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Cover Story

Flawed conservation policies lead to decline in gharial population

Nov 30, 2006 | From the print edition

In the well-known Panchatantra story, a monkey wanting to cross the mighty Ganga befriends a crocodile. But a while into their friendship, the reptile’s intentions turn sinister he and his wife want the monkey for lunch. The simian senses this and tricks the crocodile to get to safety. The story concludes with the monkey addressing his former friend from the safety of a tree “I couldn’t have antagonised you when we were in the river. So, I had little option but to trick you when your intentions became clear.” Besides showing the monkey’s guile, the story alludes to a significant ecological fact crocodiles are top predators of river systems.

Versions of the fable are aplenty. Ancient and medieval Indian
literature has references to the uneasy relations between humans and the

Cover story special package

Down to EarthWhat
is a gharial?

Down to EarthTears
for the crocodile

Down to Earth
Life in captivity

Down to EarthPyrrhic

Down to Earth
The Loophole

Down to EarthWhere
to live?

Down to EarthLost

Down to Earth
Bad numbers

Down to EarthWhere
to croc?

Down to Earth
Pacific example

Down to Earth
people dependent on rivers couldn’t afford to antogonise the
top predator of the water bodies. Accounts of 18th and 19th European
travellers to India also carry references to the crocodile.

One of the species mentioned is the gharial— Gavialias gangeticus, a thin-snouted variety
found in the Ganga, Mahanadi and Brahmaputra river systems. Named after a
pot-like bump (ghara or a pot in many Indian languages), this species is
threatened—like other crocodile varieties. Not much has changed for the people
dependent on the rivers the only difference is that they don’t feel threatened
by the reptiles; they are threatened by conservationists who alienate them from
their livelihoods ostensibly to protect the gharial.

But sadly today,
the top predator of river systems does not get much press even while its
counterpart in forests, the tiger, hogs the headlines. “Scant attention is paid
to species other than mammalian mega-fauna like the tiger, elephant and rhino,”
rues Rom Whitaker, a crocodile expert associated with the Madras Crocodile Bank
Trust, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu. Warnings of Whitaker and other experts did lead
to the Crocodile Project in 1975. And in 1982, the un’s
Food and Agriculture Organization (fao)— one of the
project’s funders— proclaimed the project a great success.

says Whitaker, “ the situation has reversed and gharials are in serious trouble
again. There are less than 200 adult specimens in the wild”.

kirtiman awasthi
follows the missed turnings of crocodile conservation

Down to EarthGharials prefer living in deep waters of free-flowing rivers. Like tigers in the forest, gharials and other crocodilians are top predators in the aquatic system and thus are good indicators of state of an aquatic ecosystem. The reptiles feed on fish and keep all species under control, not allowing any other species, including ones that are invasive, to dominate the ecosystem.

These reptilian predators usually feed on fish that are of no value to humans. They also feed on weak and sick fish and help control fish populations and keep river water clean and uncontaminated by their scavenging. The presence of crocodiles is an indication of a clean aquatic environment. Overfishing and pollution in rivers affect the gharial’s prey, ultimately affecting their survival.

  • Despite a much-vaunted conservation project, there are less than 200 adult gharials left in the wild -- they are 20 times more endangered than tigers
  • Points to basic flaws in India's conservation programme
  • New Delhi, December 7, 2006 India's gharials are in serious trouble. There are fewer than 200 of these river predators left in the wild. And their deplorable state has remained ignored even by the media, while the tiger hogs the headline -- but the truth is that gharials are 20 times more endangered than tigers.

    These facts have been brought to light by a report in Down To Earth, the science and environment fortnightly, which the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) helps publish.

    India initiated its crocodile conservation programme (Project Crocodile) in 1975. And in 1982, writes the magazine, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the project's funders, lauded it as one of the most successful conservation programmes in the world. As a result, in 1991, the Union ministry of environment and forests, believing that the project had served its purpose, withdrew the funds for the captive breeding and egg collection programmes.

    Only two surveys on gharial numbers have been done since then. And between these two surveys, the population of gharials has plummeted. In 2003, a mere 514 gharials were reported in the country -- almost a 60 per cent drop from the 1,200 found in a 1998 survey. Experts point out that the conservation programme suffered from a lack of information on gharials numbers, and hence, absence of remedial action.

    The programme suffered from more than that, says the magazine. A 1983 notification under the Wildlife Protection Act, which placed the gharial in Schedule 1, brought the conservation programme into conflict with livelihoods. Trade in crocodile products (skin and eggs) was banned. Local communities, already smarting after their traditional fishing grounds were taken away to make way for gharial conservation, were incensed. They readily took to lucrative (and illegal) sand mining in regions where the gharial bred -- destroying the work of years.

    The ecosystem approach to conservation, according to Down To Earth, instead of a species-oriented approach, is the only answer. The aim should be to consider the entire watershed as one ecosystem, give weightage to all biological resources within that watershed -- and factor the local communities' needs in this entire programme.

    For more details, please contact

    Souparno Banerjee

    Kirtiman Awasthi

    Phone 011-29955124, 29955125 or 29956399

    To download the press release or to read the Down To Earth report, please visit



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