due to construction of irrigation barrages are some of the key factors behind their disappearance,” said Mishra, Punjab Chief Wildlife Warden.
Wildlife expert and member of Chandigarh Wildlife Advisory Board, Vikramjeet Singh, told Mongabay-India that there is a hunting trophy that hangs in the Villa Buena Vista at Kapurthala that is significant to note while tracing the gharial’s history before it went extinct in Punjab. The trophy, 15 feet 10 inches from snout to tail, is a real skin of the gharial that was shot on January 13, 1913, by Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala on the Bien rivulet. “The gharial was shot with a single bullet of the .375 magnum double-barrel rifle by Holland & Holland. The gharial died with the first shot,” he added.
WWF’s field officer Gitanjali Kanwar shared with Mongabay-India a 1914 Gurdaspur District Gazetteer which says that the species was fairly abundant here.
According to B.C. Choudhury, gharials went extinct in Punjab in the 1950s much before enactment of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. “While their poaching and hunting was normal at that time, there are instances where fisheries department themselves awarded contracts to kill gharials in many places in Punjab since they had a belief that gharials used to eat all their fish,” he said.
There are two major triggering points that led to the reintroduction of gharials in Punjab. In early 2000, there was an attempt by the Pakistan government to revive the gharial in their part of the Indus river, where it was also declared extinct. This propelled Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to initiate a similar conservation effort in the Indus tributary in India’s Punjab. This is how WII in 2005 submitted a proposal that set the stage for their comeback here.
The next major motivation was the discovery of Indus dolphins in 2007 that made state agencies, as well as WII, believed that ecological conservation was very possible here.
Wildlife expert Vikramjeet Singh said that the major significance of the current rehabilitation project is that it is the first reintroduction of gharials in the entire Indus river system, across India and Pakistan, that spreads 3500 km from deltas of Sindh up to the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indus and its five tributaries Jhelum, Chenab, Beas, Sutlej and Ravi.
“Pakistan is still unable to reintroduce gharials in their Indus river as they could not manage to source gharials so far. They tried to source them from India but did not get a positive response due to hostility between the two nations. Last it was heard that they are now trying to source them through Nepal,” he said.
Coexisting with gharials
Harbhajan Singh, sarpanch of Gagrewal village where the first batch of the gharials was released, told Mongabay-India that initially, people in the village were against the idea of releasing the gharial as they feared that it would harm them as well as attack their cattle. But there has been no such incident ever since their release. “People often see them but they have never harmed anyone,” he said.
Raja Singh of the same Gagrewal village who keeps eye on gharials on behalf of the department said that the opposition from people no longer exists now, busting the initial myth that gharials are dangerous. “In fact when sometimes we go near them, they immediately run away back inside the water,” he said.
Nalin Yadav, District Forest Officer, Harike, informed said that there were several concerns of people before their release. There were even protests by farmers. “But we successfully held awareness drives and meetings with them, making them understand the ecological benefit of releasing the gharials, said Yadav.
He said that the programme almost enters its third year but there has been not a single complaint or incident of gharials attacking humans.
“Gharials are fish-eating reptiles and nowhere in the world have they ever attacked humans or animals, ” said Basanta Rajkumar, Punjab chief conservator of forest (wildlife). He said, in case they come across humans, they immediately go back to the water. This often makes conservation effort difficult for biologists and wildlife experts.
Rajkumar further added that apart from reviving the ecological heritage of the state, reintroducing gharials is significant because their presence is an indicator of the health of the rivers.
“That is why the reintroduction of the gharial led the Punjab government to declare the 185 km Beas stretch a conservation reserve in 2017 — the first river in India to be accorded this status, prohibiting several commercial activities to protect the river and its ecology, said Rajkumar.
According to B.C. Choudhury, there are still abundant challenges ahead. “The key is to keep the disturbance factor as low as possible,” he said. There are many factors like mining, commercial activities on the river banks, and a low quantity of fishing in the water that may affect the habitat of gharials. So different departments responsible for such activities must regulate them, he said.
He said that even as Punjab has declared Beas river as a conservation reserve, it is yet to finalise its management plan. Under this plan, it is decided which kind of activities are not permitted and how the activities which are permitted can be carried out, said Choudhury.
Wildlife expert Vikramjeet Singh said that sand mining is the biggest threat to riverine ecology and that Punjab must be attentive. In case it is rapid, it will harm sand islands of the river stretch and destroy their habitat. “In case they become defensive, they may not lay eggs and multiply,” he said.
Also, the state should not release too many gharials without assessing the overall carrying capacity of the river. The moment gharials come near the Harike barrage, there is danger of their flooding or even getting trapped there, posing danger to their lives, he added.
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