Wildlife & Biodiversity

Glimpses into life in the Chambal

Chambal's unique ecology has made it home to more than 500 species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. More than 30 of them are in IUCN's Red List. But with 400-odd irrigation projects planned in the basin, the river is at the risk of being reduced to a trickle, imperilling its animal diversity

By Chaitanya Krishna
Last Updated: Wednesday 08 July 2015

Chambal's unique ecology has made it home to more than 500 species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. More than 30 of them are in IUCN's Red List. But with 400-odd irrigation projects planned in the basin, the river is at the risk of being reduced to a trickle, imperilling its animal diversity

A wide expanse of the Chambal River. Sandbanks can be seen in the foreground.  Photograph

The biopic, ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, features a story of a national record holding athlete who became a dacoit in the Chambal. In the film, when Paan Singh Tomar is on the run from the law in the Chambal ravines, the audience is treated to a fleeting glimpse of a jackal. Moviegoers may not realize that the jackal is just one of the 60 mammal species that are found in the Chambal ravines. More than 500 birds, fish, reptiles and mammals are found in this region, out of which 36 species are listed on the IUCN Red List as threatened by extinction. The reason for this astonishing number of species is the sheer diversity of unique habitats in the Chambal region. Each habitat supports its own unique set of species. As the Chambal River is the only large water body for miles, innumerable water birds flock to the river. In the winter, migratory birds add an extra dash of colour. Sandbanks in the river provide crucial habitat for crocodiles, freshwater turtles and Indian Skimmers.

The male skimmer offers his potential mate a fish, she accepts it and only then allows him to mate (Photograph: Ingo Waschkies)

Indian Skimmers are strikingly coloured birds, jet black on the upper side and white underneath with an orangish-red beak. They are the size of crows, but extremely streamlined as an adaptation for a life near water. As the name implies, Indian Skimmer’s skim the surface of the water with open beaks to catch fish and other aquatic creatures. Skimmers do not only catch fish to fill their bellies. In the breeding season, the male skimmer gifts his potential mate fishes that he has caught. Only then does she allow him to mate and they nest on sandbanks, just a few inches above the flowing waters.

Sandbanks are also crucial recharging stations for reptiles. Gharials, a unique species of crocodile and nine species of freshwater turtles that are found in the Chambal River absorb heat or bask on sandbanks to regulate their body temperatures. Crowned river turtles exhibit a unique egg-laying behaviour dependent on the naturally occurring seasonal changes in river flow. While most turtles lay their eggs above water, these turtles lay their eggs underwater in the winter. As summer approaches, water levels recede and the eggs are exposed and when the river rises during the monsoon, the baby turtles hatch into water. With successful hatching being so dependent on natural river flows, choosing a nesting site by female turtles at the adequate depth is probably a gamble given the vagaries of the weather. Current and ongoing human modifications in river flow patterns could throw the proverbial spanner in the works. These modifications will also impact the rich fish diversity.

Of the 150 species of fish that are found in the Chambal, the Mahaseer (or great-fish) is particularly interesting. They reached enormous sizes in the past. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, the Scottish physician notes that standard size playing cards were made out of the scales of these fish! Today such sizes are never reported and the sizes reported in the past have been relegated to folklore. The Mahaseer is currently endangered. With plans being announced that industrial hubs would be planned in the Chambal, unregulated development may result in the Chambal River itself becoming a foggy memory.

An astounding variety of habitats enables wildlife to thrive in the Chambal valley. India’s national aquatic animal, the gangetic dolphin and India’s national animal, the tiger are both found in this region. Like crowned river turtles, species in this landscape have adapted to the seasonal river flow variations. Surrounded as they are by densely populated human habitations, wildlife in the Chambal ecosystem have no exit options. The unique Chambal region has to be conserved by ensuring availability of freshwater and habitat to the incredibly rich wildlife that has prospered in this landscape over millions of years.

The Dholpur lift irrigation project will draw 15 million litres of water from the Chambal River (Photograph: Tarun Nair)

A sinister race is underway to divert every last drop of water from the Chambal River to faraway towns and cities. In its last meeting, the National Board for Wildlife has granted permission for Chambal water to be diverted to the Kota town in Rajasthan. River flow has greatly reduced due to the 150 irrigation projects currently operating in the Chambal basin. The 400 or so irrigation projects that are being planned in the basin will turn the already reduced river flow into a trickle. Will water, the lifeline of the Chambal continue to flow like it has for millennia?

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • What a wonderful yet

    What a wonderful yet disturbing story. Massive projects like those described above can have so many surpising effects on the environment and communities, many of which don't show up for many years.

    Large projects such as these irrigation schemes are often promoted by consultants and international development companies with vested interests in short-term profits. Dams that continue to be built on rivers across the globe are too-often detrimental to wildlife, hydrology, and other factors. Still, benefits from dams that accrue to decision-makers (who often don't experience the costs/damages from those projects) are powerful incentives for project proponents. Moreover, politicians can use these highly visible projects as examples of their actions during election years.

    Finally, large projects such as these also preclude other options that may provide the same benefits over time but with far less adverse impacts and lower costs. Irrigation is essential for agriculture in many parts of the world, particularly as climate change makes precipitation patterns less predictable. Yet the damage to other natural values these waterways provide are often dispersed over time and space.

    In the USA, dams on rivers result in degradation of water quality, reductions in biological diversity, increase wasting of water via evaporation, and reductions in the ability for natural processes to attenuate pollution. On the other hand, small-scale hydro projects can provide critical water sources during droughts while allowing natural hydrological and biological processes to continue.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The Movie "Paan Singh Tomar"

    The Movie "Paan Singh Tomar" and the pictures of all the species shows a great info of the Chambal.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • We too are struggling with

    We too are struggling with this challenge here in eastern Turkey. I just drove a short length road paralleling the river where we work (Aras River) and found three major dams/diversions within 40km. We are currently dealing with a proposed fourth.

    David notes all the problems with such structures, but perhaps the biggest is outright removal of water from the system, fragmenting the waterway from the perspective of migratory animals (esp fish but also in our case terrestrial mammals as the building activity fences off the river itself), and of course the radical alteration of seasonality/fluctuations.

    I wish our friends in the Chambal well and hope that you can find a solution to this challenge. If you dam that river, you damn that ecosystem (and ultimately, the local people).

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Hello,
    This is an informative article about one of the cleanest rivers of India that currently fosters a viable population of the critically endangered Gharial. However, as the article says, industrial hubs and irrigation channels are being planned, it will be kind of you to share some specific details about the projects, at least a few major ones.

    Posted by: Panjal Jain | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Not wonderfull . wikipedia is more intresting

    Posted by: Shubham Nandi | one year ago | Reply